It has always amazed me how every square inch of space in Italy seems to be put to some kind of good use. There are 60 million people living in Italy, a population density of 515 people per square mile. In the US the population density per square mile is 80. No wonder roads, houses, cars and people there are large – there’s enough space for everything and everyone. But here in Italy every square inch must give the most it can. You realize this particularly if you’re out walking on a woodsy mountainside and suddenly notice overgrown stone walls: the land on those mountains was important enough that people put in hundreds of hours of labor to terrace and farm them.
Now agri-business has arrived in Italy, too, and some of the farming land on the really steep and inaccessible mountains has gone wild. But individuals will squeeze an enormous amount of production from whatever land is available to them. And they have devised some very clever inventions to make the job easier. It’s not uncommon to see a small cable and carrier system stretching across a wooded valley from one hillside to another – a way to transport cut wood. Or to see the same thing coming down the olive-studded hill to a road below – a way to get the harvested olives to a waiting Ape (the little three-wheeled workhorse truck named for bees, because that’s what the two-stroke engine sounds like).
People practice intensive gardening here – a lot of the garden maintenance is done by hand, so rows to do not have to be widely spaced to accommodate a tiller. Down the hill in Rapallo I have watched an elderly gentleman prepare and plant his garden this spring – he did it all by hand. First he turned the dirt with a spade, then he put in mounds of fertilizer (probably cow manure from the farm up the road), then he forked it all in by hand, and finally he was ready to plant.
Isn’t it tidy and pretty? If you get out your magnifying lens you might just be able to spot the man himself in the midst of his tomato stakes behind the tree in the center. Or you can just take my word for it that he’s there.
The prize for getting the most out of every inch, though, goes to this man’s neighbor a bit farther down the road, another American transplant by the name of Rick Gush. Rick is the guy that if you give him a sow’s ear he’s going to give you a purse the next time you meet. He’s the guy who’s never even heard of the box everyone else is trying to think outside of. Every time we meet Rick we learn of some new job he once had. An incomplete list of his accomplishments includes adventure game designer (Kyrandia, Lands of Lore), psychic soil analyst (easier than it sounds, he says, if you live in Las Vegas, as he did at the time), intimacy counselor (“those that can’t do, teach,” he says), artist, uranium miner, gardener and garden writer. He took all the disparate skills suggested by these activities and put them to work in building his hillside garden.
The steep, stony land, a cliff really, behind his and his wife Marisa’s apartment building had gone completely to seed. Over the last few years Rick has terraced it and built walls of cement and old wine bottles laid on their sides with the bottoms facing out. Sounds weird, but it’s really pretty and a very clever way to recycle hundreds of wine bottles. And being a fanciful fellow he has put turrets on the walls.
This is a view of the right side of the garden. There are grapes on the right and a big fig tree on the left, with a smaller lemon between them. There’s a set of steps, invisible in the photo, above the blue car roof. Above you can see flowers, bean poles, tomato poles and satellite dishes. Just below the uppermost wall there is a very pretty curved arbor with a flowering vine growing over it.
This is the left, and more recently constructed part of the garden. More turrets, the big fig, and more poles to support cukes, squash and pumpkins.
This pictures shows the amount of wall building Rick has done, but it’s hard to see the details of the plants. This is a garden in the true spirit of Italy – there’s not one centimeter wasted, and, best of all, it’s beautiful. There’s been an addition since I took this photo – up on the top fascia now sits a small, gleaming white greenhouse – heated by manure. (To read more about Rick and his cliff garden, click here.)