Friday 26 April 2019

Spring work continues

Spring has well and truly sprung here in our part of Tuscany, and while the weather is still decidedly undecided as to whether to give us a warm, sunny spring (we've had some days when the temperature has reached 29C) or a cool, wet spring (other days have been been jumper-wearingly cool and damp), nature has embraced the overall milder weather and burst forth into bloom.

No filter - just Tuscan countryside, sunshine and irises.

We seem to be going from this one day...

... to this the next.

As we've said before, spring is a bit of a double edged sword - the milder weather is welcome on the one hand, and we revel in being able to sit outdoors in the evening (on the warmer days), surrounded by beautiful blossoms and heady scents, but on the other hand it really feels as if the season takes charge and dictates exactly what work we have to do. Gone are the days of winter when we can decide what jobs to tackle, because in the spring it's a never-ending list of maintenance work: cutting the grass on the terraces and tending the growing veg in the orto, the two of which are tasks not unlike painting the Forth road bridge - no sooner have you finished than you need to start all over again. This is particularly the case at the moment with a good number of wet days mixed in between warm, mild ones, providing the perfect growing conditions for grass and weeds.

One of the other major jobs of spring is, thankfully, not a never-ending one, but a mammoth task nevertheless: the pruning of the olive trees. The actual pruning of the trees, while a big job, is quite an enjoyable, satisfying one, as the cuts gradually bring the trees back to their open, airy wine-glass shape. After having made a small start on pruning the trees when Dad was staying with us, there still remained the major part of the job to tackle. This time we were lucky enough to have the help of one of our guests, Sebastian, who kindly offered us a day's labour during his stay - of course we virtually bit his hand off in accepting his offer, and his day's work with us certainly moved the whole process on considerably.

Reggie took the job of supervising the olive pruning very seriously.
Tools of the trade.


The rather more tiresome part of the task is dealing with the mountains of clippings. If left where they fall, the clippings soon get overtaken by long grass and form frustrating obstacles for those strimming the grass (not to mention painful ones - being hit by a flying piece of olive branch is an eye wincing experience), so it's important to gather them all up. This in itself is a time-consuming task (back and forth, and back and forth again picking up all the pieces) and leads to the dilemma - where to put them all? The clippings were so voluminous this year that we ended up with 4 separate enormous piles - there were just too many to put all in one place.

This may have been about a quarter of the entire amount.

Prunings can't stay on the terraces and have to be moved!

Traditionally, olive prunings are burned, and that's certainly an efficient way of dealing with them, but we decided that we would rather chip them this time (which meant that even more moving was involved - instead of having 3 or 4 bonfires more or less in situ up on the terraces, all of the piles had to be brought all the way down to the car park to the chipper). Having read that olive chips can make a good compost, Stuart decided that composting was the way forward for this year, and together we filled 3 of our compost bays by layering chipped olive prunings with a sprinkling of chicken manure in a giant, olive-leafy, manurey sort of lasagne (which, interestingly, a day or two later gave off a smell reminiscent of cider!).

Thankfully the chipper makes light, if noisy, work of it.
Olive chips.

Lovely full compost bays.

With the olive pruning done for the year (a big "tick" off our to-do list), we were left to concentrate on tidying the orto (weeding and putting in irrigation) and to cut the grass. By spending roughly 2 hours each day strimming, I managed to finish cutting the grass on the upper terraces in the space of a week; with another 2.5 hours of the two of us together strimming the lower terraces at the weekend, the job was complete. A good 16-18 hours' worth of work overall. And, just days after finishing the cut, the upper terraces are already looking as if they need another trim...! It seems as if our "once every four weeks" rule for cutting the grass won't cut the mustard this time around and we're likely to have to start again much sooner.

We began an experiment this week in attempting to re-grow a little ground cover in the chicken enclosure. While the chickens seem very happy in their enclosure, they have scratched the soil bare, which tends to look a little sad. We once tried sowing clover seed in the enclosure but of course it either got washed away or pecked at and eaten before anything could happen. Our latest idea is to use a "roaming" protective frame - to sow seeds beneath it, protect the patch from the chickens to give the seeds a chance to germinate and grow, and then move it on to another patch once the plants are sufficiently strong. We had been toying with the idea of building a frame, but suddenly realised that we already have the perfect protective growing environment in the form of the old cold frames that we constructed a few years ago using the old windows from the house. Having just moved one to make room for the raspberry plot, it was all set to go inside the chicken enclosure.

I have happy memories of Mum staining and naming the newly constructed cold frames when she and Dad visited four years ago ( so it was lovely to feel as if Mum's legacy lives on and to put the cold frame to a use once again.

A lovely reminder.

In amongst everything this last week we did manage to treat ourselves to a picnic break - on our terraces. With the grass freshly cut and the olive trees freshly pruned, it struck me that our terraces are a beautiful place, but that we rarely spend any time up there other than when cutting the grass or pruning the trees. We decided to remedy this on one of the sunnier days of the week by packing up a picnic lunch and taking it up about 5 terraces above the house. From our vantage point everything looked immaculate (you couldn't see the pergola floor that needs finishing, the end of the house that needs rendering, the piles of olive that still needed chipping... etc.), which was a lovely feeling!

Finally, a quick roundup of some of the stunning blooms and blossoms that are colouring our lives here at the moment - as well as a taster of some of the fruits that are to come!

Pink oxalis.

Tassel hyacinth.


Ink cap mushrooms.

Our first wisteria flowers!

The flowers on the acacia (robinia) are starting to come.

The black walnut tree is in flower.


And the first poppy of the season.

Friday 12 April 2019

A special visit

It's always special for us when our family visit, but our most recent visit, from my Dad, has been extra special as it's the first time he has visited us in three and a half years - something to celebrate - as well as, much more sadly, the first time he has visited without my dear Mum. Although he might not have been aware of it, Dad's visit made for some emotional moments for me when the absence of my dear Mum was so very clear, but at the same time it was also a truly wonderful and very precious gift to be able to spend 12 days of super-quality time together with him.

While having friends and family to stay can sometimes take us away from our day-to-day tasks and slow our progress (albeit in an enjoyable way), having Dad to stay was more like having an extra pair of hands to help us in our jobs and a very productive pair at that!

We made amazing progress over the 12 days, with veg planted out in the orto, the wood pile completely re-stacked under cover for next winter, 10 fruit trees bought for us and planted, a raspberry cage built (with raspberries planted inside), the old shed emptied of rubbish, the olive tree pruning started, wood chipping done, some wood turning lessons, daily dog walks and numerous other tidying jobs.

Stuart joked that the only way we could stop Dad from working was to get him in the car and drive him somewhere! And by doing so, we did also manage to have some lovely trips out - a handful of very enjoyable walks in the local area (one in the hills around Montecarlo with our local friend Daniele; one from Pescia to Collodi and back, with a stop off for lunch at our friends Amanda and Alessio's restaurant at the end of it; and one from Pescia up the hill to the small village of Monte a Pescia), some drives around the countryside further afield, a visit to the gardens of one of the Lucchese villas, and a couple of very enjoyable dinners out, courtesy of Dad.

All in all it was a busy and virtually non-stop 12 days, with a good balance of work and more relaxing activities, and it was an absolute delight and privilege to be able to spend such good quality time with Dad. We are very much looking forward to his next visit.

Planting onions and potatoes.
Onions going in.

A quick guide to pruning olives

Clearing the clippings.

Pruning in progress.

A Sunday drive and a visit to Massa.

View from Massa.

A newly painted chicken egg collection box...

...with newly added egg-stop blocks to stop the eggs rolling back under the nest boxes.

That'll be next winter's wood all under cover!

After a couple of days Reggie finally realised that Dad was also an extra pair of hands for giving tummy rubs.

The penny dropped.

Preparing stakes for planting out new fruit trees.

Persimmon tree planted.

Pomegranate planted.

Reggie supervising the planting of peach trees.

Apple trees planted.

Kiwis planted.

The chosen site for the raspberries

Raspberry cage in construction.

Raspberry cage completed.

Now Grow!

A visit to Villa Torrigiani.

Just about warm enough without a coat.

Happy daughter and Dad.

Stunning wisteria blossom.

The villa in all its glory.

A walk with our friend Daniele in the woods and countryside around Montecarlo.

Grapevines in the Montecarlo countryside.

Daniele, Stuart, Ugo the dog, and Dad

More vineyards.

Some very old barbed wire on our walk from Pescia to Collodi.

Beautiful blossom.

View from the Monte a Pescia road.

Happy walkers.

Looking toward Collodi.

Palms and olives.

Collodi church and olive pruning!

View from the top of Collodi village.

Exotic wildlife in Collodi.

Back at home... the old shed is now clear!

Just the frame left standing (just about).

Reggie's supervising position for the day.

View of Pescia from Monte a Pescia.
Happy in the sunshine on the steep path up to Monte a Pescia.
View from the Monte a Pescia path.
Pescia roof tops.
All the love. Dad and me at Monte a Pescia.