18 May 2022

Last weekend I shifted two cubic metres of growing medium. About three tonnes. By hand. Well, I mean by wheelbarrow but it had to be shovelled off the heap and into the wheelbarrow by hand, so I guess that counts.

It was a key stage in one of those exploits that you begin optimistically and very soon – when it’s just too late to turn back – think “why?!”

The soil in my vegetable garden has been a problem from the start. On one side it’s fine: not great, but fine. There’s rather more clay than I’d like, which of course means it tends towards glue (wet) or concrete (dry) but my additions of compost and mulch and various other healthy improvers over the years has turned it into something more or less workable. On the other side, every attempt to make it feasible has failed miserably. The plants that grow there do so grudgingly; the vegetables they produce are decidedly unimpressive.

And so I had the brilliant idea of (1) removing 30-40cm in the strips where I plant then (2) bringing in some really good soil to start all over again. What could possibly go wrong? Hah!

I spent weeks trying to find someone willing to remove the heavy, stony, intractable soil. When I did – and when they realised what they’d let themselves in for – they made their misery very obvious. I was busy. I went out. By the time I came back and they had disappeared, I realised that they’d more or less followed my instructions as they started out, only to lose interest/energy/the will to live as they moved along the row, digging out ever-narrower trenches which certainly didn’t correspond to the irrigation pipes which mark the planting areas. (They also chucked the unwanted soil in a very inconvenient place, but that’s another story.) Also, inexplicably, they dug even deeper than the generous depth which I’d suggested to them.

L named the resulting holes the Shallow Graves, and he had a point. They were more sinister criminal burial ground than intriguing Etruscan tomb. He said until I filled them in, he’d be behaving himself and watching his step.

Until I filled them in. Again: hah! These spaces were far too big for stuff in plastic bags. And anyway, I don’t like plastic bags and I don’t trust that stuff, even when it’s clearly marked “100% organic”. I asked garden contractor contacts but no one had much of an idea. Were they protecting their sources or did they really not know where to go? And anyway, would I have believed that the soil was truly free of chemical additives?

In the greenhouse my tomato seedlings were bursting out of their little pots, and still the Shallow Graves yawned. I really hadn’t thought this through.

Next idea: ask Giuseppe. This digger-wizard and staunch defender of the countryside can fix just about any problem: he’ll do it absolutely organically but he’ll do it in the most roundabout way possible. Through several days of back-and-forth we debated what I needed, while he told dark tales of how almost every soil supplier in the world was part of a great conspiracy to pass off polluted earth as clean dirt.  We even schlepped far away up hills and into the woods to visit friends of mine with a biomass/biogas plant on their property but for Giuseppe, using the waste products of this was definitely not going to work.

It took a visit to Giuseppe’s house (ostensibly to try his home-made balsamic vinegar, which passes through a series of ever-smaller wooden kegs over many years until the concentrated syrup can be drawn off from the tiniest of barrels) for him to admit that actually, he had exactly what I needed sitting outside his back door: his own rich mix of pozzolana (volcanic soil) and sawdust and manure and composted wood chips and other secret ingredients. Would he sell me some? He named his price: horribly expensive, he said. I pointed out that buying dubious stuff in plastic would have cost me more than twice as much. Impossible to get it to me: his new truck is too big to pass under the overhanging branches down our bumpy track. I called a builder with a suitably sized pickup.

And so my two cubic metres of growing medium was dumped outside the orto gate – just as L boarded a train to take him away for two weeks. And so the solitary shovelling fell to me. It must have done something for my muscle tone. And hopefully it will do even more good to my tomatoes, which are now burying their eager roots into clay-less, stone-less, ideal dirt.

So far this year has been one of anomalies and oddnesses. Rain? What’s that? Following hard on our dry, dry winter came a dry, dry spring. Every single month so far has pushed my averages down. Things should, you’d think, be suffering – and I’m sure that at some level they are – but they’re looking magnificently lush all the same and the fruit… oh the fruit! After last year’s 100% fruitless disaster, this year is just full of tiny promise getting larger by the day. We even have scores of incipient apricots on the two new little trees over beyond the chicken house. Apricots have always eluded me: will these trees turn my fortunes around?

That same late-frost disaster that did for my fruit last year also took out my wisteria. This year made up for it though. Now, as the spent blossom detaches itself from overwhelming cascades, it looks like it has been snowing outside the kitchen.

I have just gathered what I’ve decided is going to be my last bunch of asparagus and turned it into soup, to draw out the pleasure: as I’m home by myself at the moment the potful should last several meals. I’m eating artichokes and what remains of last winter’s chard and beet, and I’m watching anxiously as my pea plants creep up their wiggly sticks and produce promising flowers.

But the peas that are really threatening to take over the vegetable garden are not comestible: they’re sweet. How long have I been trying to make sweet peas grow in my garden? It’s a flower I adore, perhaps because it smells of my mother, who loved them. It’s only now that I’ve completely abandoned the uneven struggle, that they’ve decided this is their perfect natural habitat. Up they come quite spontaneously and in delightful abundance, swamping chard and spilling over the narrow paths. You can smell them from way down the drive.

May 1 brought an end to all kinds of Covid restrictions… and brought Covid right to my door. Not the door of our house, but to Pieve Suites: first, to the female half of a charming American couple who quite inexplicably caught it from friends they were travelling with (not staying with me) and failed to pass it on to her husband (in her presence 24 hours a day); then to the female half of a lovely Dutch couple who were frequent pre-Covid visitors to CdP and whose post-Covid return to our town marked a small victory for us all.

In the former case I had other guests arriving on her scheduled departure so really couldn’t extend her stay and welcome newcomers to a leper-house: she, with her friends, found a villa outside of town to rent and holed up there in glorious rural isolation until they were declared fit to fly home. In the latter, a local pharmacist offered very sound advice (once she had ascertained they were driving home, alone, in their own vehicle): “I haven’t seen you,” she said, “and you haven’t done a test. Get in your car and drive, and don’t stop until you reach your destination.” Which is what they did the very next morning.

It’s funny – and probably telling – that I never had to deal with a Covid emergency all the way through two years of pandemic. Only now, as we edge towards some kind of normal, are things hotting up.

As requirements fall away, oldish habits haven’t really been dying in our little town: on the whole most people seem to have some kind of face covering somewhere about their person, if only hanging from their wrists. On shop windows there are still signs kindly asking clients to cover up, and a vast majority of them still do.

On a warm day when I hadn’t stopped for lunch and decided that ice cream was probably a sufficiently balanced substitute for real food I stopped off in our gelateria and queued behind a father with his son, who must have been about six or seven. Both were masked. At a certain point the girl behind the counter handed the little boy a wafer. Quite spontaneously he stepped outside the door (casting a withering look towards his anxious father who was yelling “come back in here, don’t go outside”), removed his mask, ate his wafer, replaced his mask and returned inside the shop.

The mask-averse might flag this up as a sign of the worst kind of brainwashing. I see it as an example of how even small children can be taught that simple gestures aimed at keeping the collettività safe really aren’t anything to get hot under the collar about – requirements or no requirements.

15 May 2017

The slowest-moving project in the history of vegetable gardens took a significant step forward over the weekend. We were meant to be on this, cruising towards Elba, but for various dull reasons it all fell through. I took that as a sign that I was destined to do something more prosaic, though arguably ultimately more satisfying. So I applied myself to the orto. (And will get to go boating in June, I hope.)

It has taken me a long time to get round to it but now I have more planted in there than the onions, garlic and potatoes which I stuck in weeks ago. It was about time. My runner beans were about to escape from their little pots in the greenhouse, and every local house I passed had some wizened old man outside, putting tomato seedlings into the ground and making me feel guilty and behind-hand.

My excuse to date (aside from work commitments and iffy weather just when I’d hoped to be outside digging) had been rather too many electrical storms forecast: I didn’t want to lose my precious plants to battering hailstones. But we haven’t had a single one of those. And the season is too advanced for my kind of sloth.

0515GAs I dug and hoed and raked and generally did battle with the not hugely wonderful soil I have in my new vegetable garden (I’m adding vast amounts of compost in an attempt to improve) I looked up to see a porcupine sauntering nonchalantly across the carpark outside. Mid-afternoon. Like he owned the place. When I invited him to f-off, he shuffled his quills about half-heartedly, manoeuvred himself around slowly, and strolled away in an unconcerned fashion. Brazen.

Around easter, there was a series of bank holidays, on one of which the phone rang, surprisingly, well before nine in the morning. It was the Romanian housekeeper of our Canadian neighbours who were away at the time, and she was clearly fighting back the tears.

“Signora Anne! I don’t know what to do!”

I imagined a disastrous break-in, or at the very least a dead dog.

“He’s destroyed the potatoes. There’s nothing, nothing left. Trashed. What can I do?”

The housekeeper was convinced it was the badger that wanders the area. One entrance to its sett is in a bank just up past Mario’s house, and he often chooses the moment we’re passing in the car at night to dash across the lane. But omnivorous badgers eat earthworms mostly – hundreds of them each night, I’ve read. They’ll eat fruit, nuts, rats, toads, baby hedgehogs… all kinds of things. They don’t as a rule appear to be particularly interested in potatoes. Unlike porcupines. Porcupines are herbivores, with a passion for bulbs and tubers. Our porcupine was a much better bet in this case.

I tried to calm the housekeeper down. I told her there was little you could do against these fiendish burrowing beasts. I suggested that she could try leaving a radio on down in the vegetable garden at night.

“But you know,” I told her. “In the end, you can’t fight it: it’s just nature.”

She didn’t seem very impressed with my philosophy. Which was, I have to admit, more smug and far less blasphemous than my reaction when I discovered that our neighbourhood istrice had descended on my hemerocallis, dahlia and iris for its dessert, tossing well formed plants into piles of upended soil and – infuriatingly – nibbling the bulbs without actually consuming them.

So what exactly was this (generally nocturnal) beast doing on its most unusual afternoon stroll yesterday? Was it sizing up my potato patch? Doing a bit of a recce? I’m under no illusions. To have any hope of keeping it out, I would have had to sink the Cor-ten edging of the garden into the soil for 50cm or more. Instead, it goes below the surface for about 10cm. Out the back of my new orto on the valley side I keep finding deep holes, usually with rocks in the bottom. Is this the porcupine having a go at getting in, but knocking his head on a stone, thinking it’s not worth it and going elsewhere? Very likely. Will the time come when he finds a spot where sliding under the edging is simple? I wouldn’t be surprised. I won’t, naturally, be feeling very philosophical if he does.

I hope, at least, that he has identified where the potatoes are and, if he gets in, that he goes straight for them. The worst thing is when these predators crush other things beyond redemption in their mad rush to their goal.

In my fit of activity I planted out tomatoes (four varieties, with supports), runner beans (with a rather fine net to clamber over), capsicums of various sizes and colours (far too many for our purposes but they’re planted so close so I can rip some out if they don’t perform well enough) and aubergines (ditto). My peas now have a bit of net to grow up, though I’d be amazed if they ever reach the net: I stuck some random peas in the ground far too late, then forgot they were there so failed to water them through our dry dry early spring. I put out some cucumber plants with a teepee to crawl up. And I even got courgettes into their little holes. I wonder if they’ll produce there, or simply succumb to the powdery fungus that always used to envelop them in the old orto.

If there’s one thing that the prowling istrice has done, it has done away with any lingering feelings of guilt I may have felt towards animals and their favourite snacks. I did have a vague twinge when finally I ripped up my immense forest of bolting cavolo nero outside the living room door. This remarkable specimen had survived 18 months, providing endless dark crinkly leaves for us, and tree-like trunks for some animal – I never did work out which – to scrape away at night after night, dislodging the dry bottom leaves in order to gnaw at the waxy outer layer of the thick stems. You could see the teeth marks.

I found this ‘we take the high part, you take the low part’ sharing out of resources rather charming until other things – lovage, hyssop – started coming up healthily around the base of the cavolo, only to be crushed in the nightly marauding of the unidentified animal. Still, I was aware as I pulled up the huge bushes – now with hardly any edible leaves – that I was depriving this creature of its nightly fun. Now with my new vegetable garden under threat I don’t give a damn. Animals are the enemy. Let them get their food elsewhere. I just want them to leave my plants alone.

There are moments when Italy infuriates you, like when you check on line to see how your application for Italian citizenship is going and it’s stuck at the same stage of the grindingly slow process that it has been in for the past seven months. And others when you think, “wow!”

My ID card was about to expire, so I went to the town hall last week to renew it, a process which lasted about three and a half minutes and which cost €5.40. A pleasant, smart woman tapping information into a computer. The usuals – name, occupation, height. She was a bit nonplussed about my hair colour. How do I describe it these days, since I decided to go natural? I tell people that it’s silver, but that doesn’t seem to be an officially accepted term. She went for brizzolato – grizzled – which for me has overtones of a weathered old sea dog or woodsman, but let’s not dwell on that.

Other questions. Organ donation: yes I want to, no I don’t want to, I don’t want to decide now. How extremely sensible to have this on your ID card. Married state: do you want it to appear?

“Privacy” has become an Italian word, and an Italian obsession: when it comes to bureaucracy, things are kept very secretive. But my ID card renewal came just days after C and I had become very hot under the collar about the daughter of a family friend who had changed her surname on Facebook the very day of her wedding. Why is it that British women still automatically adopt their husband’s name the moment they marry? Why would anyone want to abandon a name that has identified them their whole lives from one day to the next and take on the completely different name of someone else, a name that has everything to do with someone else and nothing to do with you? Does this mean that you’re content to see your identity as somehow being engulfed by that person?

In Italy, women keep their own names. This has nothing to do with feminism. I rather suspect that it might have had its origins in sparing overloaded bureaucracy one further complication. But the codice civile (art. 143) states that women keep their birth surnames. And as of 2016, you can give your children the mother’s name instead of, or as well as, the father’s. So finding out that nowadays you don’t even have to own up to being married at all is very refreshing. It’s an odd twist to the idea of “privacy” but hey, why not? Why does anyone who happens to look at your ID card have to know your married state? What can that possibly say about you that other people have an automatic right to know?

I opted to hedge on the organ donation. And I proudly declared myself married (though fiercely keeping my own name.) But I felt very grateful to be allowed to have my say on both.

And the world’s slowest moving building site? I’m taking deep breaths and trying to keep my blood pressure down.

Between haranguing the builder and veering towards despair, I dwell on lovely, baby steps forwards like shiny new shutters or metal doorframes – something I had  imagined as simplifying things given my loathing of regular doorframes, but which on the contrary came to seem like an almost insurmountable hurdle – finally installed. Small mercies.