Monday 31 May 2021

Hello? Spring?

 At the end of our last post it seemed as if we were flying headlong into spring and, well, I guess that in some ways we were. But the spring this year - as in other places in Europe - has been decidedly wet, cool and windy, making us feel as if winter had actually dragged on a lot longer than usual. Indeed, with the exception of the odd warm day here and there, we were still lighting the wood burner every night right up until mid-May. We've had years when we've needed to light the fire in May before, but never before on such a continual basis.

If we needed any affirmation of our feeling that spring has been a damp squib this year, nature has provided it in holding back the flowering of almost every spring flower we are used to seeing by around 2 weeks compared to normal. The irises, acacia, poppies, tassel hyacinths, roses and even comfrey were late flowering, and we lost what was about to become our first impressive display of wisteria flowers overnight due to a sharp frost in April.

Things are now starting to catch up as the temperature steadily climbs, although the weather is still quite unsettled - the mixture of warmer, sunny days followed by wet days making it the perfect weather for grass and weeds to grow at breakneck speed whilst not being dry for long enough periods to get around to attending to everything that needs doing!

As usual this year we have been hosting 36 beehives on the small piece of land next to our gates. They arrived about a week later than usual due to the acacia trees not having started flowering until later, and unfortunately the acacia flowering season has been disappointing - heavy rain and strong winds having made the blossom drop all too quickly.

We celebrated the seventh anniversary of our move here in early May and reflected on how different our arrival and first few weeks here would have been had we arrived to the weather we've had this spring. Thankfully, seven years ago it was a very warm, sunny and stable spring - I'm not sure how we would have coped with all the surprises and obstacles thrown at us if we hadn't had glorious weather to do it all in (we certainly wouldn't have been able to keep warm as there wasn't any firewood in the house!).

Our seventh anniversary of the move (our move-iversary?) was celebrated rather touchingly with our neighbours who had invited us round for pizza and, on learning it was the anniversary of our move here, made a cake with 7 candles and greeted us with a sign, made by the children, pinned to the door saying "buon anniversario". We felt very welcomed and loved.

In terms of work done/progress made over the last few months, we certainly have made some progress, although we have felt hampered by the weather on many an occasion.

The weather itself presented us with two new jobs to add to our to-do list, both of which currently remain on the list, awaiting a window of the right weather (and waiting until other, more time sensitive jobs have been done). One night/day of particularly torrential rain in April caused one part of our beautiful newly finished palisade terrace walls to collapse - a slight engineering fault on our part in that we probably got a little carried away on completing the final top layer of the palisade walls and failed to pack the back-filled part in well enough. The lower levels of walling all held up fine during the soaking.

The heavy rain also caused a chestnut tree to fall across the driveway - it fell from one side into an acacia tree on the other side, but remains suspended in the air, so doesn't block our entry/exit route. We will of course get around to cutting it down at some point, but it hasn't yet made it to the top of the priority list.

With the help of some additional muscle power from friends we managed to wrestle the rainwater collection tanks back into position so they now sit neatly, wrapped in black plastic to block the sunlight from causing algal growth inside, and have already collected over 3000 litres of water.

Despite there being so much of the wet stuff this spring we have been thinking ahead to the time when we will almost certainly (although it seems hard to imagine right now) go for weeks and weeks with no rain and very hot summer temperatures. Last year we hand watered all the new fruit trees we'd planted and all of the vegetables we grew - a daily task that took well over an hour and was both arduous and on occasion skipped, resulting in some less than happy plants. To make life easier/more efficient this year we have installed irrigation systems both in the orto below the house and on the terraces above the house - quite a big project involving running a pipe up the terraces, digging it into the ground to protect it from inquisitive animals and errant strimmers, and using t-pieces and taps and drip line to run across each terrace. A fair amount of work and effort to get in place, but it should save a huge amount of work in the summer and save the crops from drought!

This year we planted six new fruit trees (thanks to a generous gift from my Dad): two new apples, two new pears, a new cherry and a mulberry. The fruit trees were all quite a sight when they all came into blossom - a real orchard feel.

Between the fruit trees we have made veg-growing beds - we prepared the ground by covering it with patches of the black plastic left over from wrapping the rain water collection tanks. We pinned those to the ground and left them for a few weeks - the idea being that with a combination of heat absorbed by the black plastic and lack of light, the grass and weeds beneath it would die off, leaving us with a patch of ground ready to plant into (after a quick hoe).

In these beds we have planted two small "fields" of corn, a similar sized patch of soya beans, 18 tomato plants, about 40 snake beans and some cucumbers. We've also planted 12 heavily guarded artichoke plants. After realising that the last ones we planted had been eaten from beneath, we came up with the idea of planting into cages that would allow the roots to grow down into the soil but prevent rodents from getting to them from beneath. 

The cucumbers are set to grow up a trellis made by Stuart in a stroke of genius upcycling. Every few weeks our neighbour, who is trying to clear out a large warehouse in order to be able to rent or sell it, messages Stuart with a selection of random items to see if Stuart would like to take ownership of any of them. This of course delights Stuart as he does love a bit of "treasure" (one person's rubbish is another man's treasure), and so far we have relieved Samuele of a table saw, several large blue barrels, several smaller barrels, a couple of besom brooms, a roll of corrugated plastic, some heavy duty chains, a pair of ladders and, last week, the metal cage that would usually house a large 1000 litre IBC tank. At times I wonder if we are merely moving all of the things from the warehouse to our house, but Stuart assures me he has uses in mind for everything - and after seeing his creativity with the metal cage I can't help but trust him on that!

So this is how it started out:

And after half an hour or so of cutting with the metal grinder he had transformed the cage into a cucumber-growing trellis!

Meanwhile, below the house we are using the same raised beds as we had last year - with the addition of one that we had bought flat-packed from the internet last year and which we only got around to assembling a few weeks ago. We have put into position another 16 half plastic tanks, which will eventually become more veg beds, but for this spring's growing season we didn't have the time or resources to get those ones prepared (filled with compost/organic material), so we aim to get those ready in time for autumn.

So in the "main orto" we have planted more tomatoes, radishes, spinach, beetroot, peppers, aubergines, courgettes and a trial of asparagus, which we bought as small plants rather than the more usual crowns. We've already had a sizeable crop of broad beans, rainbow chard and radicchio, and we have garlic and onions coming along apace.

In the beds between the palisade terrace walls we've planted up as many flowering plants as possible - Stuart's forward thinking from last year has borne fruit with an absolutely stunning display of lupins, to which we've added holyhocks, delphiniums, sea holly, lavender, daisies, irises and borage. 

The wood-chipped beds also seem to be a haven for stinkhorn fungus - I counted 32 stinkhorn capsules in one bed!

A few weeks ago we tackled the olive tree pruning - a job made considerably less painful (literally) thanks to having invested in a pair of electric secateurs and a mini chain saw. Without these new tools Stuart certainly wouldn't have been able to manage to do the pruning with his injured elbow. We also had a considerable help this year from our friend Cristian, with whom Stuart has been doing some odd days of work here and there. Cristian has a lifetime's knowledge of olive pruning, so it was helpful to have his guidance. Even with help though, we only managed to get around to pruning a little over half the trees before the flower buds started to form and we had to stop - the unsettled weather meant that we never managed to get more than a couple of days in a row at the job. Nevertheless, we are happy to have done as much as we have, and the rather deeper cut than usual meant that the car park was overtaken by piles of prunings as high as a bus - which we then spent a couple of afternoons chipping, and then spent an afternoon using all those chippings to build up a new compost pile.

We will shortly be starting the third full grass cut of the year - as I said earlier, the plentiful rain along with intermittent sunshine and rising temperatures are perfect conditions for the grass to grow and it's hard trying to keep up. This year we decided to leave the banks of the terraces uncut. This has several benefits. The first and probably the foremost reason is that it helps to protect the banks - the root systems of the plants growing there help to hold the soil together and stabilise the banks, which in places had started to become very bare and unstable. Secondly, and also importantly, it means that despite cutting the terraces we are able to leave a good number of flowers untouched, providing food for the bees and other visiting insect life. Thirdly, it makes me feel a whole lot better about cutting everything else if we are leaving a good number of the beautiful flowers untouched - it feels criminal to cut through swathes of beautiful flowers. Fourthly, it lends a lovely, meadowy feel to the terraces. And finally it makes the job of cutting a whole lot less arduous and slightly quicker! Everyone's a winner!

Part of the reason for keeping the grass cut at all is an attempt to keep snakes at bay - like last year, this year we seem to have a large number of them about. They are mainly grass snakes but we do get vipers here too, so it's always a worry to spot one. Not least when Reggie attempts to chase them. In a particularly awful episode recently Reggie somehow managed to catch up with one (in the garden) and take a chunk out of the side of it. Thankfully it was a type of grass snake, so not a danger to Reggie or to me, but unfortunately the strength of Reggie's bite had left the poor thing mortally wounded and there was nothing I could do save for dispatch of it as quickly as I could - a horrible, horrible deed, despite knowing it was the right thing to do.

On a happier note, we seem to have new neighbours in the form of great tits who have moved into one of the bird boxes we made and attached to the side of the house. It gives us a great deal of satisfaction to know that the boxes are being used for the purpose for which we put them there - perhaps there really is something in the phrase "If you build it, they will come"!

In April we also added a bat box to the side of the house - for the time being we still await residents there.

Bat box above ladder; bird box on RH side of the wall.

We have continued to make batches of soaps and have a slow trickle of sales to people locally - one of the benefits of not having guests occupying the apartment is that we have been able to leave it set up in soap-making laboratory mode, which makes the whole process much easier.

We even made it into the local newspaper again - well, news is slow during lockdown!

In recent weeks the covid restrictions in our area have gradually begun to be eased, meaning we have had a few more social engagements - we've enjoyed cautiously catching up with friends and neighbours and luckily the improving weather means we are increasingly able to do our socialising outdoors. One particular get-together resulted in a new theory about our house - our friend Michel (who hadn't previously been to our house) asked what it used to be previously. An odd question, but on seeing the buttress-style walls on the lower floor he immediately assumed it must have originally been some form of medieval watch tower, which had at a later date been incorporated in the house. The more we thought about it, the more the theory seems to hold water - the position of the house is perfect for a good view down the valley (and probably up it too in those days), and the construction of that part of the house is extremely unusual - we had been told it was something to do with earthquake protection but it makes no sense that none of the other houses in the area have anything similar, and it makes little sense that anyone building a house two, three hundred years ago would be thinking of that. In addition to which, there are several watch-tower-like buildings up and down the valley. Frustratingly, we can find no information that might help us get to the bottom of it, so for now it remains a mystery.

Photo from when our predecessors bought the house.

So, as the weather finally starts to buck its ideas up and warm up to more seasonable temperatures, we find ourselves on the verge of things opening back up here - tourists are starting to trickle into the region, restaurants and bars are finally allowed to re-open fully, and even the nightly curfew has gone from 10pm to 11pm, and is due to be abolished by the end of the month. We have our covid vaccinations booked (although not until mid-July, with second doses due in late August), and will be looking forward to feeling a little more relaxed after that.

In the meantime, nature keeps on giving!