Monthly Archives: March 2016


Spring has arrived here, it came just the other day.  One night I went to bed in winter with  frost  thick on the ground the soil brown and bare and when I woke the next morning  there was a definite change in the air, a warmth which immediately caused nature to explode into life.

Spring bulbs

Spring bulbs

In the garden there was a sudden surge of growth and within hours the buds were pushing through the soil covering the brown earth with a tapestry of green. The pace is relentless growing in front of my eyes. I watch on with amazement as the first crocus push their heads through, opening their delicate petals wide and flat in the midday sun, they are followed closely by the dwarf narcissus golden yellow against the bare earth. Within a week the fruit trees are in full blossom and the garden is full of heady perfume from the daffodils and hyacinths all vying with each other to play the starring role.

Each year the spring garden is improving I have been buying hundreds of bulbs in Autumn and planting them in large swathes throughout the borders.  Castello piea 033Inspired by my Spring visits to Italian castles enclosed within stunning formal gardens filled with spring bulbs.

Castello di Piea

Castello di PieaCastello piea 013

Last year one of my favourite visits was to castello di Piea sitting high on the hill above the village encircled by a beautiful ancient garden intensely planted with thousands of Tulips in all colours of the rainbow.

They call these events Tulipani and many castles open their doors to the public  throughout April.



Visiting gardens has always been one of my passions, and I used to have my own garden open to the public but now as I gaze around and scan the vast open areas of  my new garden I think it will be a long time till I reach that standard again.

Naturalised Tulips Castello di Govone Easter 2016

Naturalised Tulips Castello di Govone Easter 2016

Finding spring bulbs here has proved to be quite difficult and costly but now plant market and shows are growing in popularity.  I have been able to find a good variety available from the more specialist nurseries.

The problem is I am an addict, a show groupie I am all the things I used to warn my students what not to be. Impulse buying, wrong planting, risking hardiness but what the hell this is what gardening is all about. Pushing the boundaries. I find it exciting each day to stroll around the borders to see what has appeared and what has survived. Today I noticed the rosy red crinckled leaves of the Paeonies pushing their way through the aster bed, the iris are fattening up and most of the roses have breaking buds.  The little Leucojums the winter snowflakes have opened and there are two or three white bells fluttering in the wind.

This afternoon I spent a few enjoyable hours weeding my large herbaceous border occasionally catching a whiff of scent from the hyacinths or from the lavender as my arms brushed against it.  Just wonderful. The garden does reflect my personality  ” mary mary quite contrary”  – that is me . It is always bounding endlessly forward, forever enthusiastic, always changing and in a state of controlled disorganisation. How I love it and everything that goes with it.

Yesterday while working in one of the local towns I took a quick coffee break . I was thrilled to find a pamphlet for a plant fair next weekend. Later I managed to persuade OH to come on the belief that he will be visiting new places of interest, with a special picnic and a visit to the local cantina. Brilliant I can look forward to my first adrenalin rush of the year. Crazy as it may seem after spending ten years of my life exhibiting in most of the garden shows in the UK one would think  that I would be showed out but now the bug is worse than ever. I will be first in the queue with purse in hand to buy those must have on trend fashion plants.

Just as I did last year when visiting a lovely little garden show in Ovada I got completely carried away buying loads of plants and forgetting our guests David and Glenna who had accompanied us in our little Mini Uno.  I was finally faced with 4 people, a dog, loads of bags, pot plants and various holiday gifts.

Now this is impossible!

Now this is impossible!

It was quite a task to fit everything in, much to the amusement of the Italians watching on and quite hilarious for us.

I think we can get one more in here!!

I think we can get one more in here!!

Once the boot space was filled Glenna and I climbed into the rear and the guys passed the plants to us we had them between our feet knees and around our necks. Every little space was filled unfortunately for us two of the plants were roses somewhat uncomfortable. The men could not see us amongst the foliage it was like sitting in a hedgerow. Thankfully Glenna is a plantaholic like me the slight discomfort was overruled by the little treasures we had bought.

As the years pass I have found specialist nurseries, rose gardens, the stalls on the local market, I have bored Italians with my stories of my old exploits and begged cuttings and splits from all around me.

Rosa Iceberg

Rosa Iceberg

The garden is starting to fill up with all my new acquisitions and although today it appears quite bare within a few weeks the roses will be flowering and the borders will be billowing with daisies and lavender.

The herbaceous border in late May

The herbaceous border in late May

It is a very special place to be and even more satisfying that it is our own creation. My Italian friends look on with interest as they have never seen anything quite like it. They shake their heads and say” but you cannot eat this”.

daisies, lavender, daylilies

daisies, lavender, daylilies

They don’t quite understand why I should want to slave so hard to create something of beauty when there is so much available around us. Even if they are a little unsure I think the bug is contagious as after each visit they can be seen leaving the gate clutching cuttings and seeds with reverence.


I do share my garden with wildlife, the  bees, butterflies, hoverflies, damselflies it goes on and on, along with my little dog who delights in searching for lizards under the lavender bushes or digging holes in OH’s Orta.

I am sure it is under the lavender plant

I am sure it is under the lavender plant

There is no better place I would rather be on a warm sunny spring morning. Happy Easter everyone. Buona Pasqua




Today I was helping OH stack logs into the old portico at the rear of the house. It is now mid winter and the days are cold and damp. Last night had brought flurries of snow which covered the ground and made Lucy run around the garden in a frenzy of excitement. She loves the snow. The logs arrived on the back of Gianni ‘s little red tractor. They were piled high and we hoped they would see us through the rest of the winter.

I stopped for a breath and paused for a moment to look around, this side of the house is still a building site in fact a better description would be a bomb site. P1040767There are mounds of building rubble, loads of old windows, doors, old  pipes, broken red cotto tiles and of course mud loads of mud.P1040765 In the centre of all this mess is an old cart which would have been used for the grape harvest. It is now loaded high not with fruit but with floor planks. They had been lifted from one of the rooms and are now waiting to be re laid elsewhere.P1040763

I look over at the old rear wall which is actually holding up well. A friend who is a British builder told us in 2013 it was in danger of falling in on us and his advice was to knock the whole thing down and rebuild it.

How thankful I am now that we chose a different course. We had wanted to retain the house’s originality and the back wall was to be kept at all costs.

However this decision came with its problems and stresses.

I remember back In March 2014 when the land clearing contractor, Enrico arrived .may2014 016

His first job was to knock down the old outbuilding to the left of the house and clear the site. He then proceeded to dig deep into the hillside at the rear of the house clearing away years of heavy damp soil leaning against the old back wall.may2014 021

We all stood crossing fingers and toes as we saw the wall shake and shudder as the digger moved ever closer, could those old bricks precariously balanced on top of each other hold up under the pressure. If the wall gave way then the new roof would have collapsed –  ending our dream. As the layers were slowly scraped away it became apparent that the wall needed some added support. The digger came to an abrupt halt and Enrico shouted for acro – props to be placed under the barn ceiling.  We had nothing, We ran about in a mad panic,  terrified this was about to end in disaster. Luckily OH found some long poles laying against the posts in the Vineyard. He hastily removed them and we set about pushing them tight under the steel beams of the ceiling. Happy with our accomplishment the digger resumed, we held our breaths but it was all a scare for nothing. The wall settled and seemed to straighten and no longer looked distorted .

The rear of the house now free from soil was at last able to breathe. It slowly dried out in the spring sunshine. Thus enabling the builders to begin the internal work..may2014 018

It is good to have a look around here as it reminds me what we have achieved, the whole site was like this when we began. OH has great plans for this portico it goes from a storage shed, garage for vintage cars , workshop, etc etc but at the moment it remains a sorry site waiting for his decided project to start.

It was during this land movement that the old septic tank was demolished. It had been sited in the soil behind the house and was unfortunately smashed into pieces by the shovel..  This caused us an immediate problem as it was the only working sewage system. We were aware that the drains needed attention probably renewing. The previous summer the old pipes had fractured seeping sewage into the Orta. Causing our tomatoes to swell to giant proportions. One of OH’s worst jobs was digging for hours in the heat of the day removing putrid smelling soil to find the gaping hole which he managed to temporarily repair with an old pipe.

So now we were faced with no toilet or drainage pipes, we needed a new system. A quick decision would have to be made by all present. Our geometra pointed to where it should be placed and without any plans Enrico dug all the ditches. We made a visit to the local builders yard and returned with a van full of pipes, pipe bends, joints and a large concrete fosso bioligica (septic tank). In Italy all black water must go through a septic tank before entering the main drain. Enrico sited the tank behind the house and filled the ditch with sand.

Fossa bioligica

Fossa bioligica

It was now late  Friday evening, he announced cheerfully ” I am going now and will return on Monday your job is to lay the pipes. arriverdeci”

Had we ever done anything like this before  NO…..  OH forever optimistic set about the task saying how hard could it be to lay a few pipes, but we had no experience and the darkness was forever creeping near. We could not get the the pipes to line up properly. We had pipes of all sizes with bends to the left, to the right and upside down.

Pipes all shapes and sizes

Pipes all shapes and sizes

We were ever mindful of the absolute need for a loo let alone a shower. We had been instructed that once in position they then had to be glued together. Finally as darkness fell we had managed to complete the job, happy and truly amazed at our success. We now could use the toilet and take a shower in our humble bathroom.

The very next morning , I strolled into the garden to inspect our work and to my horror I saw that the pipes had all retracted in the cold night air and had pulled apart.  They were all distorted and twisted , I called OH and he came rushing down rather glumly he said ” Clearly this is not a job for novices, What are we going to do now?”

Within the hour help came in the form of our neighbour NIno,  we call him Torino Man ( a sort of superhero) he is always ready to help especially if the job requires danger as he enjoys hanging from high places.  He used to work for Telecom so is pretty adept at all these type of jobs. On this occasion there was little danger but it was not now the cleanest of jobs. He and OH set to work and after a few hours the pipes were all relaid .

Enrico returned bright and early Monday morning and was pretty impressed with our achievements but little did he know of the stresses we had faced.

He set about filling the ditches and the job was complete.

It certainly puts a different aspect on pulling the chain when you know the toils and sweat that went into that work.




For the first day of February it is very pleasant and warm, the thermometer reads 15c and the  sun is pushing it’s weak rays through the clouds .

Snow capped peaks of the Alps

Snow capped peaks of the Alps

The views are stunning I can see for miles, the white peaks of the Alps peer above the bare and brown landscape,

Lucy and I are taking a stroll around the vineyard. We pass by the groves of hazelnut trees with their orangey coloured catkins hanging listlessly in the still air,  there is a silence in the valley, little moves. february 2016 074

We continue meandering through the vines when suddenly we stumble into 3 cock pheasants nestling in the undergrowth. They immediately start squawking and take off with such gusto that lucy and I jump with fright .

We live with nature here I am always mindful of what I may trip into.  The tracks of the wild boar cingiale can be seen in the paths, along with large hoof prints made by deer. They are all heading from the forest behind which is a national park, through the vineyard and down to take water from the river below. february 2016 072

I had really needed some fresh air, OH has got man flu and has taken to bed.  He has our large stufa churning out heat all day and the house feels like a sauna.

I pause for a moment catching a glimpse of our house through the vines I reflect back, what a complete contrast to the last two passing winters. It has not always been the case for us to have such comfort.  How quickly we have forgotten our trials and tribulations of those years.

It was shortly after the roof was completed in October 2013 that I informed everybody that we would be living in our makeshift accommodation of two rooms for the forthcoming winter.  I remember the horrified look on Ernestina’s face,  she looked at me in disbelief shaking her head maybe December, but January and February non lo so !! .  The previous year we had rented an apartment for the worst months. During that winter the temperatures were recorded to be at least minus 20c.

But now we had no other option we could not justify spending our savings on posh apartments we felt the money could be better spent.  We were determined to stick it out no matter how hard it could be ,thinking back it was like some sort of endurance test the cold of deep winter permeates all, the dry icy cold penetrating the body like a sharp knife.

The night times ,were obviously the worst.

We would fill the little stufa with wood then jump into bed wearing fleecy pyjamas, hats, gloves and socks  .

our little stufa

our little stufa

We would cosily watch the shadow of the rosy red flames dancing on the wall but by 3 in the morning the fire had died and the cold would start to creep up through the bottom of the bed. We tried blankets, extra mattresses , fleeces etc etc but nothing could stop that cold. I would hug a water bottle and cuddle close to the dog, waking endlessly during the night wishing for morning and the relentless cold to stop.  A trip to the loo was completely out of the question.

Daytime was not much better our hands were chapped from continual washing in the cold,. I was quite sure we were getting frostbite when they started to crack and bleed. Our only running water was in the bathroom at the back of the house with absolutely no form of heating. To bathe or shower was impossible so we had to carry hot water in a blue bowl from the bathroom and wash close to the fire.

We found that it was warmer outside in the sunshine and very often ate outside, warming ourselves in the winter sun.

winter lunch

winter lunch

On cloudy days we would head for the coffee bars and even visit shops to get extra warmth.

In the evening we would nestle close to the log burner watching our TV which was situated on the top of a piece of old rescued wardrobe, riddled with woodworm.the new kitchen 002

After treatment and a coat of paint it worked well as a mini pantry to store the pots and pans. Unfortunately the cupboard was almost two metres high so we all had to look up to watch tv, causing a permanent crick in our necks. april 2015 018

The satellite on our new roof was tuned into Italian TV and we sat rather uncomfortably many an evening watching deal or no deal in Italian , I admit that the presenter Flavio was much more affable than Noel Edmonds but the programme was still as stupid.  My brother – in – law Ugo after watching it for a whole year still could not understand what it was all about but there again does anybody?

The seating, was some old directors chairs donated by my mum , the original canvas had ripped and Ugo and I spent our first summer making new covers from some cheap material I had found on the market. Our only sewing implement was an antique singer sewing machine which we used to proudly display in the hallway of our old home.  It took some working out how to use the treadle and how to thread it up but amazingly from that machine I made twelve seat covers and took up every ones old trousers making them into shorts. The dining table was a metal four seater affair which we had bought from a closing down sale for 20 euros and to be honest that was probably more than it was worth. My cooking facility was a 2 ring camper stove balanced on OH ‘s workmate bench. I had a small fridge freezer that I had bought from a second hand shop in the UK.april 2015 045

It was truly incredible how we got by not just did we survive in that room but we also held dinner parties too. Our friends would frequently visit, I am unsure if it was from pity or just wanting to be part of this crazy couples adventure.

John and Doreen  our close friends who  have a beautiful little terraced cottage in the village of Noche close by would come quite often bringing their big labrador dog, Holly.  Space was somewhat limited so everyone would take their place around the table and sit still. Holly would always sit underneath in the chance of catching the odd tit bit. The table would be laid full of dishes and wine and they would marvel at the amount of food I would produce.

No problem until Holly stood up, disaster struck as the table raised up on her back. OH could be heard bellowing hold onto the table as it started to move around the room balanced precariously on her back. Wine and food would be tipping everywhere and we would be rolling about with laughter. Poor Holly would look on completely unaware of the chaos behind her.

There was one occasion when all my friends and family descended on us in camper vans I managed to give a party for well over 20 people. I remember showing them around and seeing the shocked faces when they saw our living accommodation. It wasn’t quite the Italian dream.  One of the girls,  little miss perfect, looked at me completely mortified and with utter pity  she said You actually live here!!!!.   I immediately felt the need to defend myself and said yes and it is great and I can’t understand why I left that fabulous designer kitchen in the UK  Why would I need a dish washer when I can have this little blue bowl for my washing up.

OK we are slightly mad but this was our vision and we were willing to make every sacrifice to realise our dream. I also found it quite a humbling experience and a way of learning what is actually really required in this consumer must have world.

Last May we moved into our newly finished part of the house and In a strange way it was quite a wrench to leave behind that little safe haven. But now as I look around me at the beauty we have created. I revel at our conviction, tolerance and determination our actions have made it possible and we would’nt have changed anything.

So would I do it again  ………….WELL NO