Outside our kitchen window was a rather small and rather ugly (in our opinion) block built barbecue, with a sloping tiled-effect roof. The ground in front of it had been turned into a patio area by the laying of hexagonal tiles directly on the soil. It was not pretty and even less so when the grass and weeds grew up between them.
It was time to be realistic; although we are happy to go to barbecues, we have never used one ourselves, nor are we ever likely to. It was time for the barbecue to go. Without it, the tiles looked even more random than before so up they came too.
In time, the grass will grow over and it will be like the barbecue was never there. Only Martin will miss it; it was his shelter from the rain and the sun.
Our fennel seems to have bolted. Instead of big fat bulbs we have tall leggy plants with small yellow flowers. Something clearly has gone awry. While chatting to Chicken Lady’s daughter on her orto, I glance down and see a perfect row of very young fennel plants. ‘What have I done wrong with mine?’ I ask her. ‘Ahhh,’ she replies knowingly. ‘I knew you didn’t mean to plant those. You have planted the wrong fennel. You wanted winter fennel, not summer fennel.’
Hmmm. I planted summer fennel in…… summer but that doesn’t explain their current state. Anyway, clearly what I have is not what I want. But all is not lost; there is still time to plant the right fennel. But what about my summer fennel? ‘There’s nothing you can do with that’ she tells me, something which is also later confirmed by R, the previous owner. ‘Not even the animals will eat them’ he adds.
‘I shall leave them for the seeds then’ I reply, ‘so at least they are not wasted’, an answer that meets with some approval. In the meantime, here’s some not-so-perfect rows of hurriedly planted winter fennel.
After weeks of lovely yellow flowers trailing in both directions, I was excited to finally see two watermelons growing on one of the plants. On closer inspection, I noticed small beginnings of watermelons that had fallen off each plant so I’ve been checking these two every day until it is clear they have firmly taken hold:
The bigger one is currently the size of a large grapefruit, the other about the size of a small peach. Both plants are still flowering so if we are lucky, we may end up with some more:
The next problem will be knowing when they are ready to harvest but there’s quite a way to go before I need to worry about that!
Talking of peaches, we have finally managed to eradicate the leaf curl from our peach tree. It’s only taken us 3 years so this will be the first time we will get a harvest since planting the tree and it’s looking like it will be a good one. Its branches are laden and sagging under the weight of the fruit, so much so, we’ve had to add a support for fear it may snap (it’s still a very young tree):
Luckily, I now have a new kitchen gadget to help with preserving. It’s having a test run in the next few days so watch this space…..
The growing season is well and truly underway and with unseasonably high temperatures for the time of year, we are watering daily. Thanks to my Dad, not only do we have a new door to the well, but we now also have an on-tap supply of well water to the bottom orto. His ingenious idea was this: we blocked one end of the longest hose we had with a cork around which was tied some string. On the other end, M fitted a tap. We then filled the hose with water, placed the corked end into the well below the surface, while M walked the hose down to the orto. My Dad then yanked the string to release the cork, shouted for M to open the tap, and hey presto, water poured out. This means, that although the hose is not long enough to reach all the plants, we can at least fill up watering cans in situ, saving time and effort.
For once, we are ahead on the orto, not only compared with last year, but also with our neighbours, something which has been commented on by more than one of them. We’ve picked nearly all the broad beans despite the best efforts of our resident deer to strip the plants of their leaves, courgettes and patty pans are now in steady supply and the first cucumbers are just days away from picking, a whole month and a half earlier than last year (yes, I have been keeping a record). We are still waiting for the first ripe tomatoes but it won’t be long now.
I’m trying a couple of ‘firsts’ this year. I’ve grown two strong looking watermelon plants from seed and in an effort to have more of a variety of vegetables throughout the winter, alongside our usual cavolo nero, I’m trying cardoons, salsify and pumpkins. I’ve also been nursing a tray of celeriac seedlings for weeks now. They have almost taken up permanent residence in the dining room as the intense heat means they wilt within a couple of hours of being outdoors (I know how they feel!). M tells me celeriac are notoriously hard to grow. Perhaps if he had told me sooner, I might have saved myself the trouble! It also seems that parsnips are hard to grow here as well. It is a rare vegetable in Italy, not only in the greengrocer’s but also in the agricultural suppliers so my sister bought out in a packet in May but a month on there’s still no sign of them.
In addition to the traditional sowing and planting methods, I am also attempting to grow food from scraps. By placing the base of celery and lettuce in warm water and then leaving in direct sunlight, it is possible for the plant to regenerate. After a few days, leaves begin to shoot and once they are a few centimetres tall, the whole thing can be planted out in the soil. I have 2 lettuce and 3 celery growing already with one more of each soon to follow. Who knows if I’ll get a fully formed plant but it’s fun to try and costs nothing!
It’s now just got cool enough so off to water for today.
At long last we have been able to turn our attention to the land and some much needed tree maintenance. The walnut tree was far too tall and growing towards the house, and the huge old wild plum was rotting at the base of the trunk. Most of the plums were too high to reach so fell to the ground creating easy pickings for the boar.
So yesterday, our local woodsman arrived armed with a big and little chainsaw, a billhook, a long canvas strap, a rather small ladder and a young helper. No safety equipment or protective clothing. Not even a pair of gloves. With ease he climbed up into the walnut tree and was passed an idling chainsaw by his helper. Suddenly branches were falling and in a matter of minutes, the tree was looking surprisingly bare. Close to the walnut tree is a fir tree that is also far too high, so we asked him to lower that too. While he was at it, he also rather severely chopped some other tree/bush of an unknown (to us) species that was overhanging our steps and the well. It was on our list of things to do so at least he has saved us a job.
The wild plum was precariously angled and given its height and rotten trunk, we thought might prove more challenging. But we were wrong. With the help of the ladder, he climbed up to the top of the trunk and with one hand, cut the branches and trunk in front of him, before sliding down a little and continuing with the same one handed cuts. M and I were concerned to see the trunk moving under his weight but he carried on obliviously, almost casually.
In just over an hour, it was all done and we were left with a pile of logs, an even bigger pile of branches and greenery to burn and a more open view.
My mother always used to say that gardening teaches you patience. I must be a slow learner. Despite 6 years of an allotment in the UK and 3 years here continuing to grow my own fruit and vegetables, I still look at my seed trays daily wondering just when those little green shoots will appear. No matter how many charts tell me how long to germination I religiously peer hopefully (or some may say, impatiently). My impatience though, is only because there is something so satisfying, not to mention rewarding from growing a plant from seed. When that plant then goes on to provide you with your daily, seasonal food, it is all the more so.
Last year, for the first time, I saved tomato seeds. I have always allowed peas and beans to dry in their pods for next year’s planting, but I have never thought of growing next year’s tomatoes from this year’s crop. We had had such an amazing harvest of the most amazing tomatoes, I suddenly thought whilst in the midst of chopping and preserving, why not save the seeds? A quick internet search told me all I needed to know and a couple of weeks later, I was carefully placing them in an envelope ready for this year’s sowing.
At the beginning of March out they came and into their pots they went and after a couple of weeks (with constant checking) I have successfully grown 14 tomato plants from my saved seeds.
Now, there is the possibility that the bees could have cross-pollinated them. Also, as the original plants were given to me and I don’t know the variety I may end up either with a whole new variety of tomato or alternatively, I may end up with nothing. On this sudden realisation, I quickly sowed some ‘packet’ seeds, just to be on the safe side. Of course, I am checking these daily.
Today I witnessed a very sad event; the owner of the vineyard next to us was pulling out his vines, one by one. After many years of viticulture, he has had enough. The all-year round work at 79 years old has become too much. With a bad back and a painful arm, even the destroying of his vineyard was hurting physically as well as emotionally.
A few months ago he asked me if we would be interested in buying it. With still quite a bit to do on the house and our own (very small in comparison) piece of land to manage, I said it would be too much for us. At the moment, we always seem to be playing catch-up with our land and even he has pointed out on more than one occasion that we should be pruning or chopping or doing some such thing. But it was not just the work though: having recently bought the chicken land which is a fraction of the size, the cost alone would have been prohibitive. When you then consider the amount of hours you need to dedicate to it, without the guarantee of a good year, the ongoing battle against the boar, along with just how cheap wine is here, it requires a passion and dedication that in my opinion, you are either born into or you already have within you. It is not something you take on more by chance or circumstance.
Today though, when he mentioned again that he had offered it to us, I felt almost guilty for saying no. I asked him if he could just leave the vines where they were but he said it would result in ‘chaos’ by which I think he meant that overgrown and neglected vines would be worse. As his house overlooks the vineyard, perhaps it would just be too heartbreaking for him to see every day. I thought of the many abandoned vineyards we have seen in our travels and thought he could have a point. His children both live and work away from the village and clearly his advancing age was on his mind. I was left with little words of comfort as it seemed the only comfort to him at that moment would have been to take it off his hands.
It saddened me to see him so dejected but I was also sad to see the destruction of healthy vines that only a few months ago produced 1500 kilos of grapes, which I think would produce just over 1000 bottles of wine. Not bad for the home-producer. I was also sad to think that within a very short space of time of us being here, our view is changing and something which we saw as a constant can suddenly be so radically altered; vines one minute, grassy terraces the next.
I fear it is something that could happen to others around villages such as ours. R, the previous owner of our house, also asked us a while back to think about buying his vineyard for pretty much the same reasons; his sons both have careers and are not interested in ‘working the land’. Indeed, most of the people that we know that have sizeable areas of land, whether covered with vines or olives or both, are all, with one or two exceptions, in their 60s and above. In R’s case, he is actually only 6 or 7 years older than M, so in 5 or 6 years time, M would be looking to do the same! In all seriousness though, it worries me to think that this way of life, one that we are trying to emulate albeit without a vineyard, is in the decline and could well disappear. I cannot single-handedly save it all, as much as I might want to.