I’m not a vegetable gardener. I think I have made the clear in the three or four years I have been blogging. I’m into flowers and shrubs.
But that’s not to say I don’t appreciate vegetable gardening or gardens. I’ve tried my hand at tomatoes, lettuce, spinach and peppers and have had a few good results and a fair amount of bad results. The truth is vegetable gardening intimidates me. I’d like to say that I don’t have the right space for a vegetable garden but a recent visit to Italy dispelled that notion. Small space gardening isn’t just for flowers.
I stayed in an apartment in suburban Perugia. One day I locked myself out of the apartment but thought my sister might be in the apartment and could open the door. However, she didn’t answer her cell phone. But I was sure she was in there. So, I walked around to the back of the building to call up to her window and that is when I discovered the garden behind the apartment building next door.
And as luck would have it I got to meet the gentleman who created this lovely space. We had a lively conversation even though he did not speak a word of English and I do not speak Italian. But that did not stop us from discussing his garden.
What immediately struck me was the confined space for this garden and his joy and pride for this small space. It literally butts up to an athletic court. Fennel, table grapes, sage and rosemary grow up against the fence. It is long and narrow, running the length of the apartment building and is terraced. Its depth is probably no more than 10 or 12 feet. And it is abundant with vegetables.
He invited me around the fence where he was proud to show me his insalata, pomadoro, artichokes, beans and, yes, they are for his family only. A cherry tree sits on the edge of the garden. He pointed out that the garden that abuts his is his neighbor’s. Its small space includes an olive tree. Making the most of his space, the garden extends into the backyard next to the play set for his grandchildren. Or maybe it’s the other way around–the garden extending beyond his yard into the common space by the athletic courts.
Either way, the garden speaks to the ability to grow vegetables in small spaces. And its tidy appearance speaks to the owner’s deep pride in this space.
Discovering local foods is one of the joys of traveling. Just ask Anthony Bourdain. He makes his living bringing the joys of local foods to viewers from around the world in his program “Parts Unknown.”
Well, I didn’t check in with Tony but I did put a visit to the Mercato Trionfale, a subterranean fresh market in Rome, to the top of my “must do” places to visit on a recent trip to Italy. And I am glad I did because it’s artichoke season in Italy. These wonderful vegetables can be found on menus, in markets and gardens.
Now, the outside of the market doesn’t look all that appealing but that view quickly changes when you enter. Stall after stall is filled with colorful fruits and vegetables and our visit at 9 in the morning found the market abuzz with shoppers.
But it was the artichokes, or carciofo in Italian, that really drew my interest. Canned, steamed, marinated, fried or fresh, I have always enjoyed artichokes but I’ve never seen them in the market or grocery store in St. Louis unless they are in a can or jar, no doubt because our climate is not ideal for growing this Mediterranean native. And I was surprised to see that they were purple, as I the only fresh artichokes I have every seen were green.
My research tells me that Italy, Spain and France are the top artichoke producing countries and here in the U.S., California is king for producing this perennial. In some areas, artichokes are a biennial. One plant can produce up to 20 artichokes per year.
It’s one thing to eat them and then to see them in the market, but I had the full experience of seeing them on the plant. On a walk around the neighborhood where I stayed, I spied a garden in the back of the apartment next door. And yes, there were artichokes growing! You can see looking at the plant that it is a thistle.
On the plane to Rome, I sat by a young woman who had lived in Italy for a six months and she told me it was the tail end of artichoke season and truffle season and to be sure and not miss these local delicacies. I’m glad to have seen and enjoyed them.
I awoke Saturday morning and sent a 10-character text, “Let’s dig!” A few hours later my walking buddy Mary rolled up in her Ford Explorer. We’d thought of everything. Mary laid old towels in the back so we wouldn’t mess up the car; the spade rested on top. I brought the gloves. We had bags. We were ready.
Under the cover of gray skies threatening rain, at high noon, we commenced our work: digging up what at one time would no doubt have been someone’s prized peonies, shade-loving trillium and Virginia bluebells. A woodland spring delight.
I kept watch while Mary went to work with her short-handled spade and dug and dug and dug. The plants gave way easily in the soft, wet ground, and we quickly filled our bags until their handles nearly gave way from the weight of our treasure. We almost got away with the deed, when I looked up and saw a man standing in the barren lot at the top of the slope looking curiously at us.
Uh-oh. We’d been caught.
Before I go further, let me provide some context. For years, Mary and I have walked the many graceful streets of St. Louis County. For several months we have commented on the empty white Century home with the For Sale sign in the yard. The lot next door is barren and recently cordoned off with a developer’s sign promising to build a new home. A parcel of the main property? We aren’t sure.
A couple of months ago we ventured onto the property to look around. The house, red outbuilding and pool need repair. The surrounding yard is large and wooded and overgrown with understory brush and lots of bamboo. The grounds meander down to a ravine. It is graceful, shady and quiet. A far cry from suburbia in which it is located. We were surprised there was so much land behind the house.
Like anything that’s been around for more than 135 years, there are stories to tell. In a twist of odd luck, I was talking about this house at my book club and one of my friends mentioned that her home was once occupied by the man who built the white house in the late 1800s. She sent me a write up describing its history and sad demise of its builder (he set fire to the home and original barn and committed suicide on the property). According to the history, he relocated the light above the front porch from an antebellum plantation in southern Missouri.
A couple of weeks ago we ventured back for another look around. Why, I don’t really know. We wended our way past the bamboo to a clearing. Overgrown and neglected, the ground slopes down to a ravine and traces of a garden can be seen. We had missed this on our mid-winter walk through when there was no trace of any emerging plants. We’d also missed the remnants of plant stakes and markers littering the ground, their type faded, the metal ones bent and corroded. Black plastic garden edging has been pulled up and thrown in a heap. All that remains of a small round pond is its faded molded plastic form.
This time everywhere we looked something is growing. Peonies are emerging from the grass everywhere. Daffodils in shades of creamy yellow and white. Muscari. Wild geranium. Iris. Variegated trillium. Clumps of blue and pink Virginia bluebells. A rock garden covered by overgrowth edges the pond and makes a path down the slope to the edge of the yard by the ravine. A mass of flowering yellow ground cover carpets much of the area.
This is someone’s forgotten love.
And by the looks of it, it is soon to be turned under by a bulldozer. The property, which is slightly less than an acre, is staked with bright orange flags marking its borders. On the walk home we talked about how sad it would be if it all got bulldozed under. The garden gone with the history of the house and all the stories of this lovely ground.
To be sure, this was a premeditated act. We had no permission to be on the property. And you can be sure that no one gave us permission to dig up any plants. Mary’s sister, who is a realtor said it would definately be a no-no to take any of the plants.
Make no mistake, I would not–never have–go to a property that is for sale and just dig up their garden. I will vouch that I am a law-abiding citizen who obeys the rules. I am not a plant theif. (Am I?) But this felt different. This property feels abandoned. On borrowed time until it is turned over to start a new story.
We dug quietly and I urged Mary to hurry up. “This is the last one,” I said three or four times. I did not want to explain to the neighbors what we were doing. We filled several bags with tender plants but many, many more remain.
Then I saw him. Up the slope in the foreground of the yellow house. I felt certain our unexpected visitor would have a few questions.
“Mary, look up. There’s a man up there and he’s watching us.” We stopped digging the trillium and headed up the hill. He did not look angry. Just curious.
Turns out he was looking through the lot, past the ravine and over to the next street to see if he could see a house he is interested in. He knows a developer interested in tearing the property down for him and builing anew. We talked for about 15 minutes and shared the origins of the white house with him and told him it has been empty for so long that we wanted to rescue some of the lovely plants before they were turned under by heavy equipment. He seemed to understand.
As we loaded the back of the Explorer, Mary said she felt certain the gardener who planted this woodland garden would thank us. I don’t know.
Was it theft or was it a rescue?
We’ve been in a bit of a holding pattern with average temperatures around 41 degrees F and the skies gray. Day after day after day after day. Yesterday we had a couple of hours of sunshine but it was colder, finally getting up to 41 around 3 in the afternoon. I took advantange of the weather to rake out a couple of beds.
The rhodos want to bloom, something they typically accomplish in March. Their buds are still tight and just beginning to give a peek at their pink and purple hues. But I yearn for this:
Yawn. I am trying to get motivated for the season but, well, it’s gray and wet. And tonight after it plunges below freezing it may snow. Sigh.
I tell myself, it will be here soon enough and I will relax and enjoy this:
If this were a Facebook status update I might write, “I’m feeling…sunny and dry.” St. Louis has received 13.2 inches of rain this month and a walk in my backyard now has a sound track: Squish, squish, squish. The lower end of the yard has a bit of ponding. Leaves still cover most of the beds. And accompanying all this rain has been cooler than normal temperatures. On a sunny day, we won’t discuss the gray, drab skies that are predicted to be back tomorrow.
Even though I cannot get in the garden today, I am celebrating for a couple of reasons. First, and the most obvious, is that it is sunny and dry. Yes! This condition is not expected to last, as our forecast calls for rain for the next 10 days. Second (really first) is that I am off work today! Woo hoo! Third (but truly first) is I will spend the afternoon with my eldest daughter.
Before the day gets away from me, here’s an Arch City Gardener pictoral status update of my plants and beds at the end of March. Oh! And thanks for reading.
In the front yard spirea begins to leaf out.
Penstemon’s lettucy looking red leaves. I love this plant, which has been happy in this spot for five years.Karl Foerster grass is coming upJust a couple of gumballs to deal with. This is Round 3 of the rake up.
Cranesbill Biokova Karmina (geranium x cantabrigiense). What a wonderful groundcover. And talk about easy care!The oakleaf hydrangea “Alice” looks deceptively docile. My pet name for her is “Godzilla.” The blooms are incredible.Planted about six years ago, this low-growing juniper (Juniper horizontalis) is a slow creeper and provides lovely texture with a green-yellow tint. Behind her are stella d’oro day lilies.The fiddleheads of Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) begin their graceful unfurling. Ferns are my favorite plants to observe.
Peonies–Eden’s Perfume, Shirley Temple, and Sarah Bernhardt–peek through the leaves. The peonies were a new additions last year to the bed below the paperbark maple.
Creeping jenny groundcover is vigorous and advancing. It had better dry up so I can get out there and rake.
Saving time, energy and resources are important to me, as I have a finite amount of each. And I like to try clever tips in the garden to help me achieve this. But I’m not sure any of these tips are actually worthwhile. For example, I bundle up my acid-loving azaleas in the winter with trimmings from the Christmas tree. I like to think this lovely stole of greenery protects them when winter temps drop and that maybe they even benefit from the acid in the boughs. Clever or clueless? I’ve done this for a few years now and I have really have no idea if this is a waste of time. My soil is relatively acidic and I feed the the azalea each year, so I’m thinking that perhaps I could be clueless. On the other hand, they are not protected from wind and leaves I rake beneath them in the fall blow away, so the boughs could be a clever idea.To help save time when cutting back grasses such as my variegated maiden grass (miscanthus sinensis variegatus) I tie them to keep them upright while I saw them back chunk by chunk. That way they aren’t flopping all over the place while I’m cutting them. Clever or clueless? I think I’ll score this one as clever. I use diluted solution of bleach water to wipe my clipper blades when pruning rose bushes. I wipe the blades clean between each rose bush so that I don’t transfer any pathogen to another shrub. In fact, I generally clean my tools after I use them. Clever or clueless? I think clever.
Of course there are a host of other time and money saving tricks I haven’t tried but consider such as smashing up eggs shells and incorporating them in the garden soil. I’ve read that buring a banana peel in the soil is good for roses. And of course, many swear by adding spent coffee grounds to the soil as well. Really? Are these clever or would it be better to incorporate them into a compost? I’m thinking these might be clueless manuevers.
What do you think? What are your clever tricks?
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