Learning the ways of the contadini italiani

My neighbors, a brother and sister, hard at work in their large vegetable garden.

My neighbors, a brother and sister, hard at work in their large vegetable garden.

“Contadini italiani” is most often translated as “Italian farmers”. Our Umbrian home¬† is smack dab in the middle of a community of hardworking farmers. These aren’t farmers operating a large-scale business. Mostly, they are growing for their own needs and households. This means they eat well as the growing season begins hitting its stride in late May and early June, and by summer’s end they also have replenished their cellars and cupboards with root vegetables, and countless jars of preserved fruits and vegetables. And, most of what is produced here is done “bio” – the Italian moniker for “organic”.

This is my third year of having a garden. When I moved to Italy in May 2013 I was swamped with countless logistics associated with the move and getting residency,¬† so I planted a very small garden which, in retrospect, was an embarrassing attempt at basic gardening. I was doing everything wrong, and I was lucky to harvest a handful of green beans and tomatoes. My neighbors, skillful contadini, didn’t ridicule me. They simply made some suggestions as to how I might do it differently “il prossimo anno” – the next year.

2014 yielded better results, in spite of a rainier-than-normal summer, and aphids attacking my green beans. I had chosen a better plot of land in the back yard (flatter with more sun), and had it tilled and infused with sheep poop. We had a decent harvest, with loads of lettuce early in the season, and then a constant supply of green beans, squash, eggplant and bell peppers – until the tomatoes were ready in early August. I tried sweet corn, which initially showed great promise, yet lost steam and only exhibited stunted growth. My biggest disappointment was with my favorite vegetable, okra. I think I harvested a single okra pod. Laughable. I had been entertaining visions of opening my neighbors’ eyes to this wonderful, yet unknown vegetable (in these parts). Oh well.

May 2015 has been making up for the two previous, disappointing Mays here in Umbria. My neighbors have been planting earlier and I’m already witnessing some rather explosive growth. I bought and potted geraniums, prezzemolo (parsley), basilica (basil), origano (oregano), timo (thyme – regular and lemon), salvia (sage), and coriandolo (cilantro – very hard to find here). I already have massive hedges of rosmarino (rosemary). This means I’m all set for having fresh herbs on hand at all times. The ones I just potted are already charging out of their pots.Happy Herbs

Just a week ago, I hired a local fellow, with a heavy-duty tiller to come turn the earth in my garden. A week before that I spent several hours hacking through the same area with my trusty weed-whacker. Then I made a trip to the local grower/greenhouse. The woman who runs the place is reputed to have the best plants around. I’m finding out this to be an understatement. I packed the back of my Fiat Punto with tomato plants, green bean plants, eggplant, zucchini, cucumber (my first attempt), and bell peppers – all for around $30. Amazing.

My neighbor Elena, graciously gave me a bucket of chicken poop for my garden. She even took me to the spigot for the well behind our houses where she added water and began stirring. We were laughing hysterically as we joked about making chicken poop soup and adding olive oil as a garnish.

Garderner's "Gold" - A Bucket Chicken Poop

Garderner’s “Gold” – A Bucket of Chicken Poop

Elena give me clear instructions about how to add the “soup” to the bottoms of the holes I was to dig for the plants. She sternly warned me of the potency of this natural fertilizer. In other words, she was saying “Don’t go crazy”.

My neighbors, a handsome group of chickens, are the source of my precious fertilizer

My neighbors, a handsome group of chickens, are the source of my precious fertilizer

Now, most of the plants are in the ground and the care and maintenance begins. Early mornings will be dedicated to weeding and watering. I hope to demonstrate that I am being attentive student to the time-honored and effective ways of coaxing the greatest abundance from the rich land of Umbria.

Before I close this post, I want to pay tribute to the dedication and diligence of the contandini. These people are no strangers to hard work. They are up at the crack of dawn, heading to the fields to water, to weed, and to hoe. A brother and sister, who live close by, have the biggest field, and I am duly impressed to see them toiling in the hot sun – usually bent over at the waist while they tend to their emerging crops. If I were attempting the same, my back would be “out” for weeks. Recently, I was shocked to learn that this brother and sister team are both in their eighties. You would never know. For me, this is a prime example of “use it or lose it”. They clearly are “using it”, and then some. I am inspired by their examples, and I have hope that I can exhibit a similar type of fortitude in my eighties.

I am blessed to live in the midst of such wonderful people. In addition to strength of body and spirit, they have incredibly generous hearts. They also laugh easily and often. I’d say this is a pretty basic prescription for longevity.

That’s it for Farmer Jed’s third chapter as a budding contadino.

Stay tuned for updates as the growing season unfolds!