“Hanging Gardens” of Spello (a most modest display of flowers)

I cleared out the star jasmine in my 1’ by 25’ small strip garden last fall, with the help of Signor Antonio, and planted herbs for the kitchen there some time ago, where most of them are thriving. I filled the last open spaces with purple and white violas, for some color, and divided two big pots of purple, white and green tri-color ajuga—a plant I found in the mercato one week, alien to everyone but this California gardener. This last trip, I even thoroughly washed the soil from the roots of a few Ester Reed daisies from my own yard, and carried them to Spello to see if they would survive. Things were going well, or so I thought, until I had an impolite visitor who just walked right in and changed the “ambience” in an instant.

You haven’t heard the story of the little brown Chihuahua, who lives nearby, and my thyme. He came up the stairway that serves as the shortcut to the street down below, and then was small enough to walk right through the wrought iron gate at the top of the stone steps. Coming down the walk past Signor Antonio’s garden, he turned right, stepped through MY courtyard gate, and used one of my thyme plants as a “nest” to showcase his fresh little “poopies”—which looked like Easter eggs, dead center in a nest of my thyme. Not such an appetizing site (or sight) on herbs I was planning to use in the kitchen, and no amount of “candeggina” (bleach) would ever render the thyme clean enough for use—so out it went, leaving an empty space in my herb garden.

Signor Antonio saw the “display,” and immediately was defending his dog, Pippo. “Of course not! It couldn’t be Pippo!” I said. Pippo never gets out of his dog pen except for walks on the weekends, or for hunting season, and couldn’t have passed through my gate anyway. I knew exactly which dog was the culprit.

New terra cotta planters await plants and soil under the old plastic planters at the window

When Paola’s cousin Giuseppina came by with a plate of fresh figs for me, she was horrified that the dog had ruined my plant. She lives beside the house with the little dog, which is always out loose on the street, and she immediately had suspected the same little Chihuahua. Within an hour, though, she was back with hardware cloth wire, dipped in green plastic, and green wire to create a barrier across my gate for both small dogs and also cats. I had the wire screen up within another hour, and secured my patio from another “bombardment.” (That week, after the mercato down in the borgo, she arrived with two new thyme plants, too—more than replacing my lost one. Her garden is a spectacular one—and she could not abide me losing my thyme to a thoughtless neighbor’s dog, so she DID something about it right away. Bless her generosity! See the new screen on the bottom half of the courtyard gate above?)

My herbs had done well, but there are hordes of tiny snails (“lumache”) that hide in the soil by day and come out to take bites from the plants at night. I have watched Signor Antonio’s bean and pumpkin plants disappear slowly, as the snails munched them to the ground, or turned the leaves into skeletons of their old selves. A small bit of justice, however, is that he also collects the snails, and eats them later. (I, too, have tried them once, cooked by Robespier—barely half an inch across, with very hard shells and hardly worth the effort to dig them out from the shells, but delicious in the savory sauce—and a special treat prepared just for me. Of course I had to eat them—just like the tripe I was served once!)

Susanna brought me sacks of soil left over from the restaurant garden

Susanna, the “garden guru of Spello,” had given me some of her surplus hanging iron frames and plastic planters, in case I wanted to plant more than what my small plot of soil allowed. Since the snails were abundant among my herbs, I decided to plant basil, leaf lettuce, and parsley UP in the planters, hanging from the wrought iron grate over my kitchen window. That way, I stood a better chance of some day harvesting lettuce or basil to use in my cooking.

Immediately, Paola and Leonardo turned up their noses at the plastic planters, insisting that I get some terra cotta ones, instead. When I had arranged to have my ladder delivered from the hardware store, I had thrown in three new planters for the same delivery, and finally got around to planting them. Susanna provided me with organic soil and compost for the pots, I made a stop at the Wednesday mercato to buy the plants I would need, and then set about planting my “hanging gardens.”

Calibrachoa, basil, Italian flat leaf parsley and oak leaf lettuce ready to hang on the window frame

In no time at all, I had three planters filled with oak leaf lettuce, Italian (of course!) flat leaf parsley, basil, and an ornamental flowering plant to cascade down with many small, brightly colored flowers. The flowers were ones I plant often in California—calibrachoa, called “Million Bells.” Here, in Italy, they are called “Mille Baci,” or “A Thousand Kisses.” (Maybe the Italians are better at common names!) Since the floral displays around Spello were coming to their peaks for the Infiorata, I figured I’d better “get with the program,” and have some flowers myself.

All done, in the iron frames, and hung on the window grate

For the first few days, I picked off a couple of snails each day which must have been hiding in the soil I used, and then I finally removed them all—and the plants began to thrive. In the heat and western sun, I was watering them every day, trying to keep up with the evaporation stress from full afternoon sun, but they were soon providing me with basil and parsley and leaf lettuce, and all I had to do was open my kitchen window and snip off what I needed with my kitchen shears. For me, these planters were a very nice addition, easily accessible from the kitchen, and out of reach of the snails!

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