A Garden in Umbria

Inferno - September 2021

In commemorating the seven centuries since the death of Dante I am drawn to reflecting on l’Inferno. Not just from an abstract, literary viewpoint but also the real effects as we emerge from this summer of hellish weather and catastrophes.

Map showing zones of extreme drought May to July 2021
(European Drought Observatory)

Hot, hot, hot. But it always is here in summer. Dry, dry, dry. We are used to this too, but this year there was no appreciable rain from early April until late August.

What made the drought even worse were the hot southerly winds, the incessant ‘libeccio’, bringing sandstorms without rain. The European Drought Observatory reports (see map above) that most of Umbria and the regions east of the Apennines went into ‘extreme drought’.

A fire started in our neighbour’s olive grove - I have no idea how - and the wind fanned the flames towards us at a terrifying speed. I called the Vigile del Fuoco on 112. Spelling out my name and address ‘Ypsilon, Verona, Otranto, Novara …’ seemed to take forever, but a helicopter was overhead in a trice and a squad arrived by road to quench the flames. A close call.

So how did your garden cope? Did you yield to temptation and get out the hose to water? I tried not to – and my garden looks terrible. But as Piet Oudorf, famous for his ‘prairie planting’, says: brown is also a colour.

Watering during these extreme conditions may even make matters worse. Garden designer Valerio Miragoli, who creates spectacular gardens in Ibiza which never get irrigated, explains in his talk to the Mediterranean Garden Society how plants need to have a proper rest in high summer: “Agostamento” or summer dormancy. Without this the plants will develop fungal diseases and die from the stress of growing and flowering during high summer.

Spirea ‘Bridal Wreath’ with autumn foliage but still alive

Same Spirea with new green foliage after the September rain

In my garden, some plants and trees went into autumnal mode this summer with leaves turning dry and brown. They are still alive though and you can check by scratching a stem with your thumbnail - it will be green when the sap is still circulating. The plant will put on new growth either when September rains arrive or wait until next spring.

Some Mediterranean plants, such as Cistus, cope by curling up their leaves to reduce moist loss and then unrolling when the rains arrive.

Cistus x pupureus leaves before rain

Cistus x pupureus leaves after rain

Sadly, though, there is no hope for the rambling rose that was destroyed when a sandstorm brought down the power lines and left us without mains electricity for ten days. Enel’s digger did for it when they were ‘cleaning up’ after having put up a new pylon and restrung the cables. And now I cannot order a replacement from the UK as exports of plants to the EU are no longer allowed.

But if we can have faith, leaving the Inferno behind us then we will pass through this time of ‘Purgatorio’ and arrive at the ‘Paradiso’ that our gardens will become once again in spring.

The photo at the top of this page shows a wildfire near Pantano (PG) (Photo Vigile del Fuoco)

Many of these articles first appeared in the Castiglione del Lago monthly newsletter “Qua e là” edited by Priscilla Worsley

All text and photographs © Yvonne Barton unless stated otherwise

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