Tuesday 24 April 2018

Spring - or summer?

I am happy to report that spring has definitely made an appearance and {lowering voice to a whisper} winter really does seem to have packed its bags and left until next time. In fact, we have even already had a taste of summer - although we'd really quite like a bit more of spring first before temperatures reach the too-hot-to-handle stage. We have switched from lighting the log burner indoors to lighting the fire pit outdoors under the pergola, and from having the front door permanently closed to pinning it open for the fresh air and warmth, with outdoor temperatures now exceeding indoor ones - such a rapid turnaround!

Happily, the very definite switch to the warmer weather coincided with a visit from our good friends The Richardsons (Virginia and Ben and their three delightful girls Isabel, Erin and Megan) for a long weekend. We were pleased both that the good weather afforded us the flexibility to pick and choose activities, whether indoor or outdoor, and that our friends got to enjoy some good weather and plenty of fresh air and sunshine on their mini-holiday.

We packed a lot into their short stay including a visit to Naturalitas, the fete at the local agricultural college; a walk around Vellano; chestnut pancakes at the necci festival in San Quirico; a walk by the river; ice creams; a barbecue; and we even had a short evening pilates class on the apartment lawn courtesy of Virginia!

Pony rides for the very happy Richardson girls.

In the week following the Richardsons' visit, the weather seemed to turn from spring to summer, the mercury hit 30C and we found ourselves scorching in the sunshine while trying to get work done.

Stuart's birthday came just before the better weather (and The Richardsons) turned up - while some might be disappointed by having a rainy day birthday, for us it was the perfect excuse to chill out and not feel guilty about not working. We went out for a delicious fish lunch at a fish restaurant in Pescia, had a couple of post-lunch spritzes, and were taken for a lovely evening at the local wine bar with friends.

Birthday boy.
Birthday seafood ravioli.

Birthday fritti misti.

Birthday spritzes.

We managed to find time in amongst everything else to plant the 21 new olive trees that we had bought from our friend Luca at the agricultural college. These trees have been used to teach the students the process of grafting, and now that the grafting process has been done, they have no use for them, which is why we ended up with bargain trees - which we know have even already fruited.

21 small trees doesn't look like a huge amount - but let me tell you that traipsing back and forth between the terraces to plant them really is quite a lot of work, especially in the warm sunshine! Thankfully we managed to get all 21 trees into the back of the tractor so that we could at least let the tractor take the strain and get them to a point on the upper donkey track from which we only had to carry them through the trees and down onto the top terraces. That in itself was quite the workout!

Having learned our lesson the hard way and lost our almond tree to deer damage, we made sure to protect all the new arrivals with cylinders of fencing, which hopefully should do the trick.

21 olive trees on the move.

The tractor took the strain to take the new trees up to the top of the terraces via the donkey track through the woods.


Planted.. and protected against deer damage with a tube of fencing around each tree.

Hot work in the sunshine.

Our English evenings at the local club seem to have had a sudden surge of interest, with record numbers a fortnight ago and last night (which was the next scheduled English evening) almost as many, and including a couple more new faces. The evenings always feel slightly chaotic, and we never know how many people to expect (so 7 turning up was a bit of a shock, albeit a pleasant one), or what levels of English to expect, so it's hard to plan anything in advance, but we muddle through pretty well, I think (especially with the help of our friends Paul & Kathy and David & Sarah, who often come along for moral support as well as extra English speakers to spread around!) and I like to think that everyone has a good time - it's always nice to see people coming back for more!

We had a record turnout for our English evening at the circolo.

It was a relief that our friends Paul & Kathy and David & Sarah had also come along!

It was great to see several new faces.

The rest of the last fortnight has been a hive of activity for us as, alongside our usual work hours, we put time in trying to get the terraces all strimmed for the first time this year - finally completing the lot this weekend after a total of around 15-16 (wo)/man hours - getting all the olive trees pruned and the prunings all tidied up, and we had a fantastic community day at David & Sarah's house where Stuart and I worked on clearing their lowermost terraces of bramble, while Sarah & Kathy worked on burning through their pile of olive prunings and bamboo, and Paul & David worked on putting some tyre steps into their terraces - hours of hard graft in the hot sunshine all rewarded with a huge feed up in the form of a barbecue with plentiful beer and wine and good humour. Such a great way to spend the day.

The worst part of the first strim of the year is that there are some REALLY long and tough bits of tufty grass. Believe it or not, this is the best I could get these two terraces. The grass seems to play a game where it just whirls around the stimmer head and gets no shorter. Infuriating.

...and that's what you're left with after pruning 80+ olive trees. Now we have to turn our attention to getting rid of it all, either by chipping it or burning it - or a bit of both.

The warm weather and sunshine has given us an appetite for fresh food and big salads. With wild sorrel literally littering the terraces (there are some advantages to not having got around to strimming as early as we'd have liked!), as well as wild fennel, and herbs springing back to life in the herb garden, it's a joy to put big bowls of tasty freshness together and eat them in the sunshine.

Warm weather calls for giant tasty salads - using wild sorrel, wild fennel and home produced olive oil.
...and another one. They're so pretty I can't resist taking photographs!

Reggie finally gets to use "his" flower bed.
Annual iris photo.

And a new iris - this was given to us by our friend Luca when he delivered the olive trees we'd bought. A beautiful dark purple one - my favourite.

After a long morning's strimming, we treated ourselves to a trip out to the other side of the valley to look back at our handiwork.

Beautiful apple(?) blossom.

And there it is.

Quite an expanse of cleared terraces really!

Pietrabuona from a different angle. We almost felt as if we were on holiday and seeing it for the first time!
(This blog post covers the period 3 - 23 April 2018.)

Thursday 5 April 2018

Spring or not spring?

Just like this year's spring, we are late (again) with the blog. We keep getting glimpses of real, proper spring-like weather - tantalising windows in which we think "this is it", with blue skies and heavenly warm sunshine - but just as we are starting to let our guard down the weather switches back to the grey, wet stuff and we find ourselves holed up indoors again. Admittedly it's no longer properly cold, but with grey skies and torrential rain (and hail and thunder) we still need to be lighting the fire in the house to feel comfortable - and our winter woodpile is in a very sorry state indeed!

In the days of better weather we have managed to push on a bit further with the tractor park, with the tractor itself now under cover and just the final third of the structure to finish - all done with materials from our own land. We've also done a lot more felling of trees, clearing and tidying of the terraces immediately beneath the car park. These sections of terrace are now collectively known as "mushroom land", as this is the area designated for the logs (which have now been cut) into which will be inserted plugs containing mushroom spores and, with any luck, will end up producing our first harvest of mushrooms.

Our English evenings at the local village club continue to be entertaining and have also started bearing fruit in a different, unexpected way. We have forged really good friendships with at least a couple of the people who come to the evenings, and from these we ended up with 21 bargain price olive trees delivered to our door and an invitation for Easter lunch.

The olive trees came from our new friend Luca, who works at the agricultural college in Pescia. He'd invited us to pay him a visit at work, so one day last week we headed over and he showed us around his greenhouses. We ended up buying 21 olive trees at €3 each - a bargain price (the school were looking to get rid of them) - as well some border shrubs, and some of the school's wine. Of course, 21 olive trees (at about 5ft tall) don't fit into a Fiat Panda, so Luca offered to come and deliver them in the school's van the next morning. Poor Luca didn't get the warm welcome he deserved from Reggie (who simply barked and barked at him), but we were delighted to see him and just about managed to converse over the noise of Reggie's barking.

The Easter invitation came from our new friends Roberto and his wife Vicky - the last English evening we held was the first time Roberto had brought Vicky along (or managed to convince her to come) and, having asked in the course of conversation what they would be doing for Easter, they suddenly decided to invite us for Easter lunch! We had a lovely time with them - the conversation flowed in a mixture of Italian and English, we ate so much food that we could barely move, we met all 5 of their cats, and we all learned a bit more about each other's lives. It is humbling to feel so welcomed into people's lives like this.

Otherwise, highlights of the fortnight were a lovely lunch at the nearby Toti restaurant with the full compliment of our valley friends: Donatella, Paul & Kathy and David & Sarah on Good Friday; a visit to our neighbours to congratulate them on their recent marriage (which they'd kept secret and we only found out about because our friend Luca, who works with Rosanna, told us), and a visit to the Fiera di Santa Maria in Selva - a fete in Borgo Buggiano traditionally held on the first weekend of spring every year and which sells all sorts of plants.

We are promised a dry weekend this week, even with temperatures reaching and exceeding 20C, but more rain again next week. Perfect conditions for the grass to grow, the weeds to appear and a load more jobs to materialise!

21 olive trees.

Working on the tractor park.

Trunk with bark.

Trunk without bark.

Tractor park from below.

Chestnut posts ready for cutting.

Ready for transporting down the drive.

Ready for bark stripping.

Bark stripping.

Stripping bark.

Tractor park.

We paid a brief visit to a fete - the Fiera di Santa Maria in Selva - at Borgo a Buggiano. The fete (which concentrates on selling plants) is traditionally held on the first weekend of spring - and it usually rains...

... this year the sun was out, but the wind was bitterly cold!

We eyed up the unusual breeds of chicken, wondering if they would stand any better chance against Mr Fox!

Lots of colourful plants for sale.
Cutting trees for mushroom land.

The view from the top of mushroom land.

Mushroom land.

Tidying in mushroom land.

Mushroom logs cut and stacked.

From this...

...to this. In just 12 hours.

In between downpours at the weekend we managed to level out the ground, put some fabric down and start to fill the area with gravel. 

And we planted a new hydrangea.

That's more like it - Easter Monday was bright and sunny.

Easter Monday's workplace - this beats sitting in an office all day.

Vicky had made painted eggs at Easter - using leaves (for the pattern), onion skins and a pair of stockings. Beautiful!

(This blog post covers the week 19 March 2018. - 2 April 2018)