April 1990

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Yesterday's Gardens

Especially Italian Style


John Rezelman

Index of articles by John Rezelman

There are styles in home vegetable gardening, just as there are in clothing, shoes, foods and music. As up-to-the-minute as running shoes is today's style of compact raised-bed gardens, full of close-together plants. The people who grow these are likely to be willing to find out what plants need, and to supply those needs, so these plots usually produce well.

Perhaps the most common style of garden over the past century or so in the United States was the kind typically found on farms back when farms were more numerous than now. This style could be described as "minimum-attention"—the least possible, consistent with some return. (Today, commercial farms often have no garden at all.)

The women of the household often had the main responsibility for these gardens, with the men only minimally involved. It was basic custom that the men steadfastly avoided plowing the garden in Spring until all the oats were sown. That's in the North, which is all I'm familiar with. No doubt there was some equivalent obstacle in the South. Once the oats were in, and before corn planting was finished they would spread a load or two of manure on the garden and plow and harrow it ready for planting. Then someone planted the garden, often all at once, on Memorial Day or some time close to it.

Care of all kinds from then on was often skimped. Weeds were tolerated, along with other pests. Once harvest was completed, crop plants and weed stalks alike were left bristling over the garden surface through fall and winter and into the next spring.

The thrust of these gardens was to put some food on the table, nothing more. Plant quite a lot and you'll get some harvest—that was a guiding principle. It often worked, too. Shelves full of home-canned produce and full vegetable dishes on the table have resulted from such gardens. Pragmatic and practical to the extreme, they were.

Village gardens tended to be similar, although less competition for the gardener's time from other crops and livestock might show up in a higher level of care than on their on-farm counterparts.

By contrast, however, over this same period another style of gardening existed which was about as different as it is possible to be. I'll call this the Ethnic style. These were the gardens of the people who came here by the boatload from Europe and Asia, often settling in enclaves within cities.

Of these ethnic gardens, the ones I saw most and found distinctive and striking were those of the Italian immigrants. They displayed an unmistakable flair that you could spot at a glance. Where there was one there were likely to be many more.

These gardens also were for eating. "Mediterranean Cuisine" is celebrated today in nutrition circles as being good for cardio-vascular health.

Their gardens were the response of a hard-working, thrifty people to obtaining the vegetable ingredients for their accustomed "Mediterranean Cuisine." If you can get the use of a little plot of ground, you don't buy vegetables, you grow them. That was their rule, and they followed it to the near-total exclusion of the grassy lawn that is such an everywhere-present feature of our yards today.

The kinds of plants grown distinguished the Italian gardens. There were tomatoes, of course, and peppers, lots of them, along with the usual run of beans, corn, cabbage, onions, carrots, beets and so forth. In very early spring the spears of garlic thrust up into rapid growth in meticulous formation. Other early spring growth included the stout, erect stalks of fava beans. Fennel, basil, romaine, Italian parsley, eggplant and broccoli in various forms helped set these plantings apart from the usual.

Close planting, thorough care and gardening activity over a long-extended season also distinguished them. Hardy crops would be sown very early; coldframes and hotbeds were in frequent use. In fall, tomato stakes and such were neatly stacked and the ground either fall-spaded or sown to a cover crop like rye or ryegrass.

"Cared for"—that's how they mostly looked at all times. Clearly, these were the gardens of people who loved to grow things. They existed for more than spaghetti sauce. These were obviously places where men who had already worked a full day picked up garden tools when they got home and found pleasure and relaxation in using them.

Why else would they plant and train their grapevines in the form of an arbor where one could sit in the shade, sip a glass of wine and enjoy? Why else would there be flowers interspersed among the other crops, as there often were? Why else would there be hedges of neatly clipped barberry or privet? Why else would neatness and precision prevail?

I came to know where to find these gardens in towns I passed through often—Corning, Hornell, Elmira, Mt. Morris, Watkins Glen. I always found it pleasurable and inspiring to go out of my way to pass by them. I was lucky not to have caused an accident by slow driving and divided attention as I gawked my way along. A little dangerous, but rewarding. The experience was like a mini-trip to Italy, where I would have stared at the crops anyway rather than at Roman architecture, if I had actually gone.

Gardens on this order have become rare as the foreign-born elders died off or became unable to carry on. Traces remain; a grapevine here and there, a prune or apricot tree persisting, but the distinctive look is gone, this lifestyle not being the choice of the present generation.

Nevertheless, if you are aware of what to look for, one will now and then burst into view, just as in the past—a welcome sight!

I have tried to capture and preserve the feeling in the following poem:

Italian Gardens in an American City

Between barberry hedges are rows of beans,
Tomatoes and peppers and Swiss chard greens.
Garlic and grapevines border a lane
Beside fava beans, broccoli and romaine,
All compact and carefully worked by hand
As if to save space in an ancient land.
Grimy brick walls and a railroad track
Become groves of olive trees sloping back
And in streets of asphalt there seem to be
Blue waves of the Mediterranean Sea.
© 1990, John Rezelman
Index to articles by John Rezelman
My Father, The Italian Gardener by John J. Caprarulo
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