Spring is my favorite time of year no matter where I am, but even more so when I’m in Italy.
Whether it’s the sweet smell of orange blossoms blooming or the hedges of jasmine I used to ride past, around and through Lucca, the many smells of Italy let me know that Spring has officially arrived.
When I was living in Lucca, April 1st would have inspired me to start my new garden. I was not the perfectionist that my mentor, Giancarlo was, carefully measuring out his enormous garden with stakes and string. The only thing he didn’t use to make sure those carefully tilled rows were absolutely straight was surveyor’s tools.
Giancarlo’s garden was directly across from the little ‘terratetto’ stone house we lived in on Lucca’s southern edge. The only thing that separated Giancarlo’s large garden from our front door was a five-foot-wide gravel road. Connected to the back of our house we had cows living in a barn that we would hear mooing now and again. We also had a lovely view of the Lucca Aquaduct just around the corner with the hills of Varno just beyond.
Giancarlo had spent a year in Atlanta while he was in the Italian Air Force and therefore spoke English…fairly well. This turned out to be a real blessing for me given that I was not a good student of the Italian language. The house was small but had been beautifully restored inside and out. On one side was an empty terratetto belonging to the cow farmer and on the other a semi-collapsed horse barn with reinforcements on the four exposed stone walls. The roof had apparently collapsed but had luckily not hurt the horse. Lucca is a fairly immaculately-maintained ancient town so these types of structures are required to be maintained and ultimately restored in their original style. Such was our tiny terratetto with the second and third floor windows having their original barn ‘windows’ in tact. Designed to allow air to flow in to the stacked bales of hay while restricting the amount of light at the same time. Not ideal for creating a light-filled home.
Our new little home would do, but the one thing it didn’t have was some outdoor space to grow my own veggies. In the end, it didn’t make a difference, because Giancarlo was a kind and generous neighbor who would also come to be good and trusted friend to both myself and my son, Gianni.
Giancarlo’s garden was huge with some apple and apricot trees sprinkled throughout. While each year Giancarlo planted a minimum of a hundred tomato plants along with several zucchini, pepperoni (sweet peppers) and melanzane (eggplant), he also filled every square centimeter with bietola (swiss chard), lettuces, beans, squash and basil plants the size of small bushes.
Feeling the lack of my own dirt to plant, I offered to help him when I needed to take a break from my work. The first spring, I helped him set up the stakes for his hundred tomato plants. We tied twice that amount of 7′ tall bamboo sticks in a long row of tepee-like supports with many meters of string. The day arrived when we finally put the little tomato plants into the ground. It was a laborious process but one we both knew would provide it’s reward in the not-too-distant-future.
There is a lot of care required to grow tomatoes properly. Once the plants grow to about 10″ or so, we had to carefully tie them to their accompanying bamboo stakes. As they grew taller there came a point where we had to trim a very particular sprout at the bottom to make the plant grow up and not all willy-nilly. Given that Giancarlo was a perfectionist, he would stop trimming his row and come over to check my work. Uh oh. I’d clipped the wrong sprout and Giancarlo was not happy with me at all. Well, in the end the plant survived and grew up tall and produced many luscious tomatoes. However, Giancarlo never failed to remind me that I had clipped that one tomato plant incorrectly.
It was a great experience for me nevertheless, and the following year I planted my own garden at our new little ‘cassetta’ behind the Sant’Ana Church just outside the walls of beautiful Lucca. I was not, however, as meticulous as Giancarlo. Given it was Spring in Italy again, Giancarlo was, unfortunately for me, far too busy with his own garden to come help me with mine. He did kindly toss a dozen bamboo sticks over my wall so I had some support for my little garden of tomatoes, some rucola and four zucchini plants. Despite Giancarlo’s instructions, I neglected to properly trim my tomato plants. Not only did they grow incredibly willy-nilly, they were nearly impossible to keep tied securely to their stakes – drooping over and lopsided from my ill-care.
In the end ~ they did however produce some wonderfully delicious tomatoes as seen in the photo above. We ate them simply sliced with a sprinkle of sea salt or with bread drizzled with some of my friend Claire’s delicious olive oil. It didn’t really matter how we ate them – they were absolutely delizioso!