Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Get down and dirty in Tuscany

Wow - yes I truly believe spring is here. The Cherry Tree is positively a burst with rosy glowing buds, spring bulbs are pushing their way into the fresh air with gladiator like vigour and every hour of the day our passionflower is twirling its way onwards and upwards over its new arbour.

As spring arrives here in Tuscany life gets busy in the garden both in the veg patch and in amongst the flower beds. This season our garden has a wholly more healthy appearance every single plant has a sheen, a strength and an urgency to thrive. Romantic as I may be even I know that the reason the fruit, vegetable and flowers are so bursting with life is not simply because they are alive in Tuscany, the reason goes deeper, much deeper, literally.
Pots brimming with homemade compost / mulch

Mulch, the magic word. One often reserved for allotment holders in the UK but in all seriousness mulch is without a doubt the answer to many Tuscan gardeners dreams. Tuscany is so varied, from rolling hills to glass sided mountains, from the arid beaches to alpine pastures, Tuscany has no 'standard' climate. To grow things we love and enjoy in every sense here in Italy requires patience and hard work. In high summer we need to give water and provide shade, in winter we have to protect from the freezing mountain winds and sudden dramatic ice storms. However, there are some very simple steps that can be taken to give our gardens here in Tuscany a helping hand and which will bring joy to those who simply love to grow things.

Homemade compost or for use as mulch
 Muching is easy, it is simple and it is utterly miraculous. Most areas of land in this part of Italy require attention in terms of creating an environment where plants can thrive. Although a firm believer in planting plants that are native or suitable to there natural surroundings, the effect that feeding the soil can have is literally and physically ground breaking. Although the dictionary term mulching means “to provide a protective covering of organic material laid over the soil around plants to prevent erosion, retain moisture, and sometimes enrich the soil” it is a whole lot simpler than that. Mulching is a slow but utterly efficient way of enriching and enlivening the ground.

Let’s not complicate the issue, most organic waste will feed your garden, it can aerate, feed and add nutrients to your chosen patch. Mulching can strengthen flowering plants helping them fight disease, it will give your vegetables, herbs and fruit the kind of growing power only seen in the likes of books and ultimately give you the encouragement needed to continue growing in what can be challenging terrain.

Whether you have a small terrace and are growing a few herbs in pots or are fortunate enough to have space to grow a variety of plants the benefits of mulching are the same. 
Once you have decided to embark on this wonderful and addictive path you must first get used to collecting large cardboard boxes. Yes that is right, you want to collect as many large sheets of cardboard as possible, Bakers and Supermarkets will all discard these and just before bin day you will find lots of lovely cardboard near recycling bins. Scoop these up as quick as you can and take them home.

Secondly you need to clear the soon to be mulched area of weeds and plants the very best you can, you do not need to break your back doing this but the clearer the area the better.

Now lay the cardboard across the soil covering every area you can, do not leave any space for light to get through. Weight down the cardboard with stones or logs, OK it will look rather untidy, but not for long. Once the garden, pots, allotment or veg patch are covered with cardboard the weeds underneath will be starved of light and start to die. In the meantime you will be getting to grips with collecting all organic waste, better known as composting.

Having a large comport bin close to your kitchen will mean you are able to really give your garden the best support you can. Everything from eggshells to potato peelings, teabags and coffee granules can all be disposed of in the compost bin, combine this will ample grass cuttings and brown stuff such as chopped up twigs and leaves (not pine however) and you will start to have a rather stunning compost. Really get into a routine of saving your organic waste and using your composting bin and, if you are really feeling brave feed it when you can with a bit of pee which helps the breakdown the waste. After a while you will notice how the compost is starting to turn into just that ‘compost’ a rich fertile and life giving mulch. As soon as your beds, or patch are covered in your cannily collected cardboard you can start layering grassing cuttings and dried leaves on top, the layers of mulch start to feed the ground beneath and act as protective layer, storing moisture. Once your compost bin is starting to contain broken down organic matter this too can be placed on top of the cardboard, and so the rhythm continues, the more mulch you apply to the garden the more rich the soil beneath becomes, you also now have beds that you no longer need to dig, a miracle in itself. You then simply plant through the mulch, dig small holes for you plants and then watch them thrive, yes you will find the odd renegade weed appearing but mostly you will not need to dig or weed heavily and your young plants will be given the very best environment in which to thrive.

In brief, mulching will become a way of life one that saves you hours of watering, digging and weeding. Mulching your Tuscan garden will mean that you are able to grow wider varieties of plants, ones you love to eat, enjoy the summer scents of and ones that simply enhance your environment. Working with nature and supporting it is what Tuscans have done for centuries, with a little lateral thinking we can all enjoy the romanticism of Italian gardens with allot less of the toil and struggle.

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