Tuesday 19 September 2017

Rain in the main

(This blog post covers the period of 4-17 September 2017.)

The last fortnight seems to have taken us well and truly into autumn. While temperatures remain in the low to mid 20sC during the daytime, we are now regularly waking up to mist-covered hills (sometimes even no view at all, a complete white-out until the breeze moves the cloud on) and the sound of rain doing anything from gently pattering on the skylight to full-on deafening hammering.

After what felt like the longest, hottest, driest summer we've ever experienced, it seems like a series of challenges trying to remember how to dress appropriately for cooler, wetter weather; trying to time the laundry cycles to coincide with brief spells of sunshine to dry the washing on the line; trying to recall our fire-lighting skills; and we're back to the autumn/winter battle of forever wiping up muddy paw prints from the floor before turning around and finding fresh ones where we've just wiped...

But we are embracing the autumnal weather, loving the fresher, damper smell of the air, and the magical, atmospheric views that the clouds and mist create.

Sunshine after the rain.

Magical mists.

More cloud and mist and rain.

Mist rising.

24h of rainfall.

On the left - bottled water. On the right - tap water the morning after the mother of all storms. Which would you prefer?

Suddenly it's this time of year again.

The cyclamens are out in force.

Hawthorn berries.
We've been amazed and pleased to see that the vetiver we planted a couple of weeks ago seems to be enjoying the autumnal weather and is already showing signs of growth - we never got around to getting the irrigation set up for them (the pipe you see in the photo is not plumbed into anything), but as it happened we didn't need it!

We are already seeing some growth in the vetiver.

A cm or two of new growth on some of the plants.
In between the rain, various computer-based work duties, and some lovely social evenings with Mara, Franco & Donatella (at ours for a Thai curry); with Paul, Veronica, Donatella, David & Sarah (at Paul & Veronica's for an amazing beef/salmon dinner courtesy of Paul); and with Samantha & Mario (at Mario's nephew's restaurant in the pretty mountain village of Cutigliano about an hour's drive away - such a treat!), Stuart started work on replacing part of the flue of the main wood burner and repairing the plasterwork above it, we had a mammoth joint effort at spring (ok autumn) cleaning our own room (the one room in the house that always tends to lose out on any cleaning efforts!), and we've completed the new herb garden.

New piece of flue in place.
Spring (autumn) clean!

Work progressing on the herb garden.
We also did some end of the season tidying in the orto at the weekend, cutting down the spent plants - although there are still veggie growing, and we picked beetroots, aubergines, peppers, tomatoes, lettuce and even a perfectly ripe melon. We also harvested the seeds from our enormous sunflower heads - and probably have enough to keep the birds happy this winter!

Stunning head of sunflower seeds.

Nature's beautiful geometric patterns.

Should be enough to keep the bird feeders topped up this winter!

The week ahead promises to have a little more dry weather and sunshine in store (after a wet start, that is) so we're hoping for a little more opportunity to get outside and get stuck in!

Despite the cooler weather (and perhaps because of the damper conditions) there are still mosquitoes around - and it turns out the cats don't like to be bothered by mozzies either!

Big hands!
In tummy-rubbing seventh heaven.

Experimenting with boundary games.

End of the week aperitivo.

Wednesday 6 September 2017

Signs of a change in season

(This blog post covers 28 Aug to 3 Sept 2017.)

The last week was mainly, once again, heads down at computers (both of us this time) and not a lot of interest to write about – it’s just that time of year (roll on late autumn when we have fewer office-based duties and more time to spend being outdoors!).

Having said that, we took steps towards preventing our drive from slipping down the hill, had a fun night out with friends at one of our local restaurants, finished our winter woodpile and made a long overdue check of our bees.

The fantastically fun and irreverent Manolo Strimpelli Nait Orkestra playing at an evening of music and food at our local Da Carla restaurant.

For the time being, our driveway is perfectly safe and stable. While some visitors arrive at the house end of the drive looking pale and exclaiming how terrifying the 250m journey from gate to house has been (indeed we have had some visitors get out and walk along the drive in front of the car to make sure their partner in the driving seat doesn’t veer off road), our drive really IS one of the easiest, best surfaced and least perilous access routes we know of. In fact, the ease of access and "easy driveway" was one of the many plus points we listed for this house when we were looking at properties.

Nevertheless, it is built into the side of the hill, which means there is a drop on one side, and with the heavy rains we get here, we know that a lot of soil, stones and debris regularly gets washed away down the hill. Clearly, having a landslide on that side of the drive would take most of the driveway with it, leaving us with no access and the enormous cost of reconstruction. With this in mind, we have been looking at ways to properly stabilise things before they become unstable
It was for this reason that Stuart and our friend Paul headed out to Massa, on the coast, this week, to go and buy 200 plugs of vetiver. You may have heard of vetiver as the essential oil that is used in perfumes, aftershaves and other sweet-smelling products, but this amazing plant has another string to its bow: thanks to its incredibly long roots (up to 3m), it is pretty adept at binding and stabilising soil and preventing erosion. We first found this out from our good friends Mara and Franco, who had bought some plugs a couple of years ago and have a small hedge of vetiver growing at their house. Intrigued, we had followed it up, researched, and read a lot of reports of its successful use all over the world.

So vetiver forms dense hedges, which help to reduce run-off, while the roots go down deep and bind the soil. Meanwhile, it can survive drought conditions and very wet conditions, is non-invasive, doesn’t compete with other plants for water and nutrients, is fire-resistant when green, and apparently the oil in the roots acts as a deterrent to burrowing rodents (hmm, vetiver edges around the veg beds next then?). Some sort of super-plant!

Long roots! On the left, a vetiver four months after planting; on the right one year after planting.
Disappointingly we couldn't detect even the faintest scent - other than earth - from the roots of this lot!

After having made the trip to Massa to visit our local certified vetiver supplier (of which there are only two in the country), Paul went home and planted his along the top of a bank on which he and Kathy had already had some land-slippage, while Stuart spent the next couple of days moving all of the wood that we had been accumulating along the edge of the drive since last winter.

All of the wood along the side of the drive needs to be cut and moved to the storage area in the quarry.

Tractor loaded.

.. and at the end of the day, a brand new wood pile thanks to Stuart's mammoth efforts!

With the wood moved, Stuart was able to lay out an irrigation pipe he’d ordered specially for the vetiver, and then place the plugs at the required spacing all the way along the drive.

Reggie checks they are all in the right place... and in a straight line.

After having found that it required quite some effort to get the plugs into his own ground, Paul very kindly offered to come with Kathy to give us a hand planting the 200 plants we needed to get in along the drive, so the four of us spent a couple of hours religiously digging, soaking, and planting and working our way slowly from the gate back to the house until we had a drive full of vetiver.

Team vetiver planting!

Now we wait for them to grow and take hold!

After having made great strides with our winter wood pile last weekend, we were determined to get it finished (or what we hope is finished – it all depends of course on how cold the winter turns out to be as to whether or not we have split and stacked enough to last the whole wood-burning season), so at the weekend we spent another couple of hours cutting, splitting and stacking wood to top the pile up to what we hope is the finished version.

One man and his wood pile...

...or is it actually mine?

We also decided – finally – to make a check of our bees. Something we have been meaning to do for, well, months. The bees were certainly all there, but there was a stark lack of any honey. We need to do some research and asking of experts to find out what may have gone on for this to be the case. So we were pleased to have checked the bees if disappointed to find nothing to harvest!

We finally had some rain at the weekend, although nowhere near as much as we were expecting, but temperatures have certainly seen a drop. It quite literally feels as if a switch has been flipped and we are now in autumn - it's quite incredible how suddenly it seems to have happened and already it seems hard to remember the stifling, intense heat that we were still enduring just a week or 10 days ago. We are still getting temperatures of 24-28C during the daytime, and in the sunshine things really heat up, but the smell in the air has changed to an autumnal one, the nights are drawing in and we’ve had a handful of cooler mornings and evenings. A sign of things to come!