When I left in mid-June, Antonio was lamenting the bad weather that had plagued Spello and Umbria (and most of Italy) all spring, with constant rain putting him far behind his usual garden preparation and production. In fact, I was told that “the rain started in October, and didn’t stop until late May.” When I arrived in May, Antonio’s garden was planted, but there was no visible growth in the plants in the month that I was in Spello. He told me that no fruit was setting on the plants, either—mostly tomato plants, of several varieties, and just a few eggplants.
Coming back in late August, the plants were four feet tall, but there was not much visible fruit. I assumed that his prediction of a terrible yield was coming true, from what I could see. The morning after I arrived, on 29 August, there were three “heart of the cow” tomatoes near my gate (where he leaves things for me), and his garden was suddenly gone. Every one of the tomato vines was pulled out, with the wilting plants stacked in a corner to compost. I guess I just made it in time to get ANY of his tomatoes, and I was happy with three!
In the corner of the garden, a hazelnut tree (“nocciolo”) is tucked into the corner, and has recently been losing some big limbs. Nothing is wasted here in Spello—they were quickly sawed into lengths that would fit in the stove in Antonio’s house, for the winter. He doesn’t seem to be very interested in the hazelnuts, though—and most of them just fall to the ground. Pippo, the Springer spaniel his son uses for hunting, is the only one who gets excited about the nuts on the ground, and he carefully cracks them with his teeth and extracts the nutmeats.
I could not let the nuts go to waste—I gathered them from the ground in the garden one morning, and piled them up on the stairs to Antonio’s house. There were a few still attached to the hulls, but most were just sitting on the fallow dirt in the garden (“orto” here). I guess I saw an opportunity to help—so I collected a nice pile of all that I could find, but left them in a place where Antonio or his son, Alessandro, would be able to see them. (Paola looked at the pile with envy—she’d love to bake something and use them, if no one wanted them.)
Day by day, some of the artichokes have begun to emerge from the ground, and I have offered to help Antonio dig them up and divide them—a labor I have watched him do each year. In that case, I should have remembered that he did that job in the spring, and he declined my offer. He is having serious neck pain, and will soon be having surgery to fuse some of his vertebrae, so he was flattered that I’d ask to help him, but not at this time of the year.
In my own little strip of garden, I suddenly found a Virginia creeper plant, with long vines along the concrete wall that divides my courtyard from Antonio’s orto—a “volunteer,” probably from a seed dropped by a bird. I decided to thread them through the fence, and keep them low—to preserve my view of the valley—and see how they did. They are growing rapidly, all from one plant, but I think Antonio will want me to remove them. When I bought the house, there were star jasmine plants all along the fence, and the untrimmed tendrils got wet in the rains, and then Antonio got a shower each time he had to pass by to pick herbs, or go see the neighbor, or let Pippo out for a bathroom break. I was right—he spoke to me today, and told me what an awful mess they will make when the leaves fall soon. I’ll let them stay, for now, but I’m on notice that he wants them gone.
I asked an Italian once what “Virginia creeper” vine is called here in Spello, since many have no idea where Virginia is, for instance. Well, it’s called “American vine” here! There is a house at the bottom of Spello that is nearly covered in vines, and the plant is very common here—but “American vine,” it is.
Hearing the calls of birds, I went outside to see some of the hunting birds that Alessandro and Antonio keep in a light-controlled chamber in the garage. Now that hunting season has begun, the birds are hung in their cages on hooks outside to get acclimated to the day length, and then go back inside. They are kept in cages, after being hatched in captivity as hunting lures, and the cages are hung on hooks in the ground in the wild. The male birds begin singing to attract females and other males, and then Alessandro, waiting in a blind with his shotgun, shoots the birds that respond. Pippo retrieves the birds, and that is how Umbrians hunt birds. These caged birds are tricked into calling their fellow wild birds, resulting in good hunting for Alessandro, and sometimes Antonio goes along, too. They leave so early in the morning that I never hear them go, but I often see them returning with strings of birds tied together—the catch of the day.
Yesterday, after a storm for most of two days, there was a big change in the garden. The hazelnut tree fell over in the storm Sunday, and damaged the fence around the garden. I was elsewhere, and never saw it down, until this morning when I noticed the pile of wood cut for the stove, and the short stump where a tree had stood on Sunday morning. We had a very violent storm, with high winds, which must have been enough to topple the tree—and spread the last of the hazelnuts across the wet dirt. Tomorrow, though, I’ll be gathering them up, to put them on Antonio’s steps as I did the last batch—this once for the final time.