Before moving to Italy my experience of gardening was limited to a few shrubs around a small lawn, and the odd grow bag of salad leaves.
Now we are the proud owners of around 50 olive trees and around half an acre of land crying out to be turned into the garden of our dreams.
The olive grove is established and relatively easy to care for. Every spring Paolo comes to prune the trees (this is a dark art that we novice olive farmers would not dare undertake for ourselves). In the autumn the olives are picked and we take them to the mill to be turned into oil.
However the garden is a different matter. Our house was built very recently on the site of an old rustic shed, and until a few weeks ago the surrounding land resembled a builder’s yard.
‘Have you got your tomatoes in yet?’ a neighbour asked in March. I admitted guiltily that I hadn’t – there was no way seedlings would survive amidst the rubble and concrete dust.
However it seemed that every other shop front had sprung huge shelving units, stacked with seedlings for every imaginable vegetable, strawberries and melons.
Everybody grows their own round here, and I didn’t want to be left out.
Our first purchase – a lemon tree – didn’t need to wait. Our hillside location means that it has to live in a pot, to come indoors in the very worst weather, so we were able to install it straight away on our patio.
The metre high tree came bearing five or six ripe lemons but the real test is whether it will produce more under our care. I treat it like the most delicate of children – watering only with rain water, spraying the leaves, moving it out of strong winds.
We faced an anxious wait, but two weeks ago flower buds began to appear. Success! We are over the most difficult stage and the flowers will almost definitely generate fruit.
But back to the business of taming the remaining land…I spent a whole day clearing stones from a few square metres, and in the process made my wrist so sore I couldn’t lift anything for a week. James has to work full time. The only way forward was to call in the builders…..
Robbie (so nicknamed because he wants to be Robbie Williams and has the tattoos to prove it) Abdul and Kevi descend on our house for a week. They lift with ease stones that I couldn’t move an inch, lay paths, another terrace, and shift earth.
Now it seems we have a beautiful orto (fruit and vegetable patch) ready for planting in front of our kitchen.
We rush to the nearest agricultural shop with a long shopping list. James has to curb my enthusiasm – ‘Don’t buy more than we can plant at one go,’ he warns.
How right he is to be cautious. Later as we are planting bean seeds and tomatoes, Francesco stops his Land Rover in front of the house; ‘Pomodori, bravo!’ he calls out.
Bella our dog bounces across to see him – and beheads two of the plants.
So it’s back to the drawing board – we cannot plant more until we have made the orto dog proof. We spend the next day dodging showers (yes it’s been raining here too), erecting a low fence.
Finally, we can have the fruit and veg patch of my dreams. We have been back to the shops. The melons, cucumbers and zucchini are all waiting to go in – as soon as the rain stops.