AN ITALIAN EXPERIENCE - Our Garden
During most of the year, our lives revolve around the garden: what to plant, what to harvest, what to eat, how to care for our boxwood and roses and other plants.
To see photos of the garden, click here: "Photos/The Gardens of L'Avventura"
As an update to our garden in November, 2008, our roses include: Madame Alfred Carriere (2), Lady Hillingdon (5), Rosa Banksia (2), Paul Lede (3), Mermaid (3), White (10), Iceberg (4), Seafoam (2), Despres a fleur Jaunes (2), Alistar Stella Gray (2), Mary Rose (1), Jude the Obscure (3), Buff Beauty (4), Madame Gregory Staechlin (1), Claire Matin (4), Lady Silvia (1), Madame Caroline Testout (2), Chapeau di Napoleon (2), Fantin Latour (1), Felicite Parmentier (1), Lavender Lassie (1), Pierre de Ronsard (2), Ophelia (1) and Prima Ballerina (1). That makes 59.
How do I feel about them? My favorites are the Paul Lede for the sweetness and color and size; I just love the look of them as they begin to flower, beginning a darker pink and opening a paler pink with a hint of peach.
Close behind are the Jude the Obscure for their strong scent and gorgeous cupped flowers, although they hate humidity; and then there are the yellowy-apricot-white Lady Hillingdon, all of which bloom during the spring and summer months. Although the Madame Gregory Staechlin is outstanding, it only blooms once.
As a novelty rose, Chapeau di Napoleon is worth owning. Its leaves begin with a fuzzy three-corner "hat", which is pushed open by a lovely mid-pink rose. Madame Alfred Carriere's beautiful almost-white blooms are a must, especially if they're cut back hard after the first bloom to prevent them from becoming leggy.
Our best overall rose is the White. It cascades over our planters and the deep green leaves and profusion of big white flowers never disappoint, even during the hottest months. Buff Beauty is a pretty yellowish-peach flower, small but full of blooms and loves to meander, especially over a bank.
Alistar Stella Gray is a small yellow flower opening to white, and is wonderful on an arch, and although it is supposed to be a continuous bloomer, does not bloom more than once. Claire Matin is a new rose, but is pretty, with an apricot-pink small flower opening in bunches. The worst behaving rose is the Fantin Latour. Although it opened beautifully as a delicate pinky-white flower, it quickly developed a rust disease and does not want to reflower.
Lady Silvia and Madame Caroline Testout are too new to rate, although the big flower on Madame Caroline is impressive. We're waiting to see these two cover the metal fence facing San Rocco, the two Madame Caroline growing over toward the house and the Lady Silvia beginning near the lavender and growing over toward San Rocco.
Lavender Lassie is new and profuse. There are plenty of happy buds, and although it is only medium in size, there are plenty of blossoms.
Rosa Banksia flowers once, but it is thornless, very bushy, and as an arch facing San Rocco will continue to stretch its dark green leaves until late fall.
I'd pull out the Mermaid, for it has a mind of its own; the three of them are on the side path of the house as a kind of anti-furto barrier planted with thorny Osmanthus.
Iceberg and Sea foam are good roses, nothing outstanding, but do reflower nicely. If you buy Iceberg, don't put it against a fence. It's happier in a big pot or growing as a bush with some freedom.
The rest are good roses, with no particularly outstanding characteristics. I have no idea why we own a Felicity Parmentier and will pull it this fall along with a few other non-performers to replace it with more Jude the Obscure and Paul Lede.
For years I have wanted to design a garden. Our houses have always been on hillsides or in the middle of cities. Wherever we have lived, I have wanted to stake out a piece of land in which to grow flowers and grass and design a place to sit and dream.
Here at L'Avventura, we have just such a place. When we first purchased the property, it consisted of a little house on a plot of land, with a Southwestern exposure, a 180-degree view of the Tiber Valley, but also an overgrown garden on one side and a tangle of weeds and over-grown bushes in the front. In the seven years we have owned this land, we have purchased the property on either side of us, restored the front wall, added a parking area, cleaned up all the rubbish and completely changed the look of the outside of the house. In the next year or so, we will build a bocce court for the people of the village on the land on our far property next to San Rocco, a 15th century deconsecrated church.
At first, we lived here part time. So a maintenance free garden was essential. But I wanted lavender and boxwood and roses, so those elements became important in the design.
In 2004 we had: over fifty roses, over one hundred boxwood globes, two boxwood hedges, just under fifty lavender plants, twenty or so round santolina, assorted osmanthus, rosemary, teucrium, cerastium, hydrangea, over thirty iris, philadelphus, two large round Vibernum framing the front door, three peonies, five geranium, a variety of other small plants, and a variety of trees: persimmon, hazelnut, sour cherry, peach, pear, fig, plum, loquat, kumquat, lemon, laurel, six cypress and six olive trees.
See Photos/The Gardens of L'Avventura for photos of the gardens.
We also grow vegetables, from season to season. In the ground now are: potatoes, red onions, zucchini, cardi, Sant Anna lettuce, arugula, celery and many herbs: Italian parsley, four kinds of basil, cilantro, chives, thyme, tarragon, sage, mint. In the next week or so we will have planted the last of our heirloom tomatoes. All together, we will have eight San Marzano tomato plants (these are the long red Roma Italian tomatoes) and over sixty heirloom tomato plants, in eight different varieties. The tomato seeds came from the United States. Everything else was started from seed or seedling or plant here in Italy.
We have three tufa caves and many areas of tall tufa rock, which provide us shelter from winds coming from the north and add an old-world charm. Every year we work on clearing them of weeds or wildflowers. They are gorgeous in their natural state.
It is a joy to work here. The basic design is formal Italianate, with easy-to-manage sandy-colored gravel over nursery cloth, bordered with globes of boxwood or hedges, or roses or lavender. Trees are interspersed, mostly because they came with the property. Only one mock cherry and one pear have been taken out.
This is a garden that would work for people who were not around all the time. It does take some care, but we have installed an irrigation system or two to cover the tomatoes during growing season and the roses. Roy takes on the charge of watering everything else.
We have a ground cover in two sitting areas that takes the place of a lawn, and four benches around the property, where we sit and talk and watch the sunset, or the sun rise, or just enjoy the day or evening. We love every area of our property.
The roses are: Madame Alfred Carriere (2), Jean Despues, Mary Rose, Cornelia (5), Buff Beauty (4), Mermaid (7), Paul Lede (4), Iceberg (4), Snowball (2), White (10), Polka, Glorie De Dijon (3), Rosa Banksia (2) and Lady Hillington(5)
There is something to look at every month of the year. Right after the lavender is harvested at the end of June, it is put into large baskets for the house and the remainder is given to the people of the village. The plants themselves are cut back to round orbs, and the planting has been done in precise rows, so the look is interesting twelve months a year.
From January, through March the lavender orbs and round boxwood and cypress are the focal points of the garden and terrace. In February the trees begin to flower, in March the trees continue to flower and the new shoots of the lavender turn the plants into a soft grey-green. In April the peonies and roses start their growing spurts, culminating in grand profusions in May and June. Many roses flower all summer long and into the fall.
The kumquat's fruit stays on the plant all year, if we take it inside the loggia during the winter months. In late June the lavender is harvested. In July the loquat trees shed their fruit. In August the hazelnut trees are harvested. In September the figs are ripe. The boxwood's growth is mainly from April through September. In November and December, the loquat trees flower.
The persimmon trees shed their leaves in October and drop their orange fruit in November and December. We have two persimmon trees. The tree on the front terrace, which is as tall as the house, is precious to us because of the beautiful leaves and the shade the tree gives us in the summertime. However, we clip the blossoms in May and June so that we will not have a mess of dripping fruit in December. The remaining persimmon tree gives us the fruit in December.
The two Vibernum first show white flowers, then dark blue berries and in early Spring pink blossoms reveal themselves. The rest of the year the plant is green. So there is always something interesting happening in the gardens of L'Avventura. As the plants mature, they take on new colorations and adjust to their surroundings. We are amazed by the changes in the roses after a few seasons. A few of them have been moved, to suit them better, but generally every plant is doing well, speriamo!
September 2003, Kaki now and then
We first saw the tree in September 1997, two months before the property became ours. It was two stories tall, and shaded the front of the house from a blistering hot sun on the day we arrived. We loved it then, and we love it now. Yes, Bob. Yes, Patrick. Yes, Phillip. Yes, Patti. Roy has turned the corner. Here is how it all happened...
When we were first married, Leo counseled us to live in a house for a year before we made any changes to the garden. In every house we have purchased, we remembered Leo's words and, well, at least we remembered his words. Whenever we waited a year to make changes in the garden, we saw that he was right. A year after moving in, we almost always changed our plans.
At first sight, the tree was gorgeous. Tall and full with leaves as dark as night, we hid beneath its branches when eating our first figs from the property, bees buzzing around us competing for the ripe fruit.
In November, we arrived to find the leaves gone, replaced by the most beautiful coppery colored fruit. Our front terrace was a mess of old broken tiles, plastic bottle caps, weeds, Snow White and six(?) dwarfs, cement planters and, yes, kaki, which had fallen to their deaths and left their gooey mark wherever they landed. We thought the tree was our Christmas tree, its bare branches laden with bright, fruity ornaments. It was certainly a dramatic sight, majestic and elegant, amid all the rubble.
One year later, Sarah Hammond and her friends arrived to transform the terrace and produce a lavender garden. The first afternoon, Sarah recalls, "I leaned over to look at something on the ground and, "Splat!" a ripe kaki dropped right on the back of my sweater." Not to be deterred, they finished our plan of beige gravel and boxwood on the front terrace. We returned the next May in amazement. The terrace had been transformed and was more beautiful than we had imagined.
The next September, the kaki started to fall early. Before we left to return to California, we laid out nursery cloth around the tree. We thought that rain-water would filter through the cloth and the kakis would fall in place. We thought that when we arrived in December, we could just take up the cloth and it would be easy.
In December, we arrived to a festering mess of kaki garbage, swimming in a pool of murky rain-water. We drained off what we could, and Roy lugged a wheelbarrow over, dragged the cloth and its contents on top. He trudged down the street to the closest garbage bin, revenge on his mind, and later on his lips. The gravel remained pretty much intact, because Roy made sure that every last kaki was gone within a few days.
From then on, Roy planned the tree's demise. He offered to chop the tree down for firewood, followed by idle threats. I responded either with a steely stare or with Angie's favorite phrase, "You think so?" The tree would STAY.
Each set of guests in the fall would take their turn as if going after a pinata with a stick, Roy on the ladder, one guest holding a big bucket, Roy swatting the stick after the kaki and another guest or me holding the bottom of the ladder. This usually followed the cocktail hour, so fortified with scotch or local wine, it became a hilarious event.
One summer, Patti and Joan and I sat on lounge chairs under the tree, moving our chairs strategically to duck the occasional "boink" from a small, hard, green kaki. It was hard not to love the tree and its broad, sheltering leaves during the spring and summer. Well, at least I loved it.
Year by year, Roy plotted. On one visit, Rich Waters swung away at the poor tree, hacking away at its tall branches. Luckily he became bored before Roy got his wish of a dead tree.
This fall, we began to plan the emergency rebuilding of our front wall that had moved forward 30 cm. in the five years we have owned the house. Even the mayor was involved, but that is another story. As the wall came down, earth was taken out and a few of the roots of the tree were cut to make way for new soil and the rebuilding project.
I softened and said, "If we replace the tree, what would we replace it with?" Roy was joyous. We scoured books. We emailed Sarah for advice. The word came back, just about the time we decided its fate. Each fall, we will hire someone to come and cut down all the kaki before it ripens and falls. Sarah and Alush had the same advice. That's it.
Now we can love the tree for as long as it wants to be here. We have another smaller kaki tree in the garden, where we can harvest kaki in the fall for desserts or to give to friends. So, Leo, looking down at us, you were right. For once we did what you advised, and it is going to work out just fine.
July 2002, Il Giardino Mugnano
Our little plot of land has been kind to us. Without knowing more than how to weed or pick up a rake and glide it over the gravel, we took our ideas to our dear friend, Sarah Hammond, soon after we bought the property. "Do you know where we can locate Douglass Fettling?" we asked her one afternoon over an arrangement of sprawling tomatoes at Whole Foods. Douglass worked on our property in Mill Valley and we thought he had returned to Australia. When we told her we wanted him to redo our garden in Italy, she beamed, "I'll do it! I have never done a garden in Italy!"
From that moment on, we became fast friends. After agreeing on a design, and after choosing the gravel and giving her a list of resources, phone numbers and an Italian speaking guide (our lucky charm, Karina), she arranged with Alush, Pippa and John to accompany her for a month-long stay the following November. She found a way to please us both, finding a prayer niche behind the house for Snow White and the six dwarfs which were left on the front lawn, for Roy, and agreeing on the design of gravel, boxwood, lavender and roses for me.
Years before, while watching the film Enchanted April, the sound of people walking on gravel captivated us. We were sure gravel would be an important part of the design. We searched and searched the surrounding towns to find gravel just the right shade of beige. We located it in Narni Scalo, at a quarry that drove Sarah into raptures. Sarah loves stone. Since we did not plan to spend much time here in the next few years, the design had to be simple and easy to maintain. We agreed that gravel would play a major role.
We agreed on a lavender field and several kinds of roses. We also agreed on the boxwood...round orbs of boxwood to reach the size of the two ancient catapult balls at the top of our stairs.
Sarah accomplished everything we asked, and more. Happily, I brought her for a visit last June, so that she could see the results of their very hard work and just enjoy being here. It was a lovely visit. Returning to California she remarked, "I have never been so relaxed!" She puttered around with the roses and then we laughed as we ate peaches standing up over the kitchen sink, letting the juice roll down our arms. We roasted red peppers and devoured them with crusty bread, fresh basil and salt, all dunked in an extraordinary olive oil from our friend Diego Bevilacqua.
When we first bought the house, we convinced Giustino, a neighbor, to water everything for us. Giustino is about my height, with lots of white hair, and a few teeth. He spoke in a dialect even the people in our village did not speak. He was eighty-five when we moved in, and walked with a cane which he raised up in the air at people to make his point. Last year, Giustino pawned us off on someone else in the village, as he had trouble seeing and could not understand why we wanted him to water plants that you could not eat.
Felice now waters for us, "Sempre Felice!" he responded with a smile that lit up his farmer's face when we were introduced. Always happy. Although we are here now permanently and there is not much watering to be done, we love to see him at least twice a week. He has agreed to stay on for awhile. Felice is a young 78.
When we arrived this June, the lavender refused to bloom. 48 survived from the original planting. The spaghetti (Italians refer to the shoots as spaghetti) showed the results of a relentless wind shooting up the Tiber Valley, during a winter and spring of almost no rain. We are disappointed, but will keep last year's lavender in baskets until the next harvest and will keep watch over the lavender this winter, watering and fertilizing the soil and just spending time with it, loving its scent and the way the butterflies light upon ball after ball.
Today, Roy installed his composting barrel in the far corner of the land. Back in California, he researched and researched the art of composting on the internet, with friends, at nurseries, and anyone who would talk dirt with him. We agreed on a large black rubbery cylinder, which spins around on a sturdy base. Bought over the internet from a man in Oregon, it is a converted pickle barrel...from Italy! We shipped the composter back to its home "turf" this spring, and tonight Roy will start the ongoing process of "greens and browns", tumbling his composter, which we christened, "Paragon of Aragon" with the first handful of grass. Perhaps later tonight we will knock a bottle of spumanti against it as a proper christening.
The next step is the design of the vegetable beds, which will be built in front of the gardener's cottage. There is another small spot of land just above stairs to the left of the cottage. Potatoes will go there. I can just see Roy with his pitchfork, digging into the soil and harvesting the little jewels. Nemorino will be by his side. For now, we are figuring out the size of the beds, which will be raised at least in the front. The land slopes, so the back will probably not be very high. On second thought, it will need to be high enough for Nemo not to jump in and play. We hope to have the beds ready at the middle of September.