It’s spring, our gardens are blooming.
In Italy the consorzi are full.
What’s a consorzio? What's an orto? Well, the two go hand-in-hand.
'General store' best describes consorzio - a jam-packed collection of all you could ever need for your garden, in one shop.
Orto is Italian for kitchen garden.
Consorzi agrari stem from a group of shops, these focus particularly on agriculture, however, the consorzio has become so much of an Italian DIY institution that we'd be lost without it. They're strategically dotted up and down the country where you can conveniently pop in when you suddenly run out of fertiliser, cement, strimmer wire or twine.
Seedlings, garden tools, tablecloths, netting, paving, plant pots, fencing, animal feed, fire wood and flowers. Open all year round, but it's in spring that the consorzio buzzes with life.
Apart from the official start of your yearly veggie-garden journey, the consorzio also serves as a hub of social interaction and catch-ups while waiting in a throng of local people, eager to get busy. A lot like buying prosciutto all'etto from the banco gastronomia, busier places have a handy ticket system, otherwise it's the Italian queue we all know and love - in a nutshell, get there, see who's already there and remember that.
Shelves packed full of tender, green seedlings, a gang of gardeners at the consorzio, a change of the clocks and orto season is here!
Very few orto-lovers bother with greenhouses and propagation trays in Italy, most pop to the consorzio for batches of ready-to-plant seedlings, then they wait for the right moon phase and get stuck in.
Whether you have a tiny space in the apartment garden, a couple of pots on your balcony or a full-blown veggie patch, the passion of growing food is one that's hard to shake once you start. Bring on the end of February but first, let's start with the moon.
Moon phases influence planting and harvesting if you ask any serious food grower.
Plant (and harvest) vegetables that develop underground such as garlic, potatoes and onions on a waning moon, except for carrots which prefer a waxing moon. Lettuce, cabbage and leafy leg also thrive on a waning moon. Instead, flowering 'fruit' produce like tomatoes, aubergines, zucchini and beans should be planted on a waxing moon. If you're not au fait, get yourself a guide or scroll through this fabulous website.
Once your ground is ready and your seedlings are in, water every morning and evening, cover your babies during chilly nights and pick away any weeds or snails - soon they'll be thriving.
Winter kitchen gardens are seldom left completely bare - cauliflowers, cavolo nero and radicchio line up in dark greens and leafy purples especially in the north Italian region of Veneto where radicchio is a prized part of their culinary culture. If winter gardening seems unappealing to you,do what many do and simply scatter a packet of radicchio di campo seeds over bare ground to provide cut salad leaves through colder months.
Where would Italy be without tomatoes? A staple in every kitchen cupboard and every kitchen garden - the larger your orto, the more conserva you can make.
A year's supply of bottled tomato passata, called 'conserva', is the ultimate goal here and you'll find families with a bit of extra land can become overly intent on reaching this prime objective. Tomato passata is used daily in an Italian kitchen for pasta, soups, meat sauces and lasagne, you'd be surprised how quickly it runs out.
It holds a rather important place in Italian food culture, so much so that if you don't grow your own tomatoes (and most people don't) shops will fill up with boxes of ripe, elongated, scarlet-coloured tomatoes towards the end of summer just for the task of making homemade passata. You need a special apparatus to remove the skin and pips during this the process which, not-surprisingly, most households have, and guess where they bought it? Yep, the consorzio.
After tomatoes and herbs, another orto favourite is the cucumber. Italian cucumbers are shorter and thicker-skinned than English ones and adored sliced thinly as a summer salad with chopped tomatoes and olive oil. Cucumbers grow profusely and are planted in abundance and shared out to friends, as are peppers, zucchini, aubergines, pumpkins, lettuces, cabbages, fennel bulb and green beans - all orto staples.
In Italy's sunny climate, all veggie gardens naturally get along fine, Choose the sunniest spot for the most flavourful produce, preferably near a tap. Italians love to spray baby plants with verderame (mild copper sulphate in powder form). Its blue, powdery coating washes off in the rain before harvesting and serves as a harmless fungicide But for any pesticide, fungal or weed advice, simply pop down to the friendly consorzio where, when your turn comes around, there'll be an expert to talk to plus you can pick up a few extra seedlings.
Tunnels rather than greenhouses are common sights in rural areas where accelerated production becomes a serious hobby, if you have the space. An orto is a family affair where most of the daily work is calmly carried out by the nonni. Patience, time and dedication is put into tending a garden, qualities our grandparents have. Food preparation is traditionally done by the nonna and lengthy cooking procedures too.
But an orto doesn't have to be an impresa. We grew beautiful carrots in deep pots on our tiny, sun-trapped terrazza. Strawberries are magical in hanging flowerpots where the fruit can dangle over the edges, even tomatoes and cucumbers can bloom from a grow bag so there's no excuse - give it a go! Because nothing tastes better than a freshly-picked tomato straight from the vine. Chop into a bowl, drizzle in olive oil with a drop of balsamic vinegar and place a burrata on top - you've got the best of Italy right there on one plate.
During hard times of war and rationing, using one's garden to grow food was a necessity. Any surplus was shared out in the community so nothing ever went to waste. Such a true appreciation of the effort and love behind what ends up on the table was cultivated that it has remained a fixed part of Italian culture to this day. Not only a love of the seasons, the outdoors and the miracles of nature, but a deep satisfaction of harvesting, eating and sharing something you grew yourself.
Nowadays, we can choose to take on the 'hobby' of keeping a kitchen garden to grow our food rather than buying it and we're in control of what pesticides are used. Every freshly-picked vegetable becomes a celebration, keeping an orto becomes a joy - la gioia dell'orto.