The weather is like last August and yet it is only the beginning of April. "Is this normal?" I ask my neighbour, Giovanni, “Si e No, the weather here changes its mind like the weather.” he says. "Ah, I see, it’s like a woman then!". “Si”, he says, laughing his twinkly eyes and beaming at me. It seems my Italian sense of humour is coming into its own with my small use of Italian words, which are slowly starting to form sentences, albeit short sentences and in less than a couple of seconds. A vast improvement on a year ago.
Today a small white dog has been to visit, I spotted him running along the main road towards our house and then he bounded up the driveway. I am not afraid of dogs, these days, but you just don’t know what a dog is like, particularly when you haven’t been introduced. I am in the middle of cultivating the vegetable patch ready for planting and Andrew is nowhere to be seen, I call for him but these high 'Langhe' terrace stone walls have the habit of blocking my calls to him, or maybe he is blocking his ears to my frequent calls? Anyway, the dog is approaching, he seems happy, his tail is wagging and he has earnest eyes, like he is looking for something, or someone, but not for me. I ‘shoo’ him away and he shoots off on his little legs faster than a greyhound and runs off back down the hill. How strange, I wonder where his owner is? I get back on with the hard back breaking task of breaking up the land next to the 'lasagne' no dig veg patch. Unfortunately, I had made the 'lasagne' patch too small for my veggie ambitions last autumn and realise that potatoes take up too much space and there isn’t enough space for the carrots, they turn out to dislike manure, which my 'lasagne' veg patch is layered with, so more land needs to be dug out from under the fast-growing grass and wild flowers.
Whilst digging, in the background, I can hear the mating calls of the toads around Giovanni’s very large pond, probably better described as a small lake. They chirrup and squawk their way through the day and I’m sure are having a whale of a time down there flirting with each other and puffing out their slimy chests. I wonder, absentmindedly, if they are edible like frogs are? But the thought is too disgusting, I just can’t bring myself to imagine eating toad’s legs. Last year we were concerned that this squawking noise would carry on all summer, not knowing the mating cycles of these tiny creatures, it seemed to go on for a good 6 weeks, drowning out the sound of the crickets in the fading daylight and for me crickets are the sound of summer, along with that classic chart hit ‘Baker Street’ by Gerry Rafferty, as soon as I hear that song I wish I was cruising along a coastal road in a convertible with seagulls calling in the air.
We have bought a lemon tree, a beautiful specimen with three already grown lemons hanging from its thorny branches. Yes, lemon trees have thorns, who knew! I guess it must be for some sort of protection from animals needing a vitamin C hit. It looks so pretty, sat in a large worn terracotta pot, in front of the balustrade, I think another couple are required and maybe an orange tree. I sit here trance like in front of it, I own a lemon tree, a lemon tree for goodness sake. Does the bounty of this spectacular place every become dull? It’s no wonder Italians are the healthiest on the planet with all this food to eat and not a McDonald’s in sight. The other day we drove through Imperia in Liguria and on to Nice in France and all we could see for miles through Liguria were rows and rows of long, industrial, glass green-house tunnels, some rotting away, others well-tended and stacked with all manner of vegetables, yet crossing over the border to France there wasn’t a single greenhouse, though the terrain was the same, what is it with the French? Are the polytunnels a blight on their landscape, as the road speeds along past Menton, Monaco and Cannes? I love green houses and polytunnels, they are a beacon of self-sufficiency, with a good sized one a family of four can be fed veg for a year. I love imagining what gems are being grown in one and, I do myself, wish we had one here, but I still haven’t worked out where to put it. With all our terraces and plans that change regularly, on what to do with all this land, it probably is better to sit it out and see before investing in a sturdy polytunnel. In the meantime, we have established the temporary 'lasagne' bed and its position on the terrace below the balustrade means I can lean over and see if the zucchini has grown another inch over night, or if those challenging carrots have poked their greenery above ground.
Andrew, now a force to be reckoned with in DIY, has kept his latest skill, taught by the wily Giovanni, on how to ‘cement in posts’ for this very project, building us an enclosed veg garden to keep the critters out. It’s the simplest thing ever, we dig out 6 holes around the veg bed and fill them with simple to mix cement and pop the posts in, then we wrap some green garden wire fencing around the outside and tie with plastic straps. Then we pop some netting over the top to keep the birds out and hey presto an enclosed veg patch, which from the inside looking out appears to be more of a veg prison but I am selfish with this project and no critter is going near this patch. Not coincidentally, I am woken in the middle of the night, after we finished the enclosure, to the sound of bellowing outside the house, a deer has stumbled across the enclosure and sounds like it is crying! I am sure it had lined up this veg patch, as a new trendy ‘pop up eatery’ in the area and was looking forward to many midnight feasts but now, alas, this is not to be. How strange the timing of this visit, I imagine he was stopping by regularly to see when this ‘pop up’ would be open for business and he would get the first table and the pick of the crop for dinner and now he has found that the rules have changed and, no, he is not on the guest list and will not be going in!
The little white dog keeps returning. This morning, I am out watering the flowers and roses along the driveway when a gentle woof comes over the top of our upper terrace, from our neighbour's, Gianna’s, holiday home, who is currently absent. Startled, I look up and there he is, his little head with the cutest black droopy ears, looking at me like I am about to burgle the place. ‘Basta’ (enough), I shout at it and he sprints away. I am starting to feel a bit sorry for him, why is he hanging about the place and where is his owner? I pause over wrapping up the lamb bone scraps from dinner, we normally give these to a grateful Giovanni for his dogs, should I give them to the little white dog instead? It’s such a difficult decision but I am firm and will not, after all, he could keep returning for food and never go home. He certainly isn’t a wild dog, he looks well maintained and is not aggressive in any way. We decide to go up by car to Gianna’s at night to see if he is there, and lo and behold there he is, perched up on a box under the outdoor shelter, bright eyes shining at us, is there hope in his eyes? We drive back down, the problem is we don’t know what the rules are in this area, do we report it to the police, or the council, would they take him and put him down, or say it’s our problem, as we found him? Too many questions. We decide to leave things as they are, surely he will trot off home soon?
I am in the vegetable prison looking at my juvenile delinquents, to see if they are behaving themselves and growing into hard working, behaved, adults. So far, they appear to be sulking. After hardening them off outside the greenhouse but tucking them in warmly back in the greenhouse each night, I am sensing petulance and bottom lips stuck out at this alarming state of affairs, as they are now being left out all night in the elements. Please grow I beg them, please show my neighbours I am not a lunatic with the no dig ‘organic lasagne bed’ experiment. I can’t bear to fail at this, they will all look at me with an ‘I told you so’ look and wonder why I am so lazy as to not furrow the ground and fill it with chemical fertiliser. Please grow. I am contemplating piping in some classical music to cheer them up while I speak to them quietly and lovingly. I am in this state of contemplation when a car pulls up and a woman, older than me, shouts out ‘Buongiorno’, I look up surprised, and see a little old red car with the lady in the front and, is it right, it can’t be, in the back is the little white dog! Huh! She asks me if the dog is mine! Oh no, I shout ‘uno momento’ and I scamper down the terraces to her car. There he is in the back shaking like a leaf, probably at the sight of evil me. I greet her with astonishment and explain my limited English. Earlier, Andrew and I had been driving back to the house when we passed the dog lying on the road a few bends away from our place, he was lying next to a baseball cap. This was weird, as there is no reason for a baseball cap to suddenly appear on the road and surely the dog knew this was not a good place to lie, although we barely get two cars an hour on this road. This kindly woman had spotted this too but, with more heart than me, she had stopped to pick him up and put him in the car, without the hat. I explained that ‘no this is not our dog’ and with great hand gestures, circled the area, to demonstrate he has been running about all over the place for the last couple of weeks. She thanks me and explains she is on holiday at our neighbours to the left of our house, adjacent to Giovanni’s, and sets off down to the house with the dog. I am so happy for the little fella, at last a home! I am yet again gardening the next day when there he is, being walked along the road, without a lead by the woman, the dog is bounding around her feet, as she walks along, and he is not letting her out of his sight, his little white tail is wagging non-stop and I am sure he is smiling. I could nearly cry with the relief, as I see him bounding down the lane to their house, turning every few seconds to make sure she is following. Home sweet home.
See what May holds in store here.
When I think back on it I have been craving a garden for at least 25 years. I am 41 now, and this is the first time I can say that I have a garden to call my own. It's been a long time coming. So dreaming as I have, of this moment, I have had plenty of time to consider what I want to see in the garden. I envisage a large, productive organic vegetable patch, a fruit orchard, a berry patch, chickens and herb garden. As an avid reader I can say that I am technically proficient in a theoretical way and absolutely green behind the ears in a practical sense. My long since departed grandfather was a professional gardener and I like to think he is looking down on me, whilst smoking his omnipresent pipe and urging me to 'just get on with it'! And so I have.
The herb garden has been made, featuring Rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano, chives and parsley, more to add next year.
I have just finished the lasagne garden project for the vegetable patch. Having collected as much material as possible all year, with much eye raising from my local farmers, I snaffled the dregs of the hay field we mowed earlier in the summer. I begged a ton of donkey poop from Giovanni's cute donkey pack, I raked all the hazelnut tree leaves up and bagged them with wry amusement from onlookers, just in case Italy's answer to 'New England' in the fall ran out of leaves, and yes there wasn't much need for that gathering. I squirrelled as much cardboard as I could, much to Andrew's chagrin, he does love a tidy attic and I had bundled it all up there. I started collecting as much veg scrappage as possible and popped it with relish in the steaming compost bin. So when I came to lay all this out 'Lasagne style' it was all there ready to go.
Lasagne organic gardening in my Piemonte garden - tasty!
How to Make a Lasagne Organic Garden Bed
Best started in Autumn so it can fester and be impregnated with the all important worms and be ready in time for Spring planting.
1. Lay thick cardboard over the patch you want to grow on, sprinkle with water (not Parmesan!)
2. Lay a few sheets of newspaper for good mulching measure and sprinkle.
3. Lay a layer of manure, donkey, horse, sheep, chicken etc not dog or cat poo! Sprinkle.
4. Lay a layer of hay - organic only, check out Jill's post at Prairie Homestead for this reason
5. Cover with small or shredded leaves and sprinkle
5. Cover with veg scraps, fresh or composted, sprinkle.
6. Cover with more leaves, sprinkle
7. Cover with organic fine compost, if you haven't made your own you can buy it in.
8. Sit back and watch the lovely worms gather and hey presto a veg patch to plant your seeds in come spring.
What could go wrong? Well when I went to map out my veg patch, accompanied by Andrew and my gardening consultant, aka mother, we were greeted with a curled up whip snake!!!!! Yes a bloody long snake, on my soon to be veg patch!!! A big one too. Andrew nearly jumped out of his skin, as he had just avoided treading on it. My mother was un-amused and backed up fast behind me. Where's St. Patrick when you need him! I ventured in a little for a picture, well I had to didn't I? Anyway we decided to leave it to it's own devices and head back up the hill for a nice cup of tea, and a figure out of what to do. Freshly invigorated, Andrew decided to head on back down the hill with the longest implement he could find in the shed, and slowly crept up to it, meanwhile myself and my visiting parents hung over the balustrade with cameras at the ready. My Dad, not used to such sightings, was laughing hysterically, as Andrew reached out and prodded the snake with the tip of the rake. It didn't move, was it playing dead? He tried again, nothing. Dawning realisation flooded us all at this point, it was dead! He got the rake under it and lifted it up, all 2 metres of it dangled, sadly, off the rake, skin glinting like a diamante bauble catching the sunlight, as it swayed elegantly in the breeze. We set off, down to the soon to be veg patch, clapping and bravo'ing Andrew, relieved to be getting on with the project again. It's hard to garden now without my eyes peeled, no bad thing I guess.
Our garden is alive with insects all year round, it seems something is always rustling or buzzing about. Our biggest scare though has to be the scorpions. I'm not painting a great picture am I? On our first weekend in the house Andrew had tip toed off to the bathroom in the dead of night, after a few too many glasses of Nebbiolo! He came back and went to sleep. The following morning he was acting really weird, sheepish and nervous, not his usual exuberant self. After a mild interrogation by me he came clean and told me that much to his horror he was finishing his ablutions in the night when he turned to leave the bathroom and there in the centre of the floor, ahead of him, was a black scorpion, with curled tail looking menacingly at him. So, scared, he had nearly screamed. He had bravely shot out of the room and left it to it's own devices. Now, anyone who knows me well, knows I'm not too good around creepie crawlies of the sinister genre. I frantically started googling it, 'how long was it?' I asked trying to sound calm, 'Oh, at least half a hands length', said Andrew. I kept searching until up popped a picture of the Piemonte inhabiting scorpion family, all 1 inch of it, I might add, men and their measurements!! Turns out it can barely pierce the skin with its bee like sting, but is so shy you won't need to worry much. And so every week we came across one or two brave soldiers trying to sneak into the lovely steamy bathroom, they like steam, and we had to turf them, on a dustpan, back out again. I had hidden this insects presence from my Mother though and each time she visited she didn't see any scorpions, as we were on covert scorpion patrol, until her fateful trip out to Italy with my father...and the hornets!
Hornet saga coming soon!
Find out how our Piemonte adventure began.
One of our biggest and most satisfying achievements, particularly for Andrew, this year on our new Piemonte farm was mowing the meadow. A fan of hay bales, stacks, rolls and the like, I love looking at the different shapes and sizes on show in hay fields, whenever I pass by any field in Summer. I used to dream that one day I would have my own hay bale, or roll, to play with on the farm. It hasn't quite worked out like that, yet.
Our infamous 'vini culture' land, that had been cleaned many years ago of any vines, sat naked in Spring, with just a few green patches of weeds and herbs, naturally growing on it (no herbicides here thank you), to hide it's modesty. But, within the space of four months, it had transformed itself into waist high, (well on my 5ft 4inch frame anyway) dense grass and wild flowers, a pretty sight to behold. Walking slowly through the tall grassed land, advance parties of butterflies, bees and crickets would float and jump their way ahead of me, as if guiding my way, accompanied by a low level hum of happy, pollinating, insects. It was truly delightful to see all this nature at one with itself. Until, that is, I read a book written by two ladies who had moved to nearby Liguria, and it all changed for me. They spoke of how their locals liked everything neatly shorn to prevent fires, particularly in the hot summer weather and how it was frowned upon to let your land grow unruly and, indeed, they had been witness to such fires threatening to burn down the local's olive trees and houses. Startled, and on alert for unwanted smoke signals coming from our distant land, we decided to mow the meadow, as fast as possible.
Curiously, Italians seemed to have been given the label as somewhat 'slow in action', certainly 'piano, piano', meaning 'slowly, slowly' is a common enough phrase, that I hear directed at me, more often when I am attempting to speak in Italian, as fast as possible, in a lame attempt to show off my near non-existent linguistic talent. Quite difficult it is too, with all the 'rrrrr' rolling through nearly every other word. So I take the 'piano, piano', as a kindly meant line to mean, 'Clare I have no idea what you just said, were you speaking in Russian?' Sometimes things here move quickly, sometimes they move slowly, there is no pattern. It depends, I think, on the whim of the person acting out the request. So we asked Giovanni, would he kindly lend us one of his multitude of machines from his massive farm to mow the meadow, expecting that he would helpfully lend us a machine some time in the future. Now, you have to understand with Giovanni, he absolutely loves teaching us 'stranieri' new tricks of the farming trade and his eyes lit up on this one and he seemed overjoyed that we would want to mow the meadow. I think he had been using this 'meadow mowing' failing of ours, over the past months, to amuse his many friends with. Maybe he was relieved that we weren't as dumb as we appeared and that his, and the neighbour's farms, wouldn't be burning down, after all, from our meadow growing experiment. Anyway, quick smart, the next day he had Andrew under instruction, getting him to push a very large lawnmower up and down the meadow. Though, I had a sneaky suspicion that Giovanni could have laid his hands on a sit on mower but he liked the idea of whipping Andrew, the city gent, into shape. Andrew grimaced, grunted and sweated his way over the 2000sqm of meadow, most of it on an awkward tilt, perfect for growing vines on but not so easy with a manual pushing mower! And after a big effort it was finally well groomed, rather like Elvis getting his first buzz cut in the army.
The best part of asking favours in Italy is that you often get asked a favour in return, like the old barter system, you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours, so of course Giovanni, wonderful as he is, had a favour to ask us and that was for him to keep the hay for his four donkeys. See, told you I haven't, yet, got the chance to claim a haystack for myself. The problem, for me, was that I wanted some of the hay for my up coming hay layering experiment in the vegetable garden (idea courtesy of Prairie Homestead). Not a lot, and certainly not the contents of the meadow, but some was required. But after all my strenuous activity that morning, raking up hay, I was fit for bed, so took myself off for an early siesta and left Andrew and Giovanni admiring the new meadow. What I hadn't realised was that the newly shorn grass was being sucked up into a hay baler by another friendly neighbour, Armando, while I had my little power nap, how quick was that!!! Armando owns the biggest farm around, in our part of the Langhe in Piedmont, and is an absolute gentleman. Giovanni had arranged for him to drive the 2 miles down the road, in his big tractor, with hay bale attachment, to hoover the lot up, in return, again the barter system, Armando got to keep a bale of hay for himself. I was dreaming my exhausted dreams in bed while the most exciting thing to date on the farm, that I had been looking forward to seeing, was carried out. I woke a couple of hours later, to the news that the baling had been done. Gutted, is a word I would use on this occasion. Later we went to look at the big round bales, two of them left standing there in the drying sun. I felt a bit bereaved, knowing that really though they sat on our land, they weren't really ours, they were now Giovanni's and the donkeys. Still, we had kept our honour and hadn't set fire to anything. Andrew had, though, arranged for us to have the scraps from around the edges to be collected by our own hands, not baled, for my gardening experiment. I looked at the scraps, looked longingly at the bales, back at the scraps, and gave up. I hope the donkey's appreciate the hay.
Read more - how to kiss the neighbours! Saucy!
New discoveries in our Piemonte, Langhe Hills, Garden
Having bought 2 acres of land it was hard to resist the urge to start landscaping and planting and cultivating from the get go, particularly coming from our 4x2m city garden, but we resisted and made a rational decision to watch the land for a year. Yes, a whole year. I had read in many a good gardening book and I think, even Monty Don, the famous 'Gardeners' World', BBC gardener suggests this to his fan base. Watching the land, as it grows, will enable us to see what springs up and in what order, after all, what looks like a weed in March, can turn out to be a pretty, bee loving, flower by August. So, painful though it was to sit back and watch, that is what we have done. Here are my first year observations.
Firstly, the land grows very fast in the Langhe Hills in Piemonte. Whether this was anything to do with the spring snow, or the rain fall in late spring, I don’t know, but Andrew, and his new additional muscles, knows all about it, or his new title, ’Strimmer in Chief’ (SIC), SIC being sick of strimming! Every three weeks a few feet of shrub would stretch up from all of the ground, every stalk waving around in the air, feeling the freedom of a plant on the make, that is until Andrew lopped them all off with a commanding swish of his new power strimmer, give a man a tool for a day etc. We made the decision to leave a couple of sections to grow uninterrupted for wild flower purposes, because one of our discoveries above the house, on neighbouring land, had been a small bee hive farm and I hope to meet the farmer soon to see if I can get a share of the nectar bounty, after all our garden has been feeding the bees! Nothing beats the sight, or sound, of honey bees making the rounds in the garden.
Secondly, we seem to have a wild mint problem. One of the first smells, I noticed, when we viewed the property that fateful day last November, was wafting up from the underfoot crushed wild mint on the lawn, wow what a gorgeous deep smell it is too. I thought this a selling point of the house, Giovanni has recently pointed out that this is, in fact, an invasive weed and I had better Monsanto it! I think he was joking about Monsanto, I have repeatedly said our land will be organic and not in any way covered in vile noxious rubbish like ‘Round up’, I am sure he was joking, as he seems to be passionate about not having chemicals anywhere, including in his wine. I am sending some soil off to be tested soon though to see what chance we have of claiming organic land.
Along with the wild mint there appeared a lot of Yarrow, Elderflower and my favourite, St. John’s Wort, sprouting all over the place, like a Piemonte herbalists apothecary. I had bought some St.John’s Wort plants back in Dublin and knew what it was straight away, manna, no more buying St.John’s Wort again, I have so far made an oil from it and a tincture. The oil is great, as it works brilliantly on Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, a side effect of too much strimming! Next year, I am going to get some herbal recipes for Yarrow and not miss the Elderflower bonanza again.
Some of the unidentified fruit trees came out, in the end, to reveal their fruity secrets, peaches galore, both white and regular, on two trees, made into peaches in brandy for Christmas. Plum tree with a few plums, a gargantuan cherry tree with so many cherries on it, sadly we missed the harvest, as we were away in Dublin for a couple of weeks and when we returned they had pretty much been nicked by the birds and half rotten, I have diarised that now for next year, as I intend to make a fierce cherry brandy in 2017. A very healthy fig tree ripened in mid-September and all gobbled up fast, as they don’t last long before spoiling. A neighbour’s apple tree has been adopted, as the apples were rolling on to our side of the unfenced garden and were, umm, going to waste. Wild strawberries lined the driveway raised bed and many a strawberry leaf tea was made, I will dry these leaves next year. Our 10 grape vines, which no one seemed to know what variety they were, stayed white, and then, just as we were considering harvesting them, Giovanni revealed that they weren’t grapes for wine but regular eating grapes! Boring or what? We aren’t too sure on keeping these long term, neither of us being avid grape eaters, but grape drinking on the other hand... Andrew has decided that they can stay until after the extension is built, then up they will come and be replaced by about 40 Dolcetto vines instead, along that lovely wide sun drenched terrace, at the moment it will stay empty, bar the vine edging along the front, as the builders will have to use it for access. Giovanni had gifted us a surprise of two almond trees, which he planted in secret, while we were away in April, on return there they sat, on the edge of the lower terrace, with a fascinatingly situated, if not peculiar, asparagus row, which he has set in between the two almond trees, another Giovanni addition, I’m not sure if this is a Piemonte gardening trick, or in his case, Sardinian, but we will have to see. This year only one of the almond trees fruited, providing 5 nuts! I think we will give them a few more years’ reprieve to see how they grow.
But the biggest surprise the land has given us, this year, is our very own hazelnut plantation. When Andrew had negotiated the extra parcel of land from Giovanni, we knew it had been registered as ‘vini culture’, vine land for a vineyard. We didn’t mind this, as we had the usual dream of making our own Langhe Hills wine. However, as the season shifted to early summer and we got more familiar with the surrounding farms and masses of neighbouring nocciole (hazelnut) plantations, I started to notice the resemblance of our vineyard’s tree lined boundary, the trees arcing protectively around the land boundary, next to the not very busy road. One day, in early summer, my mother and I set out to investigate and upon reaching the first trees, there, on the branches, were the little hazelnut pods! Every tree was covered in them. All 52 hazelnut trees! This was our lightbulb moment! I had always said that the land would tell us what it wants to grow, and it did.
And last, but maybe even least, a funghi, not the normal mushroom stalk with umbrella top funghi but a weird shaped, orange, funghi growing around the base of a tree stump, well we are in funghi season after all, and in Piemonte that means plenty of funghi eating festivals, but I think we will leave this one to it's own devices and stick to more well known quantities of mushrooms from the market, mushrooms on toast anyone?
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