Saturday, May 12, 2018

Before and After: some gardening pics

Steve has kindly posted the piece I did on the medieval "Hortus Conclusus" - a surprisingly complex and multi-layered concept that combines practical gardening techniques with monastic mysticism.

Hortus Conclusus: My Medieval Garden, Inauthenticity, and The Real

in which we find connections between medieval gardens, Byzantine carved onyx chalices, the Venetian Trinket Principle and Cardinal Dolan at the Met Gala...

"The first time I went to Venice by myself I must have taken 1000+ pictures. As everyone is, I was overwhelmed by the Realness of Venice. I was in a kind of panic to take some of that essence of Realness home with me. But when I got home I didn’t know what to do with a thousand pictures. This, I suppose, is a useful analogy for the Church too. We saw the Venetian Trinket Principle at work at the vulgar spectacle of that Met Gala that happened while I was looking at medieval carved stones in Venice. One of the worst, most embarrassing, aspects of it was the grinning presence of those Catholic prelates, men who appear to be just as duped by the lies of the modern world as the celebrities dressed up as the Virgin Mary. These are supposed to be the men who carry the Ultimate Real with them to offer to the world, but they’ve forgotten somehow."

Anyway. Steve only posted a few pics of the garden, and I love before and after and how-to kinds of things. So, here's a few more...

The Big Dry Patch, shortly after I moved in.
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The same spot in mid-February this year

Taken yesterday afternoon from just about the same spot.

I have about 200 square meters. When I moved here the patch had been left dormant for several years, and its clay soil that had been rototilled every spring and autumn for many years had baked into an impenetrable grey brick in which absolutely nothing was growing except the trees and a few very hardy and determined weeds. This is because of the typical Italian contadina style of vegetable gardening that leaves large patches of soil bare, which also wastes a great deal of water - an issue which made us all nervous last summer as the drought brought the well level down.

It works well in good years for the purpose of growing typical Italian orto favourites: tomatoes, squash, aubergines and fava beans. Soil fertility isn't really an issue here, especially if you're growing just the usual Italian favourites, legumes, nightshades and brassicas. My own brassicas - fibonacci broccoli, white cauliflower, cime di rapa and Tuscan black kale, did wonderfully this winter (the red cabbage not so much). But if you like root vegetables (except for aliums) it's hopeless. My poor carrots tried... they really did.

And if you like an English style mixed garden of herbs and flowers you have to do quite a lot of work, because really only raised beds and careful soil amendment will produce the results. So, almost as soon as I got here, (and mainly as a form of mental therapy) I started digging. Prozac might work for some people, but I've found one of the best anti-depressants/anti-anxiety drugs is dirt. And of course, for exercise, little can beat lifting tufa blocks, pulling weeds and taking huge overhead swings at the earth with an iron mattock.

The trouble this garden had is that top-tilling destroys the soil's natural substructure. I've been reading Roger Brook, an advocate of the no-dig method who explained how clay soil works:

Soil structure is not just much loved crumbs in a handful of soil, it belongs to the whole soil profile.  A good soil is honeycombed with channels, cracks and connections through which air and water can move. Worms wriggle and spread organic fertility. Worm-casts accumulate on the surface to enable a fine tilth. A firm settled surface gives the gardener access in all kinds of weather without causing compaction. Most of the gardening world confuses a firm settled surface with compaction!

There are various methods to improving this kind of soil, and I'm trying a combination of things to see what works best. Part of the orto (vegetable patch) I'm just leaving as is, and planting direct into the native soil - several rows of onions and garlic, as well as a great crop of coriander are doing very well. And as I said, my brassicas loved this soil and I have a freezer full of broccoli and cauliflower and other greens to last all summer. Tomatoes also love it (though I'm taking it easy on poms this year, since I've still got about 30 pounds in the freezer).

But I'm also building small raised beds - and learning wattling techniques - that I'm filling partly with pulled weeds. This wattle bed, one of two, started life as a pile of pulled weeds from around the garden. I just raked it all up into a pile and put in the stakes around it, did the wattle and then filled with Annamaria's family compost.

A few days ago, I dug into the soil and there were so many worms it was difficult to find a spot safe to dig down. Worms are a rarity in the native soil, so this is obviously a good sign.

Did the second, smaller one,  at the end of March, and a rectangular one on the end with sides built of terracotta roofing tiles. (Ran out of fruit pruning sticks.)

Here they are all planted out with peppers and some marigolds. The twigs between the plants are to discourage the kitties... we've got eleven cats here. No mice. I've sown a lot of ground cover white clover so when the seeds start sprouting you can take the twigs away and it looks much nicer.

I've also been trying Hugelkultur, a very old method of building raised beds in which you bury a great deal of woody and green matter and pile the native soil up on top.

After I built the tufa block wall, I thought it would be fun to grow a row of sunflowers and put in some climbing morning glories to create a kind of flowery fourth wall of the square garden. But looking at the very hard clay soil I thought the flowers would have difficulties rooting, so took this as a chance to try the hugel bed method.

The logs were already sitting around on the Patch, and obviously had been for a long time. Half rotted logs are perfect. The idea is that they absorb water in the wet season and hold it like a sponge that the plants can then use through the drier spells. The wood breaks down and adds organic matter and nutrients to the soil over a long period.

Then you cover it over with smaller woody material, dried leaves, dried grasses and weeds. This is the carbon layer. This is covered over with half-rotted green compost for lots of nitrogen.

Then you replace the soil, top dress with finished compost, and sow it all over with a ground cover - white clover produces good shade leaf cover, meshes well, is drought resistant and as a nitrogen-fixing legume adds nutrients to the soil. To this I added wildflower mix, lots and lots of morning glory seeds and sunflowers - that have nice long tap roots. Then I put in my trellises, built from Annamaria's fruit tree prunings.

And this is what it looks like today. The large plants are squashes (mystery squash) that started from seeds that had failed to completely break down in the winter compost. There are quite a few "wild" squashes and tomatoes too. (Obviously I'm going to have to up my composting game.)

I've decided to leave the squash where they are, and take care of the rest of the patch by putting down some black plastic mulch. This will protect whatever fruit comes along, and suppress weeds and give me some time to think about what I'm going to do with the rest of this section.

I'm just very pleased with the results overall.

It's producing exactly the lush effect I was hoping for.

Here's the second hugel berm, a 1/4 circle around the base of the hazel tree.

A big part of medieval gardening technique is to completely cover the soil. Every inch should be covered either with plants or ground cover or mulch or a combination of all three. The white clover is doing a great job of this, and I can already see great improvement in soil quality where it has taken well. It doesn't like sprouting directly in the clay, however. Takes quite a lot of coaxing. More boosting for top dressing everything with compost.

Medieval garden design, based on the atrium gardens of Roman houses, always have a square layout of narrow, rectangular low raised beds surrounding a round central feature. In my case the beautiful loquat tree Annamaria's mother planted 15 years ago was the obvious place to start. You can see it to the left in the first pic of the Big Dry Patch.

I started the Big Round Bed right away, but we got hit by the Horrible Heat Wave - 16 weeks of awful African wind blowing the whole world into a new desert all summer - and pretty much all outdoor work ceased.

But a friend came to visit in September and we were able to get it finished. The blocks are tufa and instead of top dressing, we mixed compost into the native clay soil, something I wouldn't do now.

I planted a few herbs - thyme, majoram, a lavender, some rockweed, bought from the shop and saved from the garden in Norcia, and put in daffodil bulbs in bunches in November, scattered it all over with dead leaves and waited.

As the "winter" progressed, I transplanted a lot of things we found here and there - lots of chamomile which grows wild here and starts coming up in January, some wild calendula, white campion and melissa, field poppies, lesser celandine (that in Italian are called "buttone d'oro") salvia and a few rows of garlic, and all did very well. In the long planters are some white onions from starts.

All the transplants had a good winter to settle in, and I set about building the rest of the beds, defining the space, and laying down a lot of wood chip mulch. At first the pacciame was to deal with the muddy clay soil which was a pain to walk on. Then I started reading about how wood chip mulch is the solution to all your problems, especially if you have heavy clay. So now I'm looking around to find a more practical large volume source. It's great stuff, but a 40 L bag doesn't go very far and they're 8 Euros a piece. I really just need a truck load. There's a firewood lady who brings me my stove wood who might be a good person to ask. There's also a horse farm up the hill a bit and I'm willing to bet Annamaria knows them.

Here it is about three weeks ago.

And here it is today.

By the end of March there was quite a change. The basic layout of the garden was finished, and the beds had been settling. The foreground here was just built straight into the native soil around three young grape vines. Into this I added about 40 garlic plants. The two rectangular beds on the left are filled with finished compost from the Pettirossi family compost pile, a hundred years old. They're planted with a mix of flowers and herbs,

The same spot two months later.

and a patch of strawberries.

The area behind the shed and right in front of the grape/garlic bed, was just piled up with old tomato canes, bits of wood and odds and ends. I cleared all this away and built a large tufa-block bed. It gets full sun all day so it's where I'm going to put all  my sun-loving tall flowers, sunflowers, hollyhocks, foxgloves and gladiolus.

Along the back wall of the property, I had already put a bed in for the acanthus that you can see behind this. I've started a brick path in a traditional layout, but this is something of an ongoing project.

Here's a little corner of it today, with the transplanted field poppy doing nicely, and glads coming up. Must finish the trellis before the morning glories get too big.

The whole thing is sown with flower seeds. For some reason I've not had my usual good luck with the nasturtiums. I keep putting them in and niente. But everything else is sprouting.

The sandy gravel path divides the ornamental "hortus conclusus" from the orto. Of course, weeds were not nearly as deterred by it as I had hoped. But I still think it looks quite nice... in a rustico sort of way.

The orto section is another matter, and hasn't had nearly the attention I've given the first bit. But I'm starting to think about it and make some plans. But digging in tufa blocks or even the thin terracotta roofing tiles for raised beds isn't something you can do in the warm season. The clay soil bakes so hard that even the mattock bounces right off. I've been able to dig it a bit, since we've had some rain, and by dumping buckets of water on the bits I want to dig, but building beds is a winter activity, so we're pretty much done for the season.

There are advantages to clay. The fibonacci broccoli loved it, and it's one of my all-time favourite vegetables, so there's going to be a lot more of it from now on. I'm going to leave a good bit of the orto as it is, planted in rows in the traditional Italian way. Though I think I'll also take Charles Dowding's methods and start loading compost on top, as well as burying green matter in patches, which also seems to work well.

Just separating off sections and dealing with the soil in patches, and mulching heavily around the patches and beds, seems to be the best strategy.

Here's my first round wattle - olive branches - in early March. I put it up around the rhubarb, at the base of the plum tree, so it wouldn't get stepped on as it was sprouting. At some point rhubarb needs to have its root divided, so when it comes to digging it up it will be a chance to give it its own raised bed.

But for now it seems happy enough where it is.

Built quite a lot of trellises out of the fruit tree prunings.

Grapes are doing well too. We had a bad sharp frost late in April last year, just as the fruiting plants were putting out flowers, so no one got any grapes. Then the drought ruined all the soft fruits. So far much better luck this year. No late frost and a good generous mix of rain and sun. Annamaria says these are purple table grapes, and there's lots of little sprouts already.

The first side bed. Sown with sweet peas, but they've been very reluctant to germinate. Apparently this is quite common. I'm going to have to step up my seed-starting game too.

After. I'll have to cut the chamomile today. There's a little miniature rose in there somewhere that isn't getting much light.

The most recent project was this third large hugel berm, in the sunniest spot, for cukes, zucchini, pumpkins and cantaloupes. There's a lot of hardwood in a trench, a good 10 inches deep, and then a layer of dried grass cuttings, pulled weeds, half finished compost and several buckets of finished compost.

In front of this I'm going to put up a lean-to trellis so the fruit won't sit on the ground.

It's right behind this trellis, which on one side is morning glories, and the other is pole beans. In front of the pole beans will be just enough room for the last of my red peppers.

And that's about it so far.

Except for the obligatory kitty-pics...

Henry and Pippy have discovered there's a bird's nest under the roof tiles of the shed.

Bertie inspecting the new canes, ready to be put up on the terrace for the morning glory trellis.


A beautiful evening last night.