Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Four seasons of gardening

A warm afternoon (more like an occasional late February day) encouraged moving leaf mulch, some light weeding and tidying of winter beds, and musings about planting time. In our climate, more of us should really think more about four seasons of gardening, from vegetables to landscape plants.

The winter honeysuckle is flowering now, prompted by the warm weather. It normally is in full swing by late January and February.

I think I'll sow some winter lettuce in the cold frame tomorrow and set up the heating pad and lights in the garden shed. I'm anxious to start some hardier transplants (kale, broccoli, collards, and mache) and sink my fingers into the damp earth again.

All the covered lettuce beds in Italy this time of year were amazing -- why not here? The hoop frames were simply providing a bit of protection and increased warmth (I think) -- no supplemental heat or light.

I ordered seed potatoes today from my favorite source, Wood Prairie Farm, and onion and leek sets from Dixondale Farms. If I'd kept better records (or had the patience to go back and dig up my notes), I'd know which potatoes did best here, and which varieties from my last year's experiments with onions were most successful, but basically, I love to experiment in the garden -- and every year is different, after all, even with tried-and-true varieties. I haven't yet sorted through my seeds (I'm sure I have plenty already, but maybe I'll find something new I need.... the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed catalog is a wonderful inspiration).

I WILL be rotating more diligently this year (AND KEEPING AN ACCURATE MAP), hmm, is this a New Year's resolution? And, I'll be adding new beds to expand the rotations. Perhaps the trade-off for a mild winter climate is an abundance of potential problems, from fungal wilts to harmful nematodes.

But it's hard to complain about a mid-60° F day in late December, even if it's unusually warm.

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Monday, December 29, 2008

Late December

Arriving home, we were surprised at how mild the weather was, definitely warmer than Italy. A clear blue sky, with well-dampened earth (a good thing), greeted a morning check of the garden.

Everything is in winter mode now, with deciduous leaves fallen. The garlic is up, as are fava beans, planted in a last minute experiment. The parsley is still green, and the collards look fine. I spent some time reviewing seed catalogs this morning- what fun.

We received a giant load of leaves today, thanks to the city's vacuum trunk, an excellent addition for winter mulching. My gardening companion had called before we left, but flagged the driver down this morning.

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

A last day in Rome

Campo de Fiori market

A final day wandering through the streets of central Rome on a cool winter's day saw lots more people enjoying a Saturday post-Christmas. Tourists from all over, but also families out to lunch.

Unexpectedly, we ran across a upscale vegetarian restaurant (Il Margutta) at lunch-time, and enjoyed selecting eggplant, grilled peppers, and other dishes (more vegetables than I'd seen in our entire trip).The market at Campo de Fiori was open, with vegetables and fruits from warmer parts of Italy and abroad. The varieties of lettuce and radicchio were grown nearby, though, and cheese, dried tomatoes, and nuts were also being offered.

The nicest balcony that we saw in an otherwise plant-challenged city

These dogs were enjoying an outing on the Spanish steps (Mocha would NOT like to have any sort of sweater, however, quite popular for well-dressed Roman dogs).

The view was nice from the hills above; Rome was quite peaceful on this post-Christmas visit.

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Friday, December 26, 2008


Tiber River

There isn't much green space in the center of Rome, but we were delighted to be able to experience walking around the piazzas and streets without traffic and bustle.

Tourists were out in force, but Romans are still on holiday post-Christmas, with many shops closed, and it seemed, many more streets closed to traffic than usual.

Perhaps motorcycles and scooters, as well as cars, are actually banned now from pedestrian zones? Or maybe this is just the post-Christmas lull.

Our last visit, in 2001, had us escaping the chaos after two days. (We had planned four). Interesting.

But, today, the Piazza Navona was filled with a Christmas market, complete with chestnut roasters (Middle Eastern fellows roasting chestnuts from bags delivered in small trucks). Quite pleasant.

Rambling was wonderful, without pedestrian-threatening scooters and little traffic.

We enjoyed some delicious pizza in Trastevere -- locals were standing in line. There were actually some arugula and eggplant on my piece, yum (I've been vegetable-deprived in winter Italy restaurants).

There are pizza places everywhere, quite evident in a quiet holiday time in Rome. These are the 'bakery' style pizzas by the 'slice' that my gardening companion loves. He wonders why we don't have these at home?

I wish we did -- Il Fornaio and other pizza places have fresh pizzas, nice-looking bread, and delicious pastries here in Rome.

Now, if the vegetable and fruit market in Campe de Fiori is open tomorrow, I'll have had a wonderful visit to Rome. And even if not, it's been a nice ending to our Southern Italy travels.

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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Italian lettuce

Winter is not the time to experience the best of Italian vegetables, certainly. I've seen purple artichokes in the fields ready to harvest, as well as in markets. But there haven't been any offered up in the menus of the restaurants we've been at, alas.

But, I've been fascinated by the sizeable areas of lettuces growing under hoop house covers, acres and acres of them; they're butter lettuces (the green ones) and lovely purple ones, maybe a romaine, in alternating blocks. We've been driving by these farmed areas, without a chance to stop and peer closely at them.

Along the coast from Naples north to Rome, above the historic coastal town of Sperlonga (lovely, but no lodgings were available), large areas were being farmed in rich soil, although other areas lay fallow.

We're now in the center of Rome; I'll see what the markets are offering up in tomorrow's explorations.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008


I wasn't too excited about visiting Pompeii; I had paid attention during art history class, but it sounded less than wonderful surrounded with Naple's sprawl and overrun with 1. 5 million tourists a year.

But an early morning visit in the off-season, staying in the renovated surrounding town, made it easy to imagine a vibrant city in the shadow of Vesuvius.

Pompeii street view

A remarkably large and well- preserved city, Pompeii, of course, deserves its reputation.

And following up with a visit to the National Museum in Naples to view the best mosaics provided a rare glimpse into life in a Roman city centuries ago.

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Delightful Christmas lights

On Christmas Eve, it's nice to reflect on the beautiful scenes we've seen here in Southern Italy. Despite an affinity for the most saccharine of American Christmas songs (not the traditional carols), but Jingle Bells, etc., the small white lights and imaginative (and tasteful) displays illuminate historic streets and plazas.

Lecce was especially nice -- beautiful white and blue lights contrasted with the elaborate baroque decorations.

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Puglia coast

The coast of Puglia touches both the Adriatic and Ionian sea. Cold in winter, the resort towns are quiet, but the coastal area is still beautiful.

Otranto, an old cliff-top town, is one of the most attractive of these towns, along with Gallipoli.

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Cyclamens are seen everywhere in Southern Italy.
The capital city of Puglia is Lecce, a beautiful, but very urban city with a historic center decorated in a baroque style.

We enjoyed several days in a wonderfully located B&B near one of the city gates, exploring the old city.

Lecce duomo and plaza

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Saturday, December 20, 2008

Trulli, Alberobello, and Valle d'Itria

Leaving Matera, we headed towards the valley known for trulli – conical stone-roofed houses that were traditional for centuries. Without a detailed map, we looped around the industrial outskirts of Bari and along the coast, before heading inland through agricultural areas full of lettuces (butter and red), parsley, what looked like pac choi greens, and endless olive groves.
The soil is rocky (an understatement); piles of excavated stones make up stone walls, smaller stones provide a rocky mulch for young olive trees, and other stones were piled up near remnant holm oaks.

We stopped at the Grotto de Castellana, the largest caverns in Italy, maybe in Europe. We’d never been in such extensive limestone caves; I vaguely recall visiting Carlsbad Caverns, in New Mexico, USA as a child, and thinking they were expansive.

We passed several garden centers. Now that we're able to get online again, I can check to see if my ‘small seed lots permit’ has been approved. I would really like to bring some seeds home for some unusual Italian vegetable varieties.

The countryside through Arborbello (a main trulli town), Locarando, Cisternino, and Ostuni was pastoral, and nice; Southern Italy seems to alternate between wonderful towns and landscapes, and ‘modern’ block apartments and industrial development. Arborbello is supposedly overrun by tourists, but not this time of the year. We had the trulli area designated by UNESCO to ourselves, basically,

But always, there seem to be pockets of growing things; olive groves are everywhere, intermixed with vegetables.

The smaller Puglia hill towns (Locarando and Cisternino) were a delight, with atmospheric pathways and attractive buildings. Parks provided views into the countryside, a patchwork of agricultural fields and olive orchards. Not a hotel to be found, at least this time of year, so we ended up in a small hotel in Ostuni, a much larger town spread across three hills.

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Matera and sassi

A long drive across the Italian peninsula on Tuesday brought us to Matera, an ancient town in Basilicata now noted for its sassi – dwellings excavated from the limestone caves dotting a deeply etched canyon.

It’s an otherworldly sight, unlike anywhere we’ve been before.

Evoking ancient ways with stone pathways creating a labyrinth of alleys, and winding stairs, it’s not too hard to imagine people living here long ago. An echo of poverty and reminder of terrible conditions exists, too; the 15, 000+ people who were forcibly removed from the sassi in the early 1950’s for ‘decent’ housing apparently were living by that time in disease-ridden and squalid conditions, according to our guidebooks.

Matera’s sassi are now a UNESCO World Heritage site, and are being rehabilitated by affluent residents, peopled by hotels and cafes, and signposted for tourists like us.

On a gray, overcast day, however, when the pathways were largely empty, it was easy to think of the people who had lived here over the centuries, dependent on an elaborate systems of water catchment and cisterns, caves that incorporated living space, work areas, and space for animals, after excavating the soft tufa rock. Overpopulation in the 18th and 19th centuries overwhelmed the capacity of cave dwellings, expansion into poorly ventilated areas resulting in poor living conditions by the mid 20th century.

We stayed in a lovely hotel—Caveoso Hotel, a renovated cluster of sassi near the San Pietro Caveoso square. Fueled by a delicious breakfast of croissants with custard, chocolate, or nutella fillings, slices of eggy Matera bread, Matera foccacia, and for me, a couple of delicious mugs of cappuccino, we decided to stay a second night, and headed out for a foggy day’s exploration. Last night’s dinner encouraged another night, too. A delicious antipasto of eggplant , a carrot/potato cake with crisped pepper, a mushroom tar, marinated zucchini was followed by homemade pasta with great sauces. Il Cantuccio seemed to be a place that locals were enjoying celebrations; a large business-oriented group and a mixed local/foreigner group had lively dinners.

View from hotel

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Ravello: Seigli del Dei

Seeing familiar plants in their native habitats is always a thrill. Along the Seigli del Dei (the Path of the Gods), consisting of shepherd’s paths turned hiking trail, we saw not only spectacular views of the Amalfi Coast towards Capri and the sheer limestone cliffs of the coastal mountains, but also the natural chapparal vegetation, protected from excessive disturbance because of steepness.

A early Crocus had just opened.

The trail runs between Bomerano and Positano, in a traditional route, hugging the cliffs and presenting quite a challenge to anyone nervous around heights. The dropoff was distinctly dramatic in spots – a long way down to the sea; fortunately, the trail was fairly wide.

We saw rosemary, santolina, Artemisia, mints, and a small thyme, along with what looked like broom (Cytisus) interspersed with steep rocky slopes. Pockets of oak and alder woodland, with umbrella pine, ash, and a smattering of other things (including a blueberry relative (in the Ericaceae) that we remembered from the Garden as Strawberry Bush, with fleshy red fruits and a Rhus look-a-like, something similar to Scabiosa, and lots of sweet alyssum.

Yesterday, a patch of Arisaema (Jack in the Pulpit) on one of the ledges above the cliff-side path where we were walking caught my eye. It was in full flower.

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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Italian chicory & the Almafi Coast

We saw Sea Kale (Crambe maritima) along the coastal paths today, at least I think it was sea kale. A vegetable that I've seen only in Thomas Jefferson's vegetable garden at Monticello and in Old Salem, NC, it's a European native that looks like a very large leafy kale.

Of equal interest has been all the varieties of Italian chicory. I grow several (the groundhogs like them), and their bitter flavor makes an agreeable counterpoint to blander greens.

Bundles were displayed at a fruit and vegetable market in an Amalfi Coast town (Vietri del Mare); the grocer laughed when she saw my gardening companion taking a photo.

I'd look quite at home strolling here if it wasn't for my Keens!

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Amalfi lemons and vineyards

Towards the southern end of the Amalfi Coast, near Ravello, the inland valleys are broader, even though still mountainous.

This slope, between Ravello and Scala, had large areas of wine grapes, the leaves yellow now.

Amalfi lemons, pointed, sweet and with thick skins, are protected by elaborate coverings from being marred by inclement frost, birds, and whatever else might affect them.

On an inland loop, we went through an agricultural area around the village of Tramonti.

Noticing the coppiced groves, we were interested to find that they were European chestnuts, clearly intensively managed for nuts. Our American chestnuts are virtually gone now, because of chestnut blight, but Chinese chestnuts have similar spiny husks.

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Friday, December 12, 2008

Crops on the Amali Coast

Even along the fabled Amalfi Coast, there is still food being grown. Traditional specialty crops, to be sure - the ancient terraces largely support olives and lemons, with vegetables grown occasionally. But it was remarkable to us to see this even in a heavily touristed area; I imagine that the land has been protected in some fashion, to remain agricultural in such a visited area.

In December, the tourist traffic is light indeed, but there's still only enough parking for locals, and we can only imagine the chaos that occurs in summer.

The Amalfi Coast IS beautiful; it's certainly the equal of Highway 1 north of San Francisco, or the area near Carmel, CA, always mentioned in terms of beautiful coastal drives. The Gaspe Peninsula in Quebec is also spectacular, but the Amali Coast is living up to our expectations, even in the winter!

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

First impressions of Southern Italy (gardens)

What's remarkable about the slopes and valleys of Mt. Vesuvius (near Naples) are the vegetable fields and orchards. This is a heavily urbanized area, filled with (ugly) modern apartment houses, industrial plants, and various other things. But woven among them are pocket fields -- mixed plantings of onions, mustard greens, kale, cauliflower - aside of orchards of oranges, lemons, and dormant fruit trees. They grow nuts (hazelnuts and walnuts), as well as cherries, apricots, and probably peaches, nourished by the rich volcanic soil.

There are also rows of covered hoop houses, also growing greens, but also ornamental plants. It's hard to tell because they're obscured with the fiberglass and plastic.

To us, it's impressive to see the integration of small urban farms of 1-10 acres with an heavily populated and urban landscape. Behind many apartment blocks are small home vegetable gardens, including a few citrus trees, with dormant fruits and nut trees, punctuated by rows of greens, cauliflower, and onions.

Surprisingly, there are Japanese persimmons, too, thriving in the mild maritime climate. The tall leafless trees are loaded with fruit (putting my small tree to shame). They're hardly a traditional Italian fruit, but we've see a few in a small city fruit stall, in Sorrento, after escaping Rome traffic, and the jammed autostrada. Even in the business hotel that we stayed in last night, they served delicious cold greens, roasted red peppers, grilled zucchini with lemon and herbs, and roasted eggplant on the 'contorni' table. Yum.

It'll be interesting to see what's grown along the Amalfi Coast in winter (this is a fabled area for tourists and OVERRUN in summer by people of all nationalities.)

But the coast is beautiful, and in winter, and in a very down economic time, even budget-minded travelers like ourselves are finding quite affordable accommodation. Much less that you'd imagine for Italy even 6 months ago.

My gardening companion, an avowed olive-hater, pressed me to have a very large green olive, presented as part of snacks with pre-dinner drinks. Scrumptious, actually, not salty like the ones at home, or shriveled, but delicious, fresh, and light-tasting.

It's been raining, so we don't have any pictures yet, but the moon was bright, and almost full this evening, so tomorrow may be better!

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Sunday, December 7, 2008


This image is from a Texas A&M site about toxic plants

On a nature walk on Friday, one of the participants asked me if I'd seen a yellow-fruited tree along a nearby road. It sounded a bit mysterious, since there aren't so many trees with yellowish berries or yellow fruits of any sort around here.

I had an opportunity to go by this afternoon and discovered that they are Chinaberry (Melia azedarach) trees. There were 4 or 5 of them, all about the same size, so probably planted at the same time.

They're striking now; the leaves have dropped, revealing branches loaded with berries.

A fast-growing tree, it was often grown as a shade tree near houses, and was used as a street tree in the middle and lower Southern U.S., according to Gardens and Historic Plants of the Antebellum South. Introduced in the late 1700's, it remained popular (and revered) as a shade tree through the antebellum era, described as the 'Pride of China' or the 'Pride of the South.' Trees have persisted in old homesites, and have often spread to nearby disturbed areas; the species is now on a number of invasive species lists. It's probably just cold enough here for younger seedlings and saplings to succumb to freezes, so it's not common in this part of the Piedmont.

The berries are toxic for mammals (including humans), and leaves and roots are allelopathic. Birds spread the seeds through ingestion of the fruits and can be harmed if seeds are consumed.

But, Chinaberry is definitely a memory tree -- I ran across a book called 'Under the Chinaberry Tree' in my Google research, and I remember vividly the Chinaberry tree near our first house in Austin, Texas, when I was about nine years old.

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Saturday, December 6, 2008

Winter travels

Even in the Southern US, we have gray wintery days. Today wasn't so cold, but overcast and dark. My gardening companion and I are preparing for our annual winter trip -- almost always somewhere brighter and warmer. There's not too much to get ready. Since we travel light, there's not much to pack, and after instructions to the housesitters, and saying goodby to Mocha, we're off.

A travel shop window in Southern England

This year, it may not be too much brighter and warmer, but will definitely be different than some of our previous winter destinations. We're heading towards Campania, Puglia, Basilicata, and maybe Sicily. These Southern Italy destinations have me thinking about interesting seeds to buy -- hmm, great tomatoes, perhaps.... (I've gone to quite a bit of effort to sign up for a USDA 'small seeds' permit, so as not to repeat my unpleasant experience in May where all of the seeds I'd bought - retail commercial seed packets from Great Britain - many from Italy - were confiscated on my return. Hrrmph....)

But really, it's about exploring a new part of the world again -- this doesn't have much to do with natural gardening, but natural gardens. We'll see what the Mediterranean vegetation along the coast looks like, explore a few national parks, and experience Southern Italy in the winter.

And we'll see lots of gardening going on, too, I imagine!

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Friday, December 5, 2008

Winter vegetables

Even though it's been January weather for us this past November, with more freezing days than we'd had in the fall for some time, it's amazing how well the winter greens in our sheltered vegetable garden next to the Garden's visitor center have done.

This photo is earlier in the fall.

The small garden is sheltered by a low brick wall, and it's in full sun; apparently enough heat is stored in the brick to temper the overnight temperatures.

The snow peas have been frosted, and the purple mustards show signs of frost damage, but fresh leaves continue to appear in both the mustards. The turnip greens, kale, broccoli, and collards are fine, as I'd expect, but the spinach also looks wonderful, and amazingly, the arugula in the mesclun mix is looking fine. Ditto, the lettuces, which must get enough warmth from the wall to be sheltered from frost damage.

Perhaps I need to build a wall around some of my beds at home to extend the season!

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Thursday, December 4, 2008

New gardeners & growing your own vegetables

There's such a resurgent interest in growing vegetables here in the U.S.. Hooray! Even non-vegetable gardeners (based on our Garden's volunteer appreciation lunch today) have heard of the Eat the View campaign to encourage transforming part of the White House lawn to an organic vegetable garden.

In Victory Garden days, apparently 41% of the vegetables consumed in the U.S. came from home gardens.

I know from my experiences with my (relatively small) vegetable garden areas that we have vegetables/greens to eat from April to October/November, enough that I don't need to buy much fresh produce at the grocery store during that time. I haven't focused yet at growing enough to can, freeze, or otherwise preserve, but perhaps that's the next step.

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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Monarch migration

My butterfly friends gave a great presentation about their trip to the overwintering sites in Mexico today. The monarch reserves in Michoacan aren't easy to reach; they're east of Mexico City, outside the city of Morelia, but far off the normal tourist track. They went with a Monarch group from Georgia led by two experienced guides, with a group size of 11. Perfect!

Monarch on Zinnia in summer

To get to the reserves (the overwintering site for all of our Eastern monarchs) requires truck rides, hiking, and horseback. But my friends are definitely butterfly enthusiasts, and that wasn't going to be an obstacle for them.

Years ago, I visited the Pacific Grove reserve (the overwintering site of the Western U.S. monarchs); they were roosting all over the trees there, but were inactive at that time.

My friends were able to see the monarchs in Michoacan, stimulated by warmer weather at the end of February, flying around, and getting ready for migration north. How wonderful!

To follow migration of monarchs north and south, Monarch Watch and Journey North are both great organizations, with informative websites reflecting real time data. It gives folks like my butterfly friends and me the chance to tag monarchs and/or post our observations; we're contributing to a better understanding of migration patterns and variability as well as serving as citizen scientists.

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