An American in Tuscany reimagines his rambling vegetable patch as a thing of beauty, much to the chagrin of his Italian gardener.
In 1984 I took a group of Italian friends to the United States, a first-time visit for most of them. They were amazed by our suburban homes. "Everyone has so much land," they observed, "but not a vegetable garden in sight!" It was my duty as native guide to explain that we Americans have always preferred mown lawns to neat rows of celery and carrots. "Why is that?" they asked. Good question.
I've been living in Italy for nearly 20 years, and I'm somewhat Italianized by now. If I had only the smallest yard in the sun, wherever that might be, I'd grow my own vegetables. But with five acres of formal gardens surrounding my 16th-century hunting lodge here in the Tuscan province of Lucca, my gardening hours are spent clipping hedges and tending those curious, hard-to-find species of ornamental Mediterranean plants that just might kill you if you ate them.
Ugo, the good-humored farmer and custodian who works for my partner, Gil, and me in our wine and olive oil business, grows the vegetables. Most of the year, there's an abundance of everything a non-meat-eater like me might want; even in the coldest months of January and February, when the temperature dips to 30 degrees, there's still broccoli rabe, spinach, cauliflower and cabbages to enjoy.
But the troubling thing is this: Ugo doesn't grow the vegetables in a garden. I don't know what you'd call that plot of ground behind the house, but the word "garden" doesn't describe it. A plot of land is not a garden, as far as I'm concerned, until it's arranged in a scheme that makes it a joy to behold.
I've never been to Villandry in the Touraine region of France, one of the greatest potagers in Europe; but I've studied many photographs of it in garden books. What could be more deliciously pleasing to the eye than gravel-lined rectilinear planting beds of chives, ruby chard and eggplant edged with perfectly clipped dwarf hedges set among standard roses and ornate, trellis-covered benches?
When Ugo plants zucchini, he squeezes them all together into a tight, disreputable clump; it's impossible to get in there and pull weeds or harvest vegetables without getting your arms all prickled and your shoes caked with mud. A line of tomatoes rambles off at an odd angle to a crooked row of beans. There's a little group of vagrant cucumbers cowering here, a lonely stand of eggplant pouting over there. Ugo does his work with passion and love, but alas, Villandry couldn't be further from his mind.
I understand that this is the way he's always done things. And even though he often complains that the yield of his efforts is a mere fraction of that of the miller, our neighbor, who tends one-third the amount of land Ugo cultivates, I know he's happy with the way things are.
But this year, the resident garden designer (me) has intervened. My proposed new vegetable garden is near the old site on one of the most beautiful fields we have: a flat, sunny acre bordered by a stream and a windbreak of Indian cane. Ideal.
Last November I built a new green- house there. I stood at its door with Ugo, before the protected benevolence of this virgin field, to explain my plan. Pacing out the new vegetable garden's confines, I described its cruciform layout, its practical features, its occasional embellishments, the four pyramids of rambling roses, the centerpiece of borage surrounding a tower of honeysuckle.
"A sì," Ugo said, cutting his eyes. He never mutters his doubts to me, only to the wind when he's safely alone.
I'm not sure what exactly his worries were, but they seem to have passed. The other day he came to me and said, "I thought I'd like to put in a row of peas." As my gaze wandered off to where he'd been awkwardly growing peas for the past 20 years, his pointing hand directed me to the new garden site. "Over there," he said, smiling.
I can see it all now: our disciplined legions of fagioli lupinari, the Lucchese white bean we're especially fond of, each plant equidistant from the next in precise formation like something out of a President's Day parade in P'yongyang. And the beautifully staked-up backdrop of Canestrino tomatoes, not one plant too many or one too few. Each kind of lettuce will have a triangular bed of its own. Since puntarelle comes in both red and green, we'll keep the colors separate. I'll toss the tender leaves with chopped spring onions, hearts of fresh celery and tiny radishes, then dress them with homemade vinegar, a pinch of sea salt, a shower of pepper and our own extra-virgin olive oil.
We'll have two full rows of artichokes, and opposite those, in near symmetry, we'll plant the same number of cardoons. I'd never eaten cardoons until moving to Italy; now I understand why they're considered a delicacy. They're a thistle-like plant closely related to the globe artichoke. But you don't eat the flower buds. You eat the plants' blanched lower stalks and thick roots--they're wonderful stewed with tomato, garlic and parsley.
For the first time ever, I won't have to ask Ugo for directions every time I need a cucumber--"take a right at the parsley, straight to the last pear tree then turn left..." I can't wait to face the garden's elegant geometry as I open my bedroom shutters each morning and lean out as the first thoughts of lunch come to mind.
Paul Gervais is the author, most recently, of A Garden in Lucca (Hyperion).