In Umbria spring is particularly welcome. Spring and autumn are our high times. Soil here is thin and mean, and it takes loads of compost and organic additives to make a garden grow. Many plants will not survive in the calcareous, iron- and potassium-deficient soil. Others require more water than we can provide in summer, or cannot tolerate the fierce frosts and snows of our winter.
We have another disadvantage. We live on the slopes of the rocky Umbrian oak forest. This gives us the dubious distinction of being a restaurant for wild boar, porcupine, rodents and birds with a gourmets passion for feasting on bulbs of all kinds, corms and tubers. When these are exhausted, bushes and any old exotic plant will do instead.
This creates difficulties for those of us who live in Umbria who crave a fruitful, naturalised country garden.
Obviously a good nursery garden or vivaio should be able to help, but sadly they are no longer small farms where plants are grown and where a wise, green-fingered proprietor enjoys helping the novice. Today, almost without exception, they resemble supermarkets, buying in their limited range of industrialised bedding and pot plants from large suppliers, who grow them in controlled environment hangars and truck them out to local centres in much the same way that supermarkets produce and distribute ready-cooked meals.
One of the gardeners joys creating a garden from an idiosyncratic collection of plants has become a daunting challenge. The discovery of an unusual rose or a creeper that suits a particular corner of a wall relies on friends rather than the vivaio. For the rest, one takes what one can get. As a general rule, precise labelling is not common in the vivaii of Italy, so surprises still exist but usually not pleasant ones. How maddening to buy what is meant to be a blue iris only to have it present as orange, or a valerian that pops up pink in what was to be a white bed.
Price is also becoming a barrier to a varied garden, as euro inflation has struck. Last year a thriving daphne odora (originally bought as a healthy plant for L.25,000) looked pot-bound. On repotting, it drooped, developed a fatal virus and died. The big vivaio that supplies many small centres here had daphne odora on sale at the two-leaf stage for 50 too expensive for a smallholder.
A creeper that is marvellously adapted to Umbrian extremes is the clematis amandii evergreen and covered with sweet-smelling white, starshaped flowers from February until early April. Two years ago it cost L.30,000. Today it costs 60.
Weekly markets such as the one in Orvieto and the monthly market in Fabro are good alternative sources of healthy, homegrown plants for bedding and for the vegetable garden or orto.
The Comunit di Montana vivaio on the outskirts of Perugia is a treasure trove of site-grown fruit and forest trees and in springtime there are small greenhouses full of homegrown bedding plants of subtle colour and healthy growth. Prices are modest.
In the Umbrian winter all herbs, with the exception of laurel and rosemary, wither or retreat under the soil. One of the real joys of spring is the re-emergence of French tarragon, lovage, coriander, chervil, chives, all the wonderful Thai and Indian basils and sage. The commercial nurseries supply only a narrow range of herbs but, in the Frazione of Ripavalle near S. Venanzo, there is a real herb farm. To arrive there you have to be brave about narrow roads, steep hills and unknown territory. But overcome these hazards and you find a paradise where herbs, both culinary and medicinal, thrive. Proprietor Dr Hutz is a lover of herbs and a true plant explorer. He gathers seed from all over the world, nurtures it and, generously, not only sells his little pots for a pittance but also donates a wealth of experience so that we know, with confidence, where to plant the herb, how to care for it and how to use it.
It is still too early to do more in the orto than gather in the late cabbages and early cauliflowers, but the flower garden is beginning to live again. By May the roses will have forgotten the black spot and insect exhaustion they suffered last year and will be abandoning themselves to blowsy beauty. Before the ubiquitous but robust geraniums take over in early summer, the tulips, clematis, poppies, pansies, daisies, peonies and, with luck, some sweet peas, will fill the air with perfume and the eye with pleasure. It wont last long, but when it passes, the old standbys, box, cypress, rosemary and lavender and the pots of lemons that thrive in summer, will come into their own and proudly advertise to all that this is truly an Umbrian garden.
Picture: Lynne Chattertons Umbrian garden: in spring the flower garden begins to live again, and by May the roses will be abandoning themselves to blowsy beauty.