A Garden in Umbria

Design - Travelin’ light - November 2020

So here we are again. Locked down. Locked in. Yellow, Orange, Red … whatever the colour of zone, we aren’t going anywhere any time soon.

But we really want to escape, to get out on the road and go, to fly, to even run away. Maybe we ought to chill a little. Let’s hear JJ Cale sing about the best way to travel, Travelin’ Light.

So how are we filling our time? Are we just stuck, immobile, rooted. Vegetating? Sounds like we are turning into plants, which of course are unable to travel. Or are they?

Prof Stefano Mancuso (Photo Corriere.it)

Professor Stefano Mancuso, head of the International Laboratory of Plant Neurology in Florence, believes that plants can and do move around or ‘travel’ but perhaps not in quite the same way as animals. In his fascinating book The Incredible Journey of Plants he explains how plants not only move around but have the power to colonise any environment on earth.

Their means of ‘travel’ is often human beings, who might unwittingly carry seeds on the soles of shoes or drift along railway tracks or hide inside bales of traded goods. Plants can even find their way to inhospitable and isolated places where people rarely go: the wind and the sea transports them; the complex structures of plants help them survive where no human ever could. Plants can travel through time: seeds and pips that have lain dormant under the ice or in a Pharaoh’s tomb for thousands of years can be coaxed back to life.

Painting in an Egyptian tomb from 1295-1213 BC - grain harvest (Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art) **

Whilst a plant cannot move to a different location during its own lifetime, it can move around on the spot. We know this from watching sunflowers gyrate to follow the sun or a vine twisting up a pole. Even stuck in our lockdown we too can be mobile - even if we cannot actually move. With modern technology we can transport ourselves via video link to gardens around the world. Try these talks from the Mediterranean Garden Society Italy branch, with famous gardeners from everywhere there is a Mediterranean climate.

Plumbago auriculata with sticky seedheads

Just now I came in from the garden and found the seeds and faded petals of Plumbago stuck to the hem of my jacket. I must have brushed past the plant which lives in a pot near the gate. Still in bloom in mid-November, an intense blue. I am carrying it on its journey, ‘Blu Dipinto di Blu’. Yes, that’s the song. You know it will cheer us up if we sing along, so here it is: ‘Volare’. Let’s fly away.

Travel through to next spring with a catalogue of seeds. Bavicchi in Perugia with their famous range of seeds to order online. We have no excuse this winter for not sowing and nurturing seeds - on the windowsill for those of us without a greenhouse - ready to plant out in spring. Packets of dreams, as my mother used to say.

Gone to Seed - September 2019

So here we are, we have made it through August into September and already the temperature is cooling down. Time to venture out into your garden and see what has survived, what has thrived and to mourn any casualties. Yes, yes, you can take a glass of wine with you.

So how many plants did you count? Perhaps you may be surprised to hear that in my garden I found lots more than there were in spring. How can that be? Well several plants have obligingly set seed and I now have multiple versions of those who really like it here and feel at home. How very pleasing: such abundance and I didn’t have to lift a finger.

Seedlings of Teucrium divaricatum, Scabiosa cretica, Euphorbia rigida, Teucrium aureum and Santolina viridis in my gravel garden

The very hot summer weather combined with the occasional deluge of rain create a good environment for ripening seed and getting it to germinate.

Self-seeding plants in my garden include: Achillea, Borage, Bupleurum, Centranthus, Cercis (Judas tree), Coronilla, Elaeagnus, Euphorbia, Helianthus, Hellebore, Kniphofia (red hot pokers), Lunaria (Honesty), Lychnis, Marigold, Salvia sclarea (Clarey), Scabious, Phlomis, Santolina, Stipa, Teucrium, Viburnum, Wisteria …

But not every plant obliges. Gardening books often say - confidently - that Gaura will “set seed freely around the garden” but it never does in mine. Why not?

Honesty in flower

Honesty seed

On the banks by the road between Paciano and Panicale there are self-seeded Lunaria annua (Honesty) to be seen, also near Sant’ Arcangelo. Are these native plants or escapees from gardens?

I often hear people exclaim that a certain plant “gets everywhere, it takes over” and refuse to have it in their gardens. I try to be more indulgent of exuberant species – what’s not to like about something that grows vigorously and spontaneously? But I have to confess that there are a couple of free-seeding types that I do find annoying.

Having spent most of the afternoon trying to wrench a myriad deep-rooted Bupleurum fruticosum out of the iris bed I have lost patience with it, despite its wonderful display of golden flowers in August.

Euphorbia characias sets seed in June - if you let it

To stop Euphorbia characias from throttling its neighbours with offspring I try to cut off the faded flower stems in late spring. This is probably my least favourite job in the garden, second only to strimming - which I flatly refuse to do myself. All Euphorbias contain a poisonous latex sap which irritates the skin and gums up the secateurs. A hated task but needs to be done.

Scabious in bloom

Scabious (Scabiosa cretica syn. Lomelosia cretica) has a myriad seed heads forming during June, followed by numerous small plants. If they (or other seedlings) are in the wrong place then why not lift them carefully, without breaking the roots, and pop them into a small pot to grow on and be planted out in spring somewhere you prefer or given away to friends.

Hypericum seedling growing on in a small pot

The Mediterranean Garden Society runs a seed exchange with hundreds of Mediterranean varieties of seed available free to members: a real treasure trove.

** Emmer wheat (Triticum turgidum subsp. Dicoccon) was the most popular cereal in ancient Egypt. When the Romans invaded Egypt they adopted the use of this cereal, which they called “Pharaoh’s wheat” or “farro” in modern Italian

The photo at the top of this page shows the distinctive seeds of Jerusalem thorn (Paliurus spina-christi) in October growing wild in the bosco

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

website designed and maintained
by Hereford Web Design