Tuesday, July 10, 2018

An early start

A month or so ago we went up to Norcia to see Br. Augustine make his final vows. On that joyful occasion, I chanced to meet a nice fellow who told me he was a hermit, living about a 100 km to the north. After we had chatted about this and that he said, "Oh, I know. I read your articles." This always throws me, since it means the person I'm talking to knows a great deal more about me than I do about him. (People never take this weirdness into account when they meet someone they think they "know" on the innernet. Remember, you might "know" them, but they don't know you.)

But Br. Hermit put me at my ease immediately when he said he liked the gardening posts. "More garden stuff!" was the last thing he said out the car window as we waved good bye. I am always rather sad to see that my End of the World apocalyptic writing gets a huge audience but hardly anyone reads the stuff I do about the things I actually care about personally. Oh well. We're an exclusive club, I guess. 


First view this morning, about five after six.

Bounced out of bed at six today, after a mostly recumbent and queasy day yesterday. Paused only to say three Aves and feed Little Pippin before rushing out to the garden to enjoy the first cool hours of the day. So lovely, with the sun glancing down and all the light golden and mixing with the reflections off the flowers. My second round of huge pink gladiolus are blooming.

Watered everything, trimmed some things, staked up a few more feral tomatoes, cut a bunch of sage to dry for the tea in the winter and collected a handful of squash flowers for lunch and pulled a couple of beets for soup. Was pretty great to have all the outdoor work done by eight am.

The lavender is constantly alive with bees and butterflies, and is a big favourite with the glorious little humming bird hawk moths. Found a gorgeous bright red beetle, and one incredible thing that looked like a living jewel; sort like a very tiny bee but brilliant iridescent green, orange and blue.

The new big tufa bed in the orto section. First of a planned total of five.

In my little walk around this morning I discovered one of the kitties had damaged one of my five cantaloupe plants, the only ones that started from about 20 seeds I tried, so I pulled it. Then discovered a feral cantaloupe putting forth a little fruit in the squash patch... That is, the official squash patch, not the accidental one. So that works out.

I think this winter one of our building projects will be to take the remaining small wood and build some little moveable fences, like mini-hurdles, just high enough to create separators in the beds, and to protect small plants from Pippin who thinks every new garden bed is there for him to either snooze in or pee in, depending on how much sun it gets.

The black plastic mulch around all the canteloupes is doing wonders to keep the moisture in the soil and the weeds away. But I'd like to add a row of late sunflowers and maybe try for a late crop of beet root, and it will be a bit of a trick keeping the little furry friends out of the bed until the plants are established.

Here's the other end of that big bed, built over the place that my onions came out of, and where I'd planted all my brassicas last winter. You can see the piles of organics - just woody bits and pulled weeds, trimmings etc. The heavy clay soil just won't do root veg, and I like carrots. The red onions did well, but the white ones struggled, and the carrots I did from seed directly into the native earth were a complete fail. I'm letting them go to seed now so we can try again in the raised bed with the amended soil.

Built the whole thing - I think it came to 48 tufa blocks - in two days. I had checked our weather forecast and those were the last two days of our mild early-summer weather. After that it was going to shoot up to the more normal low 30s, and I had to have a place for those poor canteloupes that had waited so patiently on the terrace all spring. So I divided it in half and will wait to fill the other half for the cool September rain. Meanwhile it's convenient to toss in the waste material. So successful have the other raised beds been, I'll probably just keep building these until I run out of tufa blocks.

To build this, I pulled all my garlic. (Yes, that's my very messy shed. I love my shed. Annamaria's dad built it in the 1950s, by hand, out of tufa blocks.) You have to cure garlic, which mostly means hanging it up in a dry, dark place for a few weeks. I've kept the leaves on because I want to try braiding a few. I don't know how but I bet there's a Youtube video.

From the new bed-behind-the-shed, where it gets full sun all day... This was a couple of weeks ago.

I sowed a row of morning glories in the back, nearly all from the seeds I'd collected off the ones on the terrace last summer, and built what turned out to be a wholly inadequate trellis out of canes. Then put in a bunch of gladiolus bulbs of different sorts, sprinkled about quite a lot of borage seeds which all leaped up with great enthusiasm, and these sunflowers - three varieties. In addition I sprinkled quite a lot of mystery seeds either from packets of "mixed" or from the jars of random seeds I'd collected on walks over the last couple of years.

Sorry about the annoying shadows. The trouble with morning glories is that by the time the light has moved around to allow you to, take better pics the flowers have all closed up for the day. Morning light is terrible for photos, but this at least gives an idea. This was a few weeks ago, before the obelisks of morning glories had reached their current towering height of eight or so feet. Their tops are now well above the level of the shed roof.

It turns out that quite a lot of what I'd sown was zinnias. I didn't even know I liked zinnias until now. So I've actually bought a few more when I saw them in the vivaio where they were getting ready to throw them out.

I also picked up a rather ragged looking pair of delphiniums, which as you can see, are doing just fine now. This was today. The pointy thing on top is a flower spike.

When I brought it all home all I did was snip off the dead stuff and the spent flowers, and they've all bounced back magnificently. I've tried to do delphiniums from seed in the past but they're one of those things with seeds like flour granules, so tiny you can barely see them, and that are horribly fussy about germinating.

These were on sale because I think they had finished doing their first batch of flowers, but the vivaio lady - whose hobby, apparently, is languages and whose English is almost native - said they're just fine. Nothing wrong with them, but most people aren't real gardeners so they only buy flowers while they're blooming and then pull them up and toss them when they finish! Extraordinary! (What is wrong with modern people anyway?) I put one in at each end of the bed and they're doing fine. No idea how to look after them, so I'll have to do some delphinium reading. All I know is they're tall, blue, very pretty and perennial.

I love before and after pics, so here's the bed as it was when I built it in the winter. I didn't take a pic but before I did this there was a whole bunch of stuff to clear away - just old tomato canes, bits of wood, bricks and tiles and a dead bicycle. The spot had been used to store old woody material for a very long time it seems, because the soil was noticeably more organic-y than the rest. I filled it up with more organic stuff and then a dozen buckets of compost soil. I figured it would do well. (You can see little bits of snow in this pic. I think this was February when we had a cold snap.)

 Strawbs doing wonderfully in this wattle bed. They're so good I think next year I'm going to do the whole thing in nothing but strawberries.

 Here's peppers, beets and clover in an experimental round wattle bed. The soil is fantastic, a foundation of a big pile of pulled weeds, covered in a good seven inches of compost soil. When I planted out the peppers there were so many worms I had trouble clearing a space. But the wattle doesn't retain water very well, and the peppers don't like to compete with the clover.

The peppers in the beds with the solid sides, made of terra cotta roofing tiles, are doing dramatically better. The beets seem to like the wattle just fine though, so that's OK; it's all about the learning.

 Little visitor. I think he's moved in and built a house under the pile of dead sticks by the south wall. He was almost completely unafraid of me. I came right up and gently (carefully) petted him with one finger. (Yes, there's something wrong with his eye. It's a rough and tumble life, being a hedgehog.)

 A month ago, when it was at its very height. Strawberries, california poppy, some red thing I haven't identified and a big mass of second-growth chamomile, with sweet peas in the corner climbing up my obelisk. In front are pansies that I put in the planters back in February but which, astonishingly, are still going now, even in the hot weather. I think it's because everything else is providing them with some shade.

Was so happy to see these little nigella sativa flowers come up. I collected the seeds for them in Norcia ages ago. These have finished now and are producing beautiful seed pods. Worthy of a botanical drawing by themselves. Certainly one of our prettiest wildflowers.

Day lillies also did well this year. Finished now. Here they are at their height June 15. Hoping now that they've settled into their new bed they'll start to really spread out. I found them on the side of the road in Norcia, dug them up and put them in a pot. They were among the few survivors of the move.

Second batch of glads coming into bloom in the Big Round Bed in the Middle. Just noticed the pic is a bit out of focus. I'll see if I can get a better one when the sun is a bit less harsh.

There's more coming. A friend came over for a nice long weekend a couple of weeks ago, and we put in all the rest of the bulbs. Annamaria said they probably won't flower this year. Maybe not. But you never know. They're already sprouting though.

For some reason, it had not occurred to me that acanthus would produce seeds. It was silly of course, since it produces these lovely flower spikes.

Not really knowing how to compost properly has really paid off. The hugelkultur beds that I top-dressed with my own half-finished compost back in March, I think, all sprouted feral pumpkin and tomato plants, and a lot of rain in the spring and early summer has provided me with a bumper crop. I'm picking them green and small and eating them (see below). So sweet!

Here's the official squash bed, a hugel berm with a lot of buried woody material and green compostables. I didn't finish it until early May, and used it for all the squash I'd bought and started on purpose from seed. Since then I have top dressed it with my famous feral-seed dense home made compost, and all manner of feral things have popped up.

Including, apparently, a completely unexpected canteloupe, that is so far the only one with any sign of fruit.

The yellow zucchinis were a great purchase, one of the few veg seedlings I bought this year. Beautiful fruit and very sweet. And lots of it. I've picked at least one a day since it started.

The grape and morning glory arbour is the part of the garden I'm most pleased with, I think. I had the idea in January to build this trellis and put it behind the bench. I planned to sow one side with morning glories and the sunny side with climbing beans. Then behind the grape vine I built a little trellis out of small wood, just by sinking the sticks directly into the soft earth. I figured it would dry and that would cement the sticks in good and proper, and when the vine got bigger I could use that as a base and add to it as needed.

Turns out it was sort of needed...

More fun before n' after pics:

Here's the first trellis and the bench in January.

Here it is in May, from the sunny side, with the beans coming up and the little morning glories just starting. In the lower right corner you can just see the hugel berm, the "official" squash bed.

You can see from this pic that I had dug this out as a trench and buried a lot of organics, starting with wood. Hugelkultur is definitely the way to go with the clay soil. Later, a few bricks  along the edge hold in the top dressing I put on later when it was obvious the clover wasn't going to take. The bricks also hold the water in the bed.

After the season is finished, I'm going to build up the sides a bit higher and pile in more un-composted greens and bury these with compost soil, doing a "lasagna" bed to add nutrients and organics. No-dig and buried organics - it's making a huge difference in soil fertility, worm-sign, water retention, aeration and friability. It's the only way to go with heavy clay soil.

This was a month ago, taken from the other end, and showing the squash berm on the lower left. In the background on the left you can see the early stages of the second grape trellis.

In front of the beans there was just enough room to fit the last of my red peppers - all of which I bought as seedlings.

Here's the little grape trellis with the vines just starting, in May, that forms the corner of the "house," the square of the enclosed garden.

Behind this you can see my big grey bucket, and behind that you can see the other, slightly less prolific, grape vine getting started.

This is a month later. You can see where I've started to build on to the whole thing, and started to connect it all up with the other beds and trellises. Had to remember to include two little "gates".

From inside the "house," June 15.

This is the same spot this morning. It doesn't show much in this photo, but the whole thing that makes the arch is leaning ominously in towards the centre. It's a good thing these trellises have all been built with new, green material I cut myself this year or the whole thing would be too brittle to handle the weight, and come crashing inwards. This winter is obviously going to be spent building some very substantial trellises.

Here it all is from the sunny side. On the left is the second grape vine growing upwards, a different variety, that I trellised up quite a bit later, as it wasn't growing quite so madly. But it's all linking together now, like green rooms of a house. On the lower right is the squash berm, and in the upper  middle is the bean side of the trellis. (Which, disappointingly, is producing very few actual beans thus far... Never mind...)

The angled wooden bits are the start of a new, lean-to trellis I'm going to start this evening to give the squash something to climb, since it's getting to the viney stage too. I was testing the strength of the uprights of the original trellis - that were two sides of an ancient, hand-made wooden ladder. It all started to lean inwards, so I've propped it up with more tufa blocks on the other side and it looks much happier.

All this really reminds me of how valuable it is to let children build forts. All of this is just my old fort-building hobby coming back.

I keep going back and looking at the photos I took of the Big Dry Patch a few days after I moved here. This is what years and years of rototilling heavy clay does. Moonscape. This was April 18th or so, it should at least have been a riot of weeds. Don't rototill clay! Just don't do it.

~ * ~

I'm getting used to the climate.

My old British Columbian friends will be horrified when I say that this summer has been MUCH better because it has been "only down" in the low thirties after a very mild May and June - mainly in the mid-twenties. But this is a huge improvement over last summer when the temps shot up to 35 in mid-May and climbed a bit higher every day for the next 16 weeks - and not a single drop of rain. We had a lot of days between 38 and 43. (You'll have to Google the conversions. I can't do Farenheit in my head anymore.)

The summer of 2017 was a record, highest temps and longest drought in 150 years. The Italian agriculture industry lost 2 billion Euros by the end of June. We got no soft fruits here other than the figs, no pears, plums, peaches or apricots, and my cherry tree died after the heat triggered a blackfly infestation. A nasty cold snap in April killed all the grapes and then the heat got everything else. Following the earthquakes the summer before it was loudly wondered if this was God punishing Italy for its loss of the Faith. I personally think this apocalyptic mood influenced the subsequent election.

I've mostly acclimated, and the climate in Umbria is drier than the coast, so we don't have that horrible humidity. But you have a system for things, and you organise your life according to the heat. In fact, it's more like you organise the heat. 

This is the rhythm of the summer days, a life lived without artificial cooling systems: 

Up at six is a good idea. Five-thirty is better for praying a bit of Office over your coffee. It's a lovely, breezy 18 degrees out and this time of year the birds are starting about 5 am. By nine the sun is blaring down and its time to retreat indoors. By noon you have to go around the house closing the windows, and at three you have to close all the shutters on the south-west side of the house as the sun comes roaring around the corner.

On really hot days, you hang opaque cloth over the metal shutters, which the afternoon sun turns into barbecue grills - I have a bunch of cotton hall runners I bought at the dollar store that fit quite nicely over the shutters, held in place with clothes pegs - and you make sure everything stays tightly battened down. Any breeze coming in will be like the open door of an oven. The house between 4 pm and 7:30 is like a tomb, but lovely and cool and very restful. The walls are 20 inch thick stone, so any heat getting in is coming through the windows. In fact, if you close the shutters and windows in the afternoon and put your hand on the glass you can feel the heat. Without the cloths it can be like turning the radiators on.

You eat your pranzo between one and three, and then you have a rest or you do quiet things indoors. At six or so you go back outside to do whatever needs doing in the garden, feed whatever animals need feeding, and then go socialise outside with your neighbours. This is the hour of the Aperitivo and the Passeggiata - the time to go to town and stroll up and down the main street with family, greeting friends, have a nice drink at the bar between five and seven. (I don't usually do this, being a bit more keen on quiet solitude, but in Norcia it's a very big deal, the time when the whole community is together.)

At about quarter to eight you open everything up again in the house, and at about 9:15 - a little later every day until June 21 and then a minute or two earlier until December - the Night Bell rings from San Fortunato up on the hill, letting all the farm workers know that the day is done and it's time to go have dinner.

This is the agricultural time table that has created Italian culture. It is this, possibly more than any other thing, that has helped preserve the Italian way of life. It is still observed in the country, and is the reason for the odd shop opening hours that drive tourists to distraction. One does not keep one's shop open in the afternoon. That's when you're supposed to be snoozing away the hottest part of the day.

So, now it's 1:30 and I'm inside...

Anna told me to pick as many pears as I like. The tree was very fruitful this year. The pears are small, and you have to pick them green or they fall and then the ants get them. But they do ripen very nicely on the kitchen sideboard, and they are just heavenly when they're ready.

(Lots of figs this year too, but ripening much later than last year.)

Cut and hung up a bit of sage, towards the winter sage jar. Quite a lot more to come. Sage and mint tea in the winter is a staple pick-me-up. On the right is dill, from the feral seeds in the terrace pots.

Harvest of the last couple of days. I didn't do aubergines or cukes this year, but Annamaria always has extra and often drops by with a handful of lovely things. I don't think I've bought a single vegetable other than a few onions and some mushrooms in over a year. The freezer's still more or less full up, mainly with brassicas and pomodori.

My odd gardening habits, with mixed raised beds, flowers and veg all bunched in together, seem very strange and chaotic to the locals. But they are farmers and I'm not. They traditionally concentrate on growing as much food as possible in the season to stock up, and are often either feeding an extended family or selling produce locally. They plant directly into the soil after tilling out an orto patch, irrigate twice a day, and plant in rows to produce as efficiently possible.

For just me though, producing a little bit here and a little bit there is enough. I'm not really doing this to prepare for the Apocalypse (not yet, at any rate) and if I want carrots I can just go to the shop and buy them. This garden is much more for growing me. It's the "Labora" part of my Ora et Labora. My work has me looking at a screen all day; if I didn't have something to do with my muscles out of doors, I'd just turn into a blob, my brain would melt and my soul wither.

And even so, I have more than I really know what to do with. So, I've been having a bit of fun deep frying things lately...

Just a little bit of snacks for elevensies. These are the male flowers. You just pinch them off early in the morning when they open. Slice them in half lengthwise...

...roll them thoroughly in a bit of egg and milk mixture... (yes, that's an ice cream tub)...

... dredge in a little flour seasoned with salt and pepper, and pop them in the hot oil.

I did them with a few slices of green pumpkin and they all pair nicely with some mint, lemon balm and Darjeeling tea.


Last but not least...

Obligatory kitty pics:

Trimmed the fig tree and put the leaves on the old door to dry in the sun. No nicer place for a snooze, Henry thinks...

Bertie knows perfectly well that only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the mid-day sun, and he is neither of those.

Nothing from Pippy today; the last time I saw him he was shooting out of the house an hour ago with what looked like a house sparrow in his mouth. I made no further inquiries.


Gertie and I getting ready to take our friend back to the village to catch her bus back down to Rome.


btw: I've just discovered the best online second hand book shop in the whole world. World of Books. It's amazing. Books for three and four pounds, and a flat rate international shipping rate of 2 £.

And they take PayPal

I'm doomed.

It's been ages since I've bought books as a regular thing. I'm catching up. They've been arriving every couple of days.

I've been looking for a good 1st year Botany text for ages, but they were all ranging about 60+ Euros. This was £4 or so. And I realised I haven't had the full set of the Narnia books at home for decades.


I leave you with the Office, since it's time for None.

(Couldn't find a nice version of the None ferial hymn on YT, so Terce will have to do...)

From the Office Hymn for Terce (ferial)

Rector potens, verax Deus
Qui temperas rerun vices,
Splendore mane instruis,
Et ignibus meridiem.

Extingue flammas litium
Aufer calorem noxium,
Conver salutem corporum,
Veramque pacem cordium.

Praesta Pater Piisime,
Patrique compar unice,
Cum Spiritu Paraclito,
Regnans per omne saeculum...


Ad te levavi oculos meos, qui habitas in caelis...