Saturday, March 31, 2018


Built another one. Nearly out of sticks from this year's prunings. Just enough left to do some more trellising. This one is lower because I'm going to put runner beans in. The taller one is for beetroot (already sown) that needs more depth of soil.

Note how dry and cracked the soil is. This is after weeks of constant tremendous downpours in Feb & March, followed by three weeks of cold, sunny days with a lot of wind. This is what clay soil does, and it turns rock hard. The only thing to do is mulch and build raised beds. Long process.

I've done beds and wood chip mulching in the ornamental/herb garden, but the orto is going to take a lot of work that I'm mostly going to have to save for next winter. One thing I'm doing is sowing everything with white clover seed. This is a plant that "fixes nitrogen," pulls it right out of hte air and pumps it into the soil through nodes in the roots. It helps the soil retain water and the leaves shade the soil from the sun and protect it from wind and reduces evaporation and helps the clay soil by retaining water below the surface, preventing that cracking and the formation of a hard crust.

This is an old medieval gardening trick. Medieval pottager or herb gardens were always set up with raised beds and paths, so no one ever walked on the places you plant and sow, and there was absolutely no bare, exposed soil. Grass on the paths was common, but here would take too much water in the summer to keep it alive. I don't want to do sand or gravel paths, because that would just be adding stones to soil I'm trying to reconstitute. I'm trying hugel beds as well, where you bury woody material along with half-finished green compost. These take about three years to really get results, but it's supposed to be great for clay.

But it's tricky to manage no matter what you do. You have to make absolutely sure never to walk on anything you intend to plant. Make paths, and stick to them for your feet, and then mulch the heck out of the paths with an organic mulch, so walking on it forces organic material into the soil. I'm mixing white clover seed, which you can buy in bulk, with composted soil and peat/wood mulch compost, and sprinkling it over the clay beds. The green looking bit in the back of this photo shows the difference it makes.

The Patch was rototilled every year for many years when Annamaria's mum lived here, and it has left the soil in dire condition. It's the reason absolutely nothing but a few VERy hardy and determined weeds would grow on it. The grass from Franco's orchard stopped in a clear line where Annamaria's mum's garden started. The soil is so hard packed after decades of tilling even the grass wouldn't encroach on it.

Frankly, it's a ton of work, but I'm enjoying this project immensely. What a thrill to bring life back to it!

Plum, always the first to bloom...

Hugelkultur; a Swiss thing I think, in which you bury half-rotted wood and dry sticks and brown compost, cover with a layer of green compost, and then pile on the soil from the trench. Sow with a cover crop like clover and plant with whatever you like. Three years later, the soil will be completely reconditioned.

Since childhood, my favourite flowers. A sign of spring and new hope. A new start, and a way back from winter.

Happy Easter.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Phenology: "On the 1st New Moon of March, look at Subasio. If it's green, then plant your seeds. If it's white, we wait."

Phenology: planting by nature's signs

The idea of watching for nature’s seasonal signs is called phenology. For gardeners and farmers, this involves studying natural phenomena to know when to plant crops in the spring.

Trees, shrubs, and flowers are sensitive to temperature and day length, and develop on a regular schedule based on local conditions. Other natural phenomena, such as bird migrations and the emergence of insects and amphibians (like spring peepers), also signify the coming of spring. It only makes sense to use these events as indicators of when the weather is right for planting.

I'm just starting to learn about this. Annamaria gave me a local Umbrian gardener's calendar, and it gives all kinds of fascinating details about the times of planting and harvesting. It says that one doesn't plant seeds straight into the beds until the "crescente" the first days of the New Moon of March, which was the 18th. But then one also has to watch the weather. She came by this morning and said, "Oh no. We can't plant now. Look at Monte Subasio. If there's snow on top at the crescente, we have to wait."

But even with cold, wet weather, I've been having a fine time. Building beds, putting up trellises. This one is where a lot of old junk - sticks and bits of stuff - were stashed. But under it all the soil was quite good, and it gets full exposure all day. So all my tallest things will go in here. Sunflowers, hollyhocks, glads and delphiniums (if I can get them started.)

Annamaria has pruned all her fruit and olive trees and gave me all the cuttings, so I've got piles of sticks to play with.

 In the foreground is the bed I put around the grape vines. Have to build a trellis for them. All around them are about four bulbs' worth of garlic that are doing well. To the right you can see the rockery I built out of tufa blocks. The project for this afternoon is to dig out a trench along its length behind so I can put in another bunch of trellising and make a big wall of morning glories. The tufa forms a little shelf and all those pots are Annamaria's that she's not using. So, flowers, flowers flowers.

I've pulled (and chopped and peeled and stashed away in teh freezer) nearly all my winter brassicas. Plenty of work left to do before the summer veg goes in. Two rows of onions, and three short rows of more garlic. I've got 48 red onion starts waiting to go in.

How to build a trellis out of pruned fruit cuttings.

So. Many. Sticks!

Teaching myself wattling technique. This is my poor rhubarb that I bought last spring and ended up getting moved three times. It's doing much better now, but I wanted to put something around it so no one would tread on the delicate young leaves. All the material here is olive.

Following the manuscripts, I wanted to try a raised wattle bed. This worked surprisingly well, and only took a few hours to complete. It's mostly fruit tree prunings. I'm going to put beets and marigolds together.

Wattle, wattle everywhere...

A week ago, it looked like spring!


Industrial farming; stealing the good to give us fake "perfection"

There's so much wrong with the way we Modernians do agriculture, it's hard to know where to begin. One thing he mentions is the poverty of varieties in most Anglo countries that have gone big into industrialised ag-business. You have one kind of broccoli, one kind of cauli, one or maybe two kinds of carrots, if you're VEry lucky, four kinds of apples. And as he says, what is grown have to be "perfect" crops, even for the gigantic and hugely expensive, highly specialised machines to work. And of course, produce sellers won't touch "imperfect" goods, so huge amounts of what is grown gets thrown out because it's not sellable. So when you go to the shops, you're presented with a tiny fraction of the food varieties - and of course, an extremely narrow range of food nutrients (not forgetting that these highly hybridised varieties ALWays sacrifice nutrient-density for appearance and pest/disease resistance and other purely producer-oriented advantages). So, honestly we're just not getting nearly the food value we used to from fruits and veg.

This has been countered a little bit by the fad for "organic" produce, but most regular people don't shop at Whole Foods or whatever the equivalent is. There are very few farmer's markets, and none at all if you live in a city. Urbanisation, industrialisation, Henry Ford's mass production mindset, has left us in a state of poor health and cultural poverty.

But I know that in Italy, small scale farming - a lot of family farms doing mixed growing - is still a pretty strong thing. It's being strangled by government interference and EU-based agri-industrial gerrymandering, but one of the reasons Italy is still famous for food is this national growing culture. Everyone has a little orto, everyone grows veg and is accustomed to a much wider array of varieties. I don't know how many times I've had to explain that the "weird" stuff I'm growing in my garden is actually perfectly normal for Italians. (And everyone knows what to do with them. Today I snipped off the flowerets off my Cavolo Nero, sauteed them with some shaved carrots in olive oil and garlic for dinner.) Being only one or two generations away from an agricultural economy - in Norcia they only "modernised" the farming practices in 1950! they were still using oxen in 1965 - people are a lot more accustomed to the realities of farm life. People expect the vast array of brassicas every year because they grew up with Nonna pulling it out of her orto for them. There are little mini-farmer's markets in the city centres - a dozen in Rome, some of them no more than three tables worth, but everyone knows where they are and goes to them.

The other thing that survives here is what I call the "housewife culture" in which women generally get married and stay at home. The shopping is done several times a week, early in the morning (all public markets are closed by one pm) and does the cooking for the family who come home from work for the national mid-day break. Feminist politicians complain about women not being in paid employment, but I htink there's still an awareness here that the nation's economic and social health rests on the well-being of the home. And that's where women rule. Food is at the centre of that culture.


Tuesday, March 20, 2018

By the time we discover we need it, it's gone, and we can't ever put it back...

This deserves a separate post. I have always liked this about HRH Charles. He seems to grasp that Modernity has destroyed so much to give us so little. The appearance of material wealth - but a wealth composed of objects that have been drained of their value - in exchange for an authentic cultural wealth that can never truly be regained.

"People are yearning for that sense of belonging and identity, and meaning."


Monday, March 19, 2018

Transylvania: human-scale vernacular architecture

that you can stay in.

The Prince of Wales likes to take a week's holiday there every year. But when he's not using it, you can go and stay there for 118E a night. Meals included.

A human-scale life.


Sunday, March 18, 2018

The call to solitude...

The more I learn about rural Romania, the more I want to go hide there. Rural Italy is pretty great, and Umbria has a piece of my heart, but the part I live in is pretty modern and central. Down here on the lowlands. I keep longing to go back up to Norcia where - even more now - there are really just not very many people, and we were surrounded by the Big Empty. Where wild boar would come close to the house at night, and if you got up early enough you'd sometimes see wolves in your garden. (At least, so I was told my my friend the vet, whose house was close to the base of the mountain.) One of the most painful parts of Norcia was the annual summer tourist invasion. It was just way too popular.

Being from coastal British Columbia, and from a time before it got completely overrun, I find it hard to bear living cheek-by-jowl with so many strangers. It just feels strangely invasive to know what people - people I don't know - are doing every day.

The lower Tiber Valley is very heavily populated for a rural area, this big horseshoe of towns and villages and hamlets and farms, Perugia, Assisi, Bastia Umbra, Foligno, Spoleto... all practically within walking distance. I know for people who only think of Italy as a tourist place that sounds like a dream come true; but how I miss those early Norcia mornings in the winter, the only sound was the birds and the bells of the Basilica ringing for Prime, the mist rising slowly up the sides of the mountains...

I don't know where this thing in my character comes from, this urge to be away from everyone else. But it gets stronger by the year. My 52nd birthday was last week, and though I'm liking my little place here more and more, the urge to be away from everyone else keeps whispering under it all. I guess it's how I ended up here, so far away from where I started. The Island is unrecognisable now, my interior mental landscape of long stretches of the Island Highway with nothing but trees has been completely lost. That highway is one long strip mall now, lined with seedy car and hot tub dealerships; the remote, wild place where my grandparents build their little house on the cliff in the 60s now a tame and paved suburb of Nanaimo.

The more I learn about Romania, the more that instinct starts its little quiet bell ringing.

... Or maybe the Faroe Islands...


Sunday, March 11, 2018

What to do during a Divine Chastisement...

I have a wonderfully interesting book - a reprint of the 1906 original - titled "The Records of Romsey Abbey" - being the long story, put together from original sources, of a women's Benedictine house near Winchester, founded in AD 907.

This morning I was reading an interesting bit from the middle of the 14th century: what to do in times of grave chastisement.

It seems like pretty good advice.

"The advent, in 1349, of the Great Pestilence, or Black Death as it is commonly known, brought desolation to Romsey Abbey in common with other communities throughout the country. It is supposed that this awful scourge originated in China in 1334. Thirteen millions of person are believed to have been swept away by the floods of the Yangtsi or destroyed by hunger and disease, and according to the rumours of the time it was the corruption of unburied corpses which caused the Black Death. [The true cause of Bubonic Plague, the bacterium Yersinia pestis, was identified in 1894, but its connection with the historic pestilences so dreadfully remembered by Europeans, was not widely accepted until after the publication of the book.]. In China the pestilence ended in 1342, but not so for the rest of the world; it spread and being a soil poison found favourable conditions throughout medieval Europe. This was the age of feudalism and walled towns, with a cramped and unwholesome manner of life on inhabited spots of ground, choked with the waste matter of generations.

The monasteries were especially favourable spots. Within the walls, under the floor of the chapel or cloisters, were buried not only generations of monks but often the bodies of princes and notables, and of great ecclesiastics. Again, in every parish the house of the priest would have stood close to the church and churchyard. Thus the pestilence spread slowly but with a certainty, which would alone have made it terrifying, taking a whole twelve months to pasts from Dorset to Yorkshire, and exhibiting its greatest power in walled town, monastery and in the neighbourhood of churchyards.

But whilst this pestilence was a soil poison, it is not to be supposed that it was not directly contagious, it was virulent, and so contagious that those who touched the dead or even the sick, were incontinently infected that they died, and both penitent and confessor were borne together to the same grave. It is supposed that the population of England at this time was not more than five millions, and that half of this total succumbed. One half of the clergy in the diocese of York died, and in Hampshire some 200 clergy perished.

The pestilence entered a port in Dorset, said to be Weymouth, about August, 1348. Bishop William de Edyndon wrote an eloquent letter to the Prior of St. Swithun's, Winchester, on the 24th of October following and sent similar letter throughout the diocese: -

"William, by Divine providence, Bishop, to the Prior and Chapter of our church of Winchester, health, grace, and benediction. A voice in Rama has been heard; much weeping and crying has sounded throughout the countries of the globe. Nations deprived of their children in the abyss of an unheard plague, refuse to be consoled because, as is terrible to hear of, cities, towns, castles, and villages, adorned with noble and handsome buildings, and wont, up to the present, to rejoice in an illustrious people, in their wisdom and counsel, in their strength and in the beauty of their matrons and virgins; wherein too, every joy abounded, and whither too, multitudes of people flocked from afar for relief; all these have been already stripped of their population by the calamity of the said pestilence, more cruel than any two-edged sword. And into these said places now none dare enter, but fly afar from them as from the dens of wild beasts.
Every joy has ceased in them; pleasant sounds are hushed, and every note of gladness is banished. They have become abodes of horror and a very wilderness; fruitful country places without the tillers thus carried off, are deserts and abandoned to barrenness. And news most grave which we report with the deepest anxiety, this cruel plague as we have heard, has already begun to afflict the various coasts of the realm of England.
We are struck with the greatest fear lest, which God forbid, the ell disease ravage any part of our city and diocese. And although God, to prove our patience, and justly to punish our sins, often afflicts us, it is not in man's power to judge the Divine which, propagated by the tendency of the old sin of Adam, from your inclines all to evil, has now fallen into deeper malice and justly provoked the Divine wrath by a multitude of sins to this chastisement.
"But because god is loving and merciful, patient and above all hatred, we earnestly beg that by your devotion He may ward off from us the scourge we have so justly deserved, if we now turn to Him humbly with our whole heart. We exhort you in the Lord, and in virtue of obedience we strictly enjoin you to come before the face of God, with contrition and confession of all your sins, together with the consequent due satisfaction through the efficacious works of salutary penance. We order further that every Sunday and Wednesday all of you, assembled together in the choir of your monastery say the seven Penitential Psalms, and the fifteen gradual psalms, on your knees, humbly and devoutly. Also on every Friday, together with these psalms, we direct that you chant the long litany, instituted against pestilences of this kind by the Holy Fathers, through the market place of our city of Winchester, walking in procession together with the clergy and people of the city.
We desire that all should be summoned to these solemn processions and urged to make use of other devout exercises, and directed to follow these processions in such a way that during their course they walk with heads bent down, with feet bare, and fasting; whilst with pious hearts they repeat their prayers and, putting away vain conversation, say as often as possible the Lord's Prayer and Hail Mary. Also that they should remain in earnest prayer to the end of the Mass, which at the end of the procession we desire you to celebrate in your church."


It's Henry Purcell Sunday: Rejoice in the Lord Alway!


Friday, March 02, 2018

Dulce Domum

The rapid nightfall of mid-December had quite beset the little village as they approached it on soft feet over a first thin fall of powdery snow. Little was visible but squares of a dusky orange-red on either side of the street, where the firelight or lamplight of each cottage overflowed through the casements into the dark world without. Most of the low latticed windows were innocent of blinds, and to the lookers-in from outside, the inmates, gathered round the tea-table, absorbed in handiwork, or talking with laughter and gesture, had each that happy grace which is the last thing the skilled actor shall capture--the natural grace which goes with perfect unconsciousness of observation. Moving at will from one theatre to another, the two spectators, so far from home themselves, had something of wistfulness in their eyes as they watched a cat being stroked, a sleepy child picked up and huddled off to bed, or a tired man stretch and knock out his pipe on the end of a smouldering log.

But it was from one little window, with its blind drawn down, a mere blank transparency on the night, that the sense of home and the little curtained world within walls--the larger stressful world of outside Nature shut out and forgotten--most pulsated. Close against the white blind hung a bird-cage, clearly silhouetted, every wire, perch, and appurtenance distinct and recognisable, even to yesterday's dull-edged lump of sugar. On the middle perch the fluffy occupant, head tucked well into feathers, seemed so near to them as to be easily stroked, had they tried; even the delicate tips of his plumped-out plumage pencilled plainly on the illuminated screen. As they looked, the sleepy little fellow stirred uneasily, woke, shook himself, and raised his head. They could see the gape of his tiny beak as he yawned in a bored sort of way, looked round, and then settled his head into his back again, while the ruffled feathers gradually subsided into perfect stillness. Then a gust of bitter wind took them in the back of the neck, a small sting of frozen sleet on the skin woke them as from a dream, and they knew their toes to be cold and their legs tired, and their own home distant a weary way.

Once beyond the village, where the cottages ceased abruptly, on either side of the road they could smell through the darkness the friendly fields again; and they braced themselves for the last long stretch, the home stretch, the stretch that we know is bound to end, some time, in the rattle of the door-latch, the sudden firelight, and the sight of familiar things greeting us as long-absent travellers from far over-sea. They plodded along steadily and silently, each of them thinking his own thoughts. The Mole's ran a good deal on supper, as it was pitch-dark, and it was all a strange country for him as far as he knew, and he was following obediently in the wake of the Rat, leaving the guidance entirely to him. As for the Rat, he was walking a little way ahead, as his habit was, his shoulders humped, his eyes fixed on the straight grey road in front of him; so he did not notice poor Mole when suddenly the summons reached him, and took him like an electric shock.
The Wind in the Willows
by Kenneth Grahame


It occurs to me that all the literature of my childhood was about the same longing for home.