A Beginners Guide to Keeping an Italian Vegetable Garden
By Deborah Swain
One of the first words I learnt in Italian was the word for the vegetable garden – orto. Moving to the countryside and being self-sufficient is a common daydream for many city dwellers, however, when I packed up and moved from London to rural Italy, I arrived with only the vaguest of ideas of how to actually set about growing vegetables. Armed only with memories of spending time with my grandfather in his vegetable plot as a child in Somerset and, more worryingly, tips I'd gleaned from Felicity Kendall and Richard Briers from watching episodes of the 1970s British sitcom The Good Life, what I lacked in knowledge I made up for with enthusiasm. The rest of the learning curve was helped along by the indispensable advice and encouragement from my new Italian neighbours. Which brings us nicely to tip number 1...
- Listen to your neighbours!
Nine times out of ten the the advice they give you is going to be spot on, however eccentric it may sound. You may have read something different on some Californian gardening site on the Internet but if the tiny old lady who lives up the road tells you emphatically it's the wrong time to plant potatoes because the moon is waxing not waning... obey her orders – she DOES know best! By all means consult books...just don't let her catch you at it!
Joy Larkcom's gardening books are great for beginners because she assumes no former knowledge – buy a copy before you move to Italy or order it on line – just bear in mind that you'll need to be flexible, depending where you move to in Italy, and adapt to your new conditions. As a general rule though, all plants need far more space than in northern Europe. It may rain more in the UK for example, but in Italy the added sunshine and heat are magic ingredients which, if combined with effective watering techniques, will result in enormous plants.
For many people moving from the UK the possibility of growing tomatoes, peppers and aubergines easily outside the greenhouse is a thrilling prospect. However, the downside of the new climate may be that other vegetables may not grow as well. I remember an English neighbour in Le Marche who was obsessed with growing parsnips, and I myself, struggled gamely every year with Brussels sprouts (they will grow but are never quite the same without a good winter frost). It's far better to really concentrate on what will grow well in your local area.
Growing up in Somerset I remember seeing posters of Colorado beetles as a child – with rewards even, for people who captured one! It was pretty shocking, therefore, to find that the Colorado beetle is alive and well in many parts of Italy. In fact, if you're growing spuds, you'll get to to know them very well at all stages of their development from eggs to grubs to fully formed beetle...if you're attempting green gardening most evenings will see you bent double over the potato plants picking then off one by one – not an enviable task! Potatoes are also a popular delicacy with wild boar. A wild boar can destroy an orto over night (and destroy you too if you get too close to a sow with her young) so some fencing around your vegetable patch as a minimum of deterrent isn't a bad idea.
Water can be scarce in some area of Italy. Wherever possible install a rainwater butt or make one (giant Shell oil cans used as makeshift water butts dot the Italian countryside) but remember to cover it otherwise it will become mosquito farm! Use watering spikes with recycled soft drinks bottles to get constant deep watering to plant roots and avoid the need for hours of daily watering by hand.
Tools differ too in Italy. The zappa is one of the most popular and versatile tools used for everything from turning the soil in late autumn before the winter, breaking up clods of earth, fine tilling and even hoeing between plants. Spades are rarely seen and my neighbours were amazed - and later confessed to actually being impressed - by my Dutch hoe.
The summer Italian heat sees most foreigners in the vegetable garden in shorts and flip-flop sandals. Although rare, the poisonous viper is a reality in the Italian countryside as are any number of small and seemingly harmless insects which can, instead, be poisonous or create allergic reactions. Sturdy shoes, gloves and a sun hat really are essentials.
If you're prepared to put in the work then growing your own vegetables can be enormously rewarding...and delicious! The results of all your efforts are best appreciated in the kitchen - there's nothing quite like eating your own home-grown vegetables!
About the Author
As well as editing Living in Italy, Deborah Swain also runs the gardening resource Watering My Garden.
Home grown tomatoes | photo © Christophe MATTIOLI - Fotolia.com