17 September 2018


My little sweet cherry tree, which produced precisely zero cherries this remarkably fruitless year then proceeded to lose all its leaves in mid summer and look wan and sick, is suddenly in bloom. Flowers. Lots of them. What on earth is that about? There are fresh new leaves too, and a general feeling of getting back down to springy business.

In other fruit (tree) news, we ate the two (yes, two) delicious peaches from the old tree with enormous ceremony. But I think from time to time, with some despair, of those glass jars of syrupy peaches which I won’t be squirelling away this year. (I see I have no recipe on my blog for bottling peaches. How can this be? It’s as simple as it is time-consuming. I’ll try to make amends.)

There are pomegranates on the big plant by the chicken house – not as many or as large as last year’s crazy performance – but the smaller tree outside the living room window has inexplicably given up the ghost. Poof, like that. From one day to the next. I thought perhaps it wasn’t getting water but it was: the Echinacaea at its feet are looking perfectly healthy. And it’s sending up a regular jungle of shoots from the base. But the tree with its network of little twiggy branches is dry and bare save from a few twisted brown leaves. I wonder what went wrong.

Squashed between my slow-producing strawberries and my exuberant asparagus plants, three of the several twigs from the damson tree I felt so bad about removing are putting on a brave and leafy show, to the point where I’m now wondering: what on earth will I do with them? How do I get them out of there and on to a final destination if and when they survive and thrive?

My tiny lemon tree which looked moribund after our harsh end-of-winter freeze has come back bushier than ever. I really should put it in a larger pot but at that point I will no longer be able to shove it into my minuscule greenhouse in winter. Not a single lemon though.

All I have in abundance are – as always – persimmons (pretty but yuck), and quinces, medlars and crabapples, all of which I still have oddles of in jam form in the larder. And of course my Concord grapes (uva fragola) up in town at Pieve Suites which are threatening to pull their whole support down and which, try as I might, I still can’t find enough takers for to lighten the load.

We went to Venice, L – as usual – for the film festival and me to see the new shows for Tintoretto’s 500th birthday and to catch the architecture Biennale before it slipped through my fingers.

I had a privileged glimpse at Tintoretto. I sneaked into young T at the Accademia with the very first batch of journos, and was escorted around by a wonderfully enthusiastic Paola Marini, the gallery’s director.

For the more mature works, I shuffled around the Doge’s Palace with other bits of the press pack, and ran into Frederick Ilchman, the show’s curator and someone we’ve known for more years than I care to remember.

“I still don’t get Tintoretto,” I told Frederick, trying to sound apologetic. “He just doesn’t do it for me.”

For me Tintoretto remains a genius in parts, but in the end a bit of a charlatan. Frederick suggested I took a look at some sketches – something to make me see the workings behind the paintings. But contrary to what I often find, sketches didn’t change my opinion one little bit. So I homed in on the artist’s magnificent details and tried not to focus on how much his swishy approximations leave me rather cold. You can’t like everything, can you?

This year’s Biennale was a low-key affair. It was, in the final analysis, very architectural: few of the usual flights of fantasy or wild conceptual imaginings that are sometimes interesting and sometimes jarring and sometimes just plain infuriating. There were a lot of plans and models (lovely woody smells) and careful consideration of buildings and the spaces around them. I rather enjoyed it.

Of course there were degrees of wacky too, ranging from the British pavilion (completely empty, giving us ‘space to think’, though all I thought was “shameful rubbish”) to the winning Swiss one with its house fittings in a wild range of disorientating sizes. The chapels on the island of San Giorgio were huge fun (and allowed you into bits of the island you don’t usual get to see).

There were interesting projects of all shapes and sizes in the Arsenale but perhaps most striking there was the way that the curators had opted not to break up the phenomenal space of the Corderie, leaving an unimpeded view right along the 300+ metres of it.

Home now and trying to get back to work, but just like last spring – though in quite the opposite way – I have the weather against me. Then, incessant rain meant nothing got planted in ground that was unfeasibly sodden. Now, temperatures hovering pretty near 30° most days (friends who’ve just arrived from Lesvos say it’s warmer here than on the Greek islands) and skies of pure summer blue mean no one wants to cover their pool and retreat inside for the winter. They certainly don’t want garden labourers and me getting in the way of their final balmy days.

So I’m trying to drag my own garden back from the sad neglected mess it has become. I’m removing spent soil from around my poor benighted roses and jollying them up with lashings of nice nourishing compost. I’m hacking back excessive summer growth in a last-ditch attempt to stop my shrubs becoming little more than wood. I’m fighting a pitched battle against the most combative, virulent crop of couch grass I’ve ever seen.

I haven’t yet, surprisingly, had to fend off too many plant-munching beasts but I’m under no illusions: they’re undoubtedly playing grandmother’s footsteps, creeping up on me, poised to pierce my smugness. Each time I drive down our lane huge clouds of brown butterflies lift off the road around me: I would be feeling as swept up in magical realism as a character from One Hundred Years of Solitude were it not for my suspicions that the horrid things are laying eggs which will eventually produce grubs that will consume all my lovingly tended greenery. Sometimes being a gardener can make you very cynical.

About Gardens, Food & Umbria

I am a garden and landscape designer, working throughout central Italy and beyond. I have lived in Italy for over 35 years – first in Rome but now in Città della Pieve, Umbria, where I have restored my country home and transformed a medieval townhouse into three rental suites. To relax, I tinker endlessly with two and a half hectares of land, some of which is my garden.
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