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 The fridge and food cupboards in my father-in-law’s house are purged of all their long-out-of-date contents every three or four months by L or C or whoever else of younger, sounder mind happens to be visiting.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.

11 January 2018

0111ALate last night in an idle moment I clicked on Weather Underground and found this. Cue a double, then a triple and quadruple take. I mean, we’ve had our good days and our less good days – some biting cold and some rain but yesterday, for example, it was 13° (55°F) with resplendent skies. Minus 15°? Difficult to get your tired evening brain around.

Shocked, I reloaded the site, and this forecast had gone. The earth had slid back on to its correct axis. Things looked much as they have been – a bit of rain and generally warmer than normal for this time of year. Had the algorhythms gone wild? Or were the people on the other end just having a bit of a giggle? Checking whether anyone was still awake?

L keeps saying he can smell spring, and some of my plants agree with him: the Teucrium fruticans (tree germander) is in extravagant unseasonal bloom and some of the roses have sprouted emerald leaves which look healthier than anything I ever get in summer. I’ve sworn off making springy predictions until well into February: you never know what that fickle month might throw at us around here. But it’s a joy to see the days surreptitiously lengthening. If I could just steer myself outside, there might be some hope for my garden.

It’s distressing how easy it is to pick up bad habits. The long restructuring works on my Pieve Suites project in town – and in particular the final stages where I was personally hauling furnishings and bits and pieces – distracted my attention from all kinds of regular activities. Until then, my more-or-less usual mode of reaching town was a healthy pedal. With the excuse that I had too much to carry, the car replaced my bike. Now it rarely occurs to me not to drive up the lane, polluting the countryside and doing nothing to tone my thighs.

Likewise my garden. Much of my final flurry coincided with our absurdly short spring and grimly hot summer: it was no sacrifice really to find reasons to be inside, fiddling with decorative details. After months and month of easy excuses, though, I’m finding it’s a massive effort to propel myself into some gardening clothes and out the front door. Once I have my trowel and secateurs in hand, it’s a breeze. It’s just getting to that point that I’m finding ludicrously difficult. Which has predictable results on the state of the garden.

The one area which has partially escaped my agorophobic sloth is the veggie garden, where garlic (though not onions) and peas are now in, and where there’s a mediumly satisfying crop of turnip greens and cavolo nero to save me from horticultural self-loathing and despair. My giant broccoli plants continue to run rampant without the faintest whisper of a head of broccoli. At least, though, from afar they give the impression that it’s a successful and well tended orto.

I’m thinking that perhaps the only way to steer myself outside in any kind of organised way is to plan some bits of makeover. I don’t seem to have any trouble getting out into the gardens of all the various people I’m working for at the moment. Obviously I need a project to draw me into my own. And quite frankly, having grown up in dribs and drabs, with very little overview behind it, it could certainly do with some major shake-ups.

Though in general I loath teaching, and I fought long and hard against pressure to accept the task, it turned out to be an interesting experience, doing a course on garden design recently for our hyper-active Libera Università  (free university). This used to be called the Terza Università (basically adult education, though the connection with terza età, ie the aged, gave it overtones of some kind parking lot for the old and infirm) until some bright spark realised that the median age might plummet if it sounded a bit more rad. And so it did. Well, a bit.

Pulling together all the various strands of my approach to garden design in order to share them with my class focussed my mind very effectively on what I do and how I do it. It’s good to take stock from time to time. And it was a relief to discover that, yes, I do have some kind of method in my approach. You can lose sight of your underlying structure when you’re winging it on auto-pilot.

As I pulled together my lesson plans in a last-minute scramble (of course) and floundered about seeking illustrations to drive home my points, my big takeaways were (1) that garden/ing magazines are full of clever pictures of extremely uninspiring gardens and (2) my own garden served to a worryingly large extent to illustrate mistakes that you should avoid. Not exclusively, I hasten to add: I do love my messy, unstructured space. But it became more and more clear to me why many newcomers to my property react saying “oh, so, you’re, um, a garden designer you said. Um, really?” than with avalanches of admiration. So yes, time to tweak away.


Christmas seems an age ago. We had fun, just the three of us, wallowing in the pools of hot-spring water beneath the town of San Casciano dei Bagni and tramping the woods around the prehistoric site of Belverde, L and C wearing ridiculous wigs – a Yule tradition they invented a few years ago and show no sign of abandoning. (The few other Belverde visitors greeted us with a straight-faced buon Natale! with no allusion to the headgear. Were they keen not to engage too much with the mad people in the dark woods?)

C decamped to Lesvos and her refugee-spotting even before 2018 arrived, and we went back to our usual work, with the exciting addition of a full house up at Pieve Suites.

But there’s one bit of Christmas that is still to come, and that’s L’s main present – a DNA tester to discover his distant roots.

How on earth it can take from December 15 until January 9 to get a small spit-kit from the Netherlands to Italy, I don’t know. Did someone walk here with it? By the time it arrived I had cancelled that one and another is doing the same route, hopefully more swiftly.

During the wait, though, I heard a radio interview with a 79-year-old who had been given a similar kit recently and whose life had been all shook up by the results. He had always believed, he said, that he was English through and through. But the results came back showing he was over 25% Polynesian islander.

When he told his equally aged sister, her reaction was a laconic “oh, didn’t they tell you you were adopted? I thought you knew.” A very discombobulating thing to learn at 79. (His grandson, he said, had a very different risposte: “now you’ll have to learn to do the haka.”)

So what will we learn about L? The way the postal service is going, we may never learn anything.