Gardening in Tuscany

It’s not that I think you’ll come to Tuscany to garden; it’s that this little incident illustrates some aspects of the Tuscan character that I hope you’ll want to experience firsthand.

About a month ago I was passing one of the excellent garden centres in our valley and decided to stop to get some plants to spruce up my terrace, as well as my annual supply of basil, parsley and thyme (I manage to kill a plant every year). Back home the plants sat around silently urging me to repot them every time I walked past. Finally, I decided to grab an hour and get the job done. Having settled the French lavender and passionflower into a planter with the last of my sack of potting compost, I went up to our little village shop, which sells almost everything, to buy another bag.

Our bar with the shop above

Our bar with the shop above

Both Renato and Eugenia, the husband and wife team which owns the shop, were there.

Renato with some of the everything he sells, including fresh bread every day

Renato with some of the everything he sells, including fresh bread every day

Eugenia is a great baker.

Eugenia is a great baker.

Striking up a conversation, they asked what I was planting. When I told them it was herbs, they both virtually forbid me to use the commercial potting compost. I had no idea what it was made from, they objected. All sorts of rubbish. But it’s sterilised, I countered. They shook their heads and looked very sad. That stuff was fine for decorative plants, but not for food that I was going to put in my mouth. What I had to do was get some natural soil from the forest. Chestnut, suggested Eugenia. Too acid, said Renato. You need the ‘fat soil’ from beneath hazels. And where would I find it? Maybe on the terrace below his orto (vegetable garden).

Besides vegetables, Renato has old varieties of fruit trees

Besides vegetables, Renato has old varieties of fruit trees.

You mean halfway down the hill across from the old church with the round tower? Yes, there’s a little lay-by where you can park the car. They would give me my money back on the bag of compost, but I kept it anyway, just in case.

The hour I’d allotted was up, but how could I use that hideous industrial compost in its lurid plastic bag? If I’d really been in the spirt of things, I’d have walked down the mulattiera (cobbled mule track)—with my donkey, of course—but I took the car. Although the hazels were obvious now that I’d stopped and got out of the car, I’d never noticed them before. When I clambered up the slope and penetrated into the middle of them, I discovered an old hazel copse that hadn’t been coppiced for many years, a green cathedral with fan vaulting and leafy capitals.

Emerald glow under the hazels

Emerald glow under the hazels

I brushed away the top leaves, as Renato had instructed, and found the rich decomposed leaf mould below. I had to dig in several places before I had enough.

Rich crumbly leaf mould

Rich crumbly leaf mould and my trowel, handmade by Carlo the blacksmith

My sack full, and being enveloped by the stillness of the place, I forgot about my single hour and took time to look around. Beyond the copse were the remnants of a vineyard, an old garden shed and a hunting hide. A rural idyll fast being overtaken by rampant vegetation.

Gnarled sticks of a bygone vineyard

Gnarled sticks of a bygone vineyard

Aquilegias brighten a tumbledown shed

Aquilegias brighten a tumbledown shed

Hunting hide hiding from passersby

Hunting hide hiding from passersby

All the comforts of home while shooting little birds. Maybe some things are best lost.

All the comforts of home while shooting little birds. Maybe some things are best lost.

Three hours later my basil, parley and thyme were looking happy in their woodland soil and I was back at my computer feeling restored by Eugenia and Renato’s attachment to doing things correctly and their conviction that actions, not the hands of a clock, are what matter.

Basil foretelling summer dishes

Basil foretelling summer dishes

I'm hoping for a forest of parsley.

I’m hoping for a forest of parsley.

It’s hard to find these moments when you’re travelling and moving around all the time. We members of Slow Travel Tours have experienced them many times and treasure them. We can show you where to sit quietly, so you too have the chance to experience them when you’re with us.

Erica Jarman invites you on inspiring culinary tours of life behind the scenes that you won't find in any guidebook — get to know the food artisans and craftspeople of Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, Piedmont and Liguria. Come join me and my Italian friends and dip into a lifestyle where lunch is more important than business. Find out more at Sapori e Saperi Adventures and follow Erica’s own adventures on her blog.

Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.

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