13 August 2019

0813AToday is textbook torrid. Gloomy. Airless. Leaden. Even when things stir a little, what’s moving oozes so much heat that you wish it wouldn’t.

It reminds me of when northern visitors (none this summer so far) come to stay in these dog days and can’t understand why I have doors, windows, shutters closed. “But we have to get a breeze going!” they plead. But what good is a breeze, I explain, if the air in motion is hotter and more stifling than the cooler, darker air so carefully preserved inside?


A jaunt into Tuscany

Once again we’ve been occupying empty air-conditioned rooms at Pieve Suites at night. I hate not sleeping in my proper bed, but there are moments…

And staying there means I find out important things, like all the batteries in all the bathroom scales are dead. Could no guest have mentioned this to me? I wouldn’t have been hurt! Or perhaps no one ever uses them. Perhaps that little extra touch doesn’t win hearts or make for more enjoyable stays. I’ve put new batteries in anyway.

And I’ve been finding hair. It’s the dread of every rental property owner. Well, it’s the terror of this one anyway and I expect I’m not alone. A review on some much consulted booking platform detailing stray hairs would put me off staying in a place: I don’t want tales like that emerging from mine.


Preparations for our Palio

In my own defence I should say that the cleaning I do when we’re going to stay is less thorough than the OCD blitz done before guests arrive. But so much of that blitz is taken up with hair removal. It’s completely weird, and quite inexplicable. It’s always there, it’s always long, and it’s always black. Even when the departing guests were blonds or redheads or bald. Where does it come from? Does a wicked hair-spreading sprite invade?

It ranks right up there with the mystery of old people’s larders. The fridge and food cupboards in my father-in-law’s house are purged of all their long-out-of-date contents every three or four months by L or C or whoever else of younger, sounder mind happens to be visiting. Yet every time a clear-out happens, there are packets which ran out 18 or 24 or 36 months previously. Is there a shop which specialises in ancient foodstuffs, just to make sprightlier visitors feel superior to crumblies?


My vegetable garden continues lacklustre – productive enough for now but nothing for laying aside. People all around are grumbling. I have little moan-ins with the man who runs the funny little petrol station beneath the town walls whom we call Bashar al Assad (a passing resemblance) but who may be called Samuele. Or Daniele. Or something like that. He is my yardstick for tomatoes. He and his father Elmer Fudd (again, a passing resemblance) grow enviable tomatoes and this year, peering out the grimy window as I put my PIN into the machine, their plot looked far lusher than mine.

“It’s all foliage,” said Bashar ruefully. “Hardly any fruit at all.” So if they’re having trouble, it makes me feel a little less hopeless.


From outside

Not far along the town walls from there, I stood yesterday evening peering up at the jungle that is Pieve Suites’s garden with Marco, one of my useful gardening people. All we owners of houses overlooking the walls have received a less-than-friendly missive from our less-than-jovial new mayor pointing out that are bound by law to keep our bits of town walls looking presentable.

This is a slightly odd by-law, in that we are the owners of our bit of wall only until such time as we want to do something to it (add a downpipe, open up a doorway), at which point it is very very definitely part of the town fabric. But hey, I have no objections to tidying up the dripping mass of itchy rash-inducing Parietaria officinalis that hangs there. Though I will of course keep the marvellous caper plants that festoon the old stones with their firework-flowers.


From inside

When will Marco return to do the work? Next week, he swears and I look at him with all the skepticism I can muster in the heat. Yeah, very likely. He’s a great procrastinator. I point out to him that this year I had given up on him entirely for pruning the Concord grape vines in Pieve Suites’ garden, and had hacked them back mercilessly myself.

“Yes,” he says, “that’s why they’re all leaf. I bet there’s no fruit though.”

Huh! It’s laden as always, and even with the new support I put in last March to stop the vines drooping to play-house height, those plump bunches hit heads hard.


Back at home, in an effort (vain?) to encourage veggie progress by making the plants there feel more loved, I spent two days trying to knock some kind of order into my orto – which mostly involved removing the thick stands of glorious cosmos which had more or less taken over – very pretty but intensely smothering.

0813BI love my cosmos. I threw a pack of mixed seeds into the beds outside the vegetable garden a few of years ago, since when they have grown untended and unbidden, reaching prodigious heights as they benefit from the watering system up there. Until now they’ve been well behaved, remaining outside the fence. This year, they decided to invade, riding rough shod over me and my produce.

In the end I won. And also lost, because it almost broke my heart ripping them out. Now just a well behaved few stand in the usual spot beyond the fence (actually not true: I did leave one or two colourful stragglers). Have I ruined my chances for next year? Will they all come back or will they sulk and disappear?

In the mean time I’ve been pondering self-seeding plants which are, in theory, perfect for my type of too-disorganised-to-get-much-in-the-ground style of gardening which means that things like annuals (an idea I’ve always disliked anyway) are completely beyond me.

I have various things that expand from year to year, such as Anemone x hybrida Honorine Jobert which I utterly love and which – I’m reminded – very much need dividing. And the rather wonderful but at times overwhelming Salvia nemorosa Caradonna which makes a wonderful backdrop for the roses outside the kitchen… when I manage to stop it engulfing everything in its path.

0813FThings which self-seed here successfully are few. Nigella damascena (Love in a Mist) has years where it forms thick clumps here and there and years (like this year) when single plants pop up all over the place. The dazzling yellows and oranges of Calendula officinalis (marigold) are welcome fixtures, in the orto and among the herbs outside the kitchen. I made the terrible mistake of putting Salvia sclarea (clary) in the top bed along the drive then spent the next five years trying to rid myself of it: in fact, I’m still battling. It’s very pretty for about three days, after which it’s dry-looking and foul-smelling but absolutely determined to populate every nook and cranny, however little water you give it.

Other famously self-seeding things just refused to play ball. Poppies died. Welsh poppies died. Crocosmia died. Eryngium died. Dianthus plumarius (pinks) do fine but don’t spread, even though I’m dreadful about deadheading them.

Matthiola incana (stock)? Nah. Lathyrus odoratus (sweet pea)? Nah. Echinacea purpurea (coneflower) flourishes but the number of plants remains the same.

So for this year’s trick, I’m trying Nicotiana. I idly ordered a mixed pack from the Organic Catalogue, kind of surprised that ornamental tobacco came in any colours except white and pale green. Now Nicotiana plants in startling, superb shades of red are spreading like crazy through my new bed above the barbecue. Will they become another clary? These at least have the grace to go on flowering abundantly throughout the summer rather than turning arid and stinky almost immediately.

Another self-seeder which I haven’t tried is Myosotis (forget me not) which I mention for reasons completely divorced from gardening. L returned from a long bike ride the other day to tell me, cracking up, that he had pedalled past a residential home for Alzheimer’s sufferers down near lake Bolsena called ‘Non Ti Scordar di Me’ (forget me not). Did someone think that was touching? Or was it invented by a sadist with a very nasty sense of humour? Whatever. It stuck me as comically cruel.

About Gardens, Food & Umbria

I am a garden designer, working throughout central Italy. I have lived in Italy for over 30 years – for many years in Rome but now in the wilds of Umbria where I have fixed up one wreck of a house, am working on another, and tinker endlessly with two and a half hectares of land, some of which is my garden.
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