Gardening is a right of passage in many cultures, and specifically in our Italian culture. It is somewhat of a trophy you can hold high for years to come, if you are good at it, of course! My grandparents (on both sides of my family) cherish their gardens just as I’m sure many of yours do. From a young age, so many of my memories surround their gardens: walking with them to pick off fresh grapes from the vines, picking cherries from the tree, and harvesting all the cherry tomatoes your heart desires. And don’t get me started on my elation when I see an overflowing freshly-picked basket of peas! My taste buds celebrate and my belly aches at the same time. Those of you who’ve eaten an entire basket of freshly picked peas know exactly what I mean! These memories are so etched in my brain that every time I taste a fresh raspberry, I am immediately transported back in time to my Nonno Cosimo’s house in Schreiber, picking the fresh raspberries off his tree beside the greenhouse. Another experience is every time I taste fresh grapes, I immediately am reminded of my late Nonno Cicco (Frank) and all his dedication to his grapevines. He always worked so hard to keep the birds away from his vines. These memories are so special to me and my cousins.
While conducting the royal tour of gardens, I asked each relative who taught them how to garden, because it is a very special skill that you must learn and refine over the years. The common denominator was indeed their parents. Their parents taught them how to garden. They learned about what types of vegetables work well in what climate and when to plant them. They learned these skills first in Italy of course and then had to adapt their gardening knowledge upon moving to Northern Ontario (Schreiber), and then Southwestern Ontario- the climate was different in all locations, especially Italy. The motivation behind gardening at the time was rooted in the idea that if you grew your own produce, you would save yourself money. My grandparents often recalled that times were hard and this hard work did help their pocketbook. Nowadays, as they have more financial stability, their gardening goals are more of a passion project vs an ends to a means. The produce that they grow literally represents the “fruits” of their efforts and they love sharing their fruits and vegetables with anyone that comes to visit. I fear that this craft/skill is dying, as many other traditions are. The generation of grandparents within our culture is physically not able to withstand the efforts of gardening. Not only do more people not even have the space to have a garden of their own, but they also may not take the time to learn from the many years of experience that their relatives have. So my call to action to you is to ask your grandparents, parents or aunts and uncles for some tips, tricks, and stories about gardening. If you’re lucky, they’ll even help you grow your own like me and my family are so lucky to have.
Here are some stories I heard while learning about their experiences:
- First, it is good to note that my family is from Schreiber, ON- a small community in Northern Ontario. My grandparents settled there from Italy. Being in Northern Ontario, my grandparents and their brothers and sisters had to learn what types of produce would work in that cooler climate. Everyone up north had to build their own greenhouses. This was pivotal to the success of their summer produce as it kept everything warm during the cooler nights.
- My great uncle Vicci is “King of the North” when it comes to gardening. He and his wife Sera grow a veggie garden that could put anyone to shame. They take so much pride in their garden that one year my uncle grew 100lbs of potatoes! Pretty impressive.
- Your garden is also about bragging rights, it’s a topic of discussion around the dinner table. Our Nonni often complain about the “age of technology”. My Nonno says that we are always too busy on our phones. He quickly changes his tune when he has something that he is proud of from his garden. When he has all of his cherries, plums or pears at their best, he will call one of my aunts and ask them to come over to take some photos so that they can be posted on “Faccia book”. He subsequently asks about how many likes he gets!
- My Zia Adele spent a lot of time in the garden with her father growing up. She loved getting her hands in the soil and the wonders of watching something grow from a tiny seed. Her dad taught her how to distinguish plants by the leaves. The difference between a pepper leaf and a tomato leaf. Her father used to say because my aunt worked in the soil that she would grow up tall like the vegetables and on the flip side that her cousins wouldn’t because they didn’t like to get their hands dirty in the garden. Sure enough, my Zia Adele is taller than all her brothers and sisters.
Even if you don’t have a plan to create your own garden, take the time to talk to a relative who has a garden and walk through their garden with them. You can learn so much in this conversation; not only about gardening but about life and how gardening for them enhances their overall life.
There is a quote by Alfred Austin that says, “The glory of gardening: Hands in the dirt, head in the sun, heart with nature. To nurture a garden is to feed not just the body, but the soul.” I think we all need a little of that glory in our lives!