A Stroll Around The Garden

It was back in late February that we first rejoiced at the apparent arrival of spring, but since then it has been an unusually protracted, on-off affair. Until a couple of weeks ago, that is when spring positively exploded into a glorious riot of colour, scent and birdsong. Over the course of the last fortnight the surrounding hillsides and hedgerows have gone from a sprinkling of tightly folded buds, too timid to open up to the still chilly breeze, to a mass of leaves and blossom bobbing and fluttering in the sunshine. And it’s been the same in our garden too, of course. Not that we really have a garden in the English sense of the word. No neat borders filled with irises and tulips, no stripey, billiard-table lawn, no seedling-filled greenhouse. We do have quite a sizeable chunk of land, though – about half an acre in all. It is rectangular and almost entirely covered by rough grass that is currently sprinkled with daisies, and like a giant green picnic rug, it rolls down the gentle slope of the valley from the longer western side, along which runs the road into Montelupone. A single field planted either with wheat or with sunflowers – this year it’s wheat – wraps around the other three sides. The grassy rug is pegged in place by a single line of thirty-eight olive trees that mark the outer perimeter, while a line of tall broadleaf evergreen hedge (Italian alder, we think) forms an inner perimeter, creating a three- or four-metre-wide shady grove around which are dotted a dozen or so fruit trees. These include apple, pear, plum and persimmon as well as apricot, fig and walnut, all of which are just coming into fruit, their blossom having long since been lost in eddies of pink and white confetti on the lively spring breeze. Shall we go for a stroll…?

The house stands end-on to the road, with all but a narrow strip of land containing the carport and the tall, domed well behind it and the remainder evenly spread out around the other three sides, so let’s start from the back door which opens off the kitchen and onto the northern section of the garden. This is where the old pigsty once stood and for the time being, the upper part can most charitably be described as ‘work in progress’ as it is where all the tonnes of spoil from cantina excavations (don’t ask!) have been piled up and is now little more than a jungle of weeds, albeit very pretty ones. Over the last few months, though, we’ve become adept at ignoring the building site to our left and focusing instead on the shady terrace stretching along the back of the house to our right. This is now home to a small table and two chairs (our preferred spot for breakfast in the height of summer), an abundant herb garden (a handy five paces or fewer from the kitchen worksurface), and a rapidly expanding collection of plant pots and troughs. These are filled with carnations, busy lizzies, hydrangeas and jasmine that are all poised to burst into flower any day now, as grateful as Mr Blue-Shirt and I both are for the slightly cooler conditions that this side of the house still enjoys even when the sun is at its fiercest.  It is a far cry from the almost permanently puddle-filled strip of cracked and flaking concrete, the dilapidated and moss-covered cold frame, the jumble of ill-fitting drain covers, the assortment of wonky chairs and the stack of sun-bleached plastic crates that the space was littered with when we first moved in.

A few metres across the grass from where we are now standing at the north-east corner of the terrace are the long, low-roofed woodstore and a couple of small, increasingly saggy sheds that cluster around the hedge-line at the end of the long eastern side of the plot. They are partly hidden by an extremely vigorous bay tree with its brand-new outfit of shiny, acid green leaves, a pomegranate tree whose tiny leaves are just fading from coppery-pink to bright green and a cherry tree whose young fruit so far looks more like freshly podded peas than cherries.  Then as we continue round onto the eastern side, our gaze is instantly drawn to the view out over the olive trees up to the honey-hued village to the left and then down the lush, olive tree, wheat, rape, vine and eventually sunflower filled valley to the tantalising triangle of sapphire blue sea at the bottom. And for the last two years, we have been able to enjoy this stop-you-in-your-tracks view from this slightly elevated terrace that Mr Blue-Shirt built during the first lockdown. The broad, terracotta-tiled space extends right across the eastern end of the house, which opens onto the garden from the sitting room. Every evening for the last two summers we have lingered at the dining table or lounged on the L-shaped sofa out here, watching the lights twinkling across the valley and breathing in the perfumed evening air, or if we are lucky, listening to the rasping of the crickets and the coloratura song of a lone nightingale accompanying the ballet of fireflies taking place among the trees. Initially, we just wanted to enjoy the pristine openness of this space, rather like those minimalist chefs who like to ‘let the ingredients speak for themselves’. But it soon felt a little too sterile and ascetic, so over time we have softened its crisp, clean lines, first by adding large tubs of lavender and sprawling plumbago, then troughs filled with richly-scented wine-red roses, and most recently the practically obligatory tumble of cheery geraniums and petunias.

So, as we follow the terrace round, our stroll brings us to the south section of the plot. In English terms this would probably be called the front garden since it is here that the heavy sliding gate opens from the road onto a wide gravel driveway from which the main entrance to the house is reached. To our left on the far side the driveway stands a group of stately conifers, a small rotund laurel bush, a neat little hibiscus tree and a huge willow tree that dominates the view from my study window, and beneath whose gracefully arching limbs stands the bench Mr Blue-Shirt forged a few years ago, originally as a golden wedding present for his late parents. Meanwhile, immediately in front of us, there is a vigorous climbing rose that is already weighed down by heavy clusters of pale pink blooms and a pair of bougainvillea plants whose muscular, leaf-sprigged limbs will soon turn into a mass of brilliant crimson. All three scramble up the short section of pergolato that Mr Blue-Shirt and a visiting pal erected over the narrow strip of terrace running along the southern side of the house. Passing the café table and chairs from where we enjoy the sunshine on winter mornings, we reach the narrow, final section of terrace as it passes in front of the stairs running up the front of the house. On it stands a row of two lemon trees and a lime and the heady fragrance from their small, waxy blooms accompanies as we make our way to the heavy oak front door and finally head back inside. But only for as long as it takes to go through to the sitting room, fling open the garden doors, step out onto the terrace and settle down on the sofa in the golden, late afternoon sunshine to listen to the bees humming in the lavender and watch the hoopoes and magpies swooping among the trees. Do you think it’s too early for a glass of wine…?

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