When in Rome, do as the Romans – how many zillions of times have we heard that expression?  Enough to be thoroughly sick of it, for sure.  Wouldn’t you think that after all the repetition the meaning of that irritating nostrum would’ve sunk in?  Well, in terms of the garden, this year it finally did for us… after a mere eight years.

We’ve served our time trying to pry vegetables from the rocky New England soil, and were more or less successful, depending upon how early in the season our enthusiasm flagged.  But New England has nothing on Italy when it comes to rocky soil.  Here it might be more appropriate to call it soily rocks, at least in our mountainous zone.  Doesn’t matter.  Make a cutting of something, anything, drop it in the ground here and it will probably grow very happily.

Which reminds me of a funny digression.  We lived for years in the Icebox of Connecticut, not far from the much larger Torrington, a manufacturing town with a large Italian population.  One day my husband brought a client from Torrington over to see our garden.  This gent, a gnarly, deeply tanned gardening pro took one look at our efforts and said, “You’ve got too many stones in your garden.”  “Well, how should we get them out,” my husband asked.  “That’s easy,” the old fellow replied.  “Every evening send your wife out and tell her to take all the stones out of one row.  Soon enough she will have done the whole garden. Then she can start over.”  I took a dim view of this plan, and it was never put into effect.

Anyway, it was not difficult to adjust to the soil conditions here, and we blithely chose our largest fascia (terrace) for our vegetable garden, and for eight years planted much as we were accustomed to in New England: in rows like this

(This is a photo Hatsy Taylor took of her veggie garden in East Canaan, Conn, which she has kindly allowed me to use.)

The problem was that our largest fascia is too shady. (We have six fascie, measuring anywhere from 3′ – 20′ in width; most are about 9′.)  For starters there is a large palm tree that takes a lot of the morning light.  Then we planted an orange tree right in the middle of the space because it is pretty there – more shade.  The house blocks the sun from mid-afternoon on, so all in all our poor veggie garden got about 3 hours of sun a day.  Nonetheless we were able to grow enough tomatoes to make all the sauce we need for a year, as well as a pumpkin or two, some cukes, beans,  lots of herbs, some roses and flowers for cutting.  We were never successful with zucchini, oddly – probably due to the amount of shade.

Our neighbors here on the steep slopes of Montallegro use their limited fascia space so intelligently.  They plant narrow strip gardens facing the sun, just in front of the stone wall that supports the fascia above, sometimes even under their olive trees, which make only dappled shade.  It makes so much sense!  The wall behind offers support and holds and reflects the sun’s warmth.  Weeding is ever so much easier (should one actually decide to do it) because every ‘garden’ is one, or at most two, rows deep.

This spring the Captain took a pickax to the land in front of our sunny walls, and we now have four new strip gardens.  On the top level we have two plots of tomatoes.

They are growing like crazy  – partly because of all the rain we’ve been getting, but also because they love the warm soil in front of the wall.

The next level down is not so satisfactory.  The ground was stonier than normal, so it was hard to make a good bean bed.  The ones that came up (both bush and pole) are doing fine, but probably only 30% germinated, in spite of a healthy dose of bagged manure. (moo pooh?)

The next level down is my favorite because it is so mixed.  In one spot are three leftover tomato plants.  Then there is a small strip with cucumbers climbing the trellis that used to keep Luciano from wandering off our terrace, with some bushy pumpkins in front.  Parsley flanks these climbers, with some giant sunflowers thrown in just for fun.

None of it looks like much now, but it’s all growing by leaps and bounds.  Already  teeny tomatoes and cucumbers have formed, and every day each plant looks about 6″ taller.

So, what’s happening with the old garden?  The Captain planted a lot of ground-cover, but the seeds all washed away in the two weeks of rain that followed; we’ll replant, probably in the fall.  He also has constructed an elegant new compost area, and has almost finished a new potting table.  It will be a cool and shady area in which to relax on all those hot summer days we’re waiting for.  Thyme, marjoram, mint, sage and rosemary are still happily ensconced there.  Dill, cilantro and basil like it hot, hot, hot, so they are growing in pots on the terrace.

By the way, there’s another family that’s doing some interesting gardening this summer, but I see that with their luxury of flat space they are using the more traditional layout:

I’m guessing Michelle and Barack have a bit more help with their garden than we do with ours.  Yes, our new garden strips are working really well, but yes, it’s a lot more work to get water to four places instead of just one.  But you know what they say… when in Rome…