Written by John Meadows and Jeff Albucher. Image Detail by LinaBeth Barber

Our dirty story takes place in the small medieval village of Montone in the Upper Tiber Valley of Umbria in Italy. The players: four expats from the States. Jeff, Jude, Libby and John, and we were unaware of the adventure we were about to embark on.

Who would have thought that an ancient patch of soil meant to sustain a village under siege in the Middle Ages, would today take on a different sort of purpose? We came to see the rebirth of our orto as a bridge between our foreign selves and the local tradition of growing produce within the village walls.

2006 orto
When we first settled into Montone, we discovered a forlorn weed patch along “Via Degli Orti” or “Garden Street”.

It is in the heart of the village where we would stop, stare and wonder who owned it. One of our houses faced this neglected jungle, and eventually we came to discover that it was owned by our neighbor Quinto (he being the fifth child), a longtime Montonese citizen who soon became a dear friend.

Was this an unsightly neglected weed patch, or on the other hand did it posess the possibility of becoming a Garden of Eden?

In our intrepid optimism, we approached Quinto to ask if we could rent it.

It was obviously unused, and Quinto’s house is too far away to supply water. He refused to accept any money and simply handed us the keys telling us to enjoy ourselves. We have been doing exactly that ever since, and today, our garden is known as ‘l’orto di americani’.

It seems our patch of earth had not been touched since before the early Renaissance. Hand tools, even our modern ones, simply wouldn’t do the trick, and getting a horse and plow, modus operandi in Montone’s past would, these days, not go over well with the Commune.

Enter ‘La Principessa’!

2012 orto tilling
Jeff and his "Principessa" hard at work.

Principessa is our aptly named hand tiller machine that is well worth her weight in gold, or lousy medieval soil.

Once we finally broke through this medieval incrustation, we were further challenged with a sandy mix of clay-based dirt mixed with rock and rubble from ancient and newer building remodels; it was unlike anything any of us had ever experienced. We still hold out hope that we'll find buried treasure but so far it's just been broken crockery, bits of glass and Miss Ducky.

This clay powder was just begging for something, anything to lighten and brighten it.

We bought bags and bags of organic humus. We were gifted with a literal shitload of five-year old alpaca manure from a farm down the valley that filled the flatbed of our pickup. The neighbors understood our desire for old shit; but actually paying money for dirt was beyond their comprehension. But we had the last laugh as our dirt went from a dusty ugly duckling to this beautiful swan of loamy delicious organic soil.

Miss Ducky our orto mascot. She was kidnapped in 2013, there is still a reward posted for her safe return.
Miss Ducky, our orto mascot. She was kidnapped in 2013; there is still a reward posted for her safe return.

Armed more with enthusiasm than experience, we weren’t sure what to plant and even where to plant.

Being in the middle of the village, our orto has zones where the sun is strongest in the front but shadowed by the houses in the back. We started small the first year with a few tomatoes, cardoons, hot peppers and herbs. It was a small sad looking garden although we were thrilled with the transformation from weed patch to tiny garden.

It’s also, needless to say, a lesson in Italian as our neighbors’ don’t speak much English. We were quick to learn the basics:  pomodori, gobbi, pepperoni, sedano, prezzemolo, insalata, and the list goes on. Learning the words for our garden staples became critical to being able to hold our own in conversations in the town bar.

Eventually, village life reveals its advantages in that everyone has an opinion and is perfectly willing to share it with you.

The problem is that no two people’s opinions, at least in Montone, are ever the same.

Our neighbors walk along the wall overlooking our garden, lean on the railing, and give us conflicting advise on a daily basis. The advise is entertaining, if not helpful, and passes the time while you’re working.

At times, however, this advice can simply be confusing. We arrange our orto into neat straight rows with hills and valleys. Some encouraged us to plant in the valleys where it’s wettest to preserve water; others were adamant that we plant in the hills so the plant’s roots stay dry but reach deeper for the moisture.

Our new rule since the massacre of the parsley, is to accept all free advice, but not invite anybody in bearing hand tools.

On one occasion, Virginia, a lovely old neighbor came into the orto, scythe gripped tightly in hand, apparently to demonstrate exactly what we were doing wrong. In a matter of minutes she proceeded to change our valleys to hills and chopped down plants she didn’t like.

2012 Working together.
2012 Working together.

All four of us love working the orto and this has become a life changer of sorts.

It certainly requires partnership and teamwork.

It guides our seasonal travel schedules, arranging to be back in the village in time for either tilling, planting, weeding, harvesting, or closing down for the winter.

Some days we work together discussing and planning. Other days it's solitary work listening to the song birds, maybe accompanied by Niccolino, our neighborhood cat, but always enjoying our ‘orto time’.

It pleases us all that we have become part of a tradition thousands of years old. Our ‘hood’, del Verziere, was historically a neighborhood of gardeners and farmers. Somehow we Americani have resurrected this gardening tradition within the walls, making us something of a curiosity in town.

2013 July Bounty

Over the years, the orto has grown in size and diversity where today we use every bit of available space.

We typically have no less than 50 tomato plants, peppers, eggplant, celery, cucumbers, hot peppers, basil, fennel, squash, beets, beans, onions, greens and all kinds of herbs. We rotate crops through the seasons, and now have flowering borders with bulbs, annuals, and perennials. In the past two years, we have successfully cultivated caper plants in the medieval walls, and hope to harvest our first crop of capers and caper berries next year. Cross your fingers for us...capers are notoriously hard to transplant.

Caper Flower
2015 Caper Flower

We continue to have heated debates on what to plant, where to plant, how to plant, and these debates have made us all realize how the garden has connected us to the planet and the seasons in new and deep ways.

We fret over the seasonal weather patterns of sun and rain. We compare notes with our neighbors. We have become more connected to what we eat. The over abundance of one crop (that means eggplant!!) forces us to discover new ways to prepare our food. A ritual morning walk through the orto helps decide what will be for lunch and dinner, and due to their preferred status, usually results in having tomatoes on the table that are still warm from the sun.

As summer peaks, the canning season begins in earnest.

Canning season is also the hottest time of the year and canning countless jars of tomatoes makes for hellish work. Don’t think for a minute that having a garden (even a piece of Eden) is easy and always pleasant. We can when the tomatoes are ready and while it’s hard work, we have amazing tomato sauce throughout the winter months and good food to share with friends and neighbors. While dirt taught us many things, canning was also a good teacher. The process of canning taught us that harvesting a handful of cherry tomatoes is tasty although having a bushel of them isn’t such a good idea - cherry tomatoes aren’t a canner’s friend.

Tomato Caning Day
Canning Day

Although our village collects organic waste, we prefer to enrich our own little patch of dirt. We started composting and have become rather militant in what we allow in our tumbler composter. Some suggestions have been rather bizarre, as in our friend Lady Jane’s suggestion that a bit of morning man-pee will do wonders to the mix. Truth be told, we (John and I) have complied, as anything ‘Lady Jane’ says is golden in our book.

We recently closed the orto down for the winter and are already missing it.

What started as a curiosity, l’orto di americani, has grown to be a source of respect and pride. We are regularly complimented for our good work making this part of the village more beautiful and vibrant. We share the bounty and deliver bouquets of flowers to our elderly neighbors. Sadly, we recently lost one of our neighbors who always treated us to chocolates while we worked.

We initially thought we were just making a small garden, but came to realize that it was so much more.

Our lives are richer and healthier, we deepened our connection with the village and improved the scenery. It inspired Libby's artwork. Our dirt became soil and made us wiser, smarter, better friends and neighbors, better cooks, and better citizens of the planet. We had no idea this small patch of dirt would change our lives so much for the better.

Our Montone Orto 2006-2015

John Meadows. Grandson to farmers, a proud member of del Verziere (our Montone neighborhood of farmers) and an architect – Lives in Tucson and Montone. I keep the garden row’s straight.

Jeff Albucher. Husband, father, friend, lover of the earth, with kid spirit. Gardener and mixologist. Lives in Umbria and New York.

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