- What’s Inside
- Editors Speak
- Innovate, Disrupt, Protect
- Take Action
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.