This year the Italian Gardener will look at gardening month by month. Let’s start with January. The peaceful month, curled up by a fire with a seed catalog dreaming about all the new varieties of vegetables and flowers available before sorting through the bags, boxes, jars and margarine tubs filed with seeds saved from zia Rosa, cuigini Luigi or paisan Giuseppe. Questions that keep popping up are: Where did I put those San Marzano tomato seeds? Did cousin Emma’s butternut squash dry properly? Did we save enough basilico seed so I can start some now and again this summer?
Once in my greenhouse or plant room I am in another one of my winter comfort zones. I sit by a small trickling fountain, the room filled with sunshine or brightly lit by grow lamps, sip tea and solve the daily crossword puzzle. I check my winter stored geraniums, snip a few stray leaves or blooms and check their moisture levels. I try to keep their growth in check by keeping the temperatures on the cool side (50 F, 10 C) and the soil quite dry watering from the bottom to keep fungus gnats at a minimum. Last year’s plants will be replanted in all my ceramic pots next spring while the new cuttings will be sold at our garden club’s spring sale. Our fuchsia plants are treated similarly and are held over in the darker corners of the greenhouse or plant room.
I check my lettuce and micro green plantings and start a new batch every couple of weeks. This keeps me a good supply for a daily fresh salad. If no fresh greens are available I check my pantry for a jar of preserved melanzane or pepperoni. Lettuce, spinach, and choi all like the cool temperatures. Micro greens are quickly grown with the help of a heating mat under the seed trays.
This year I am trying my first hold over of last summer’s pimento pepper plants. In the fall I drastically cut back all the foliage, dug up plants and washed and root pruned them. I potted them in one gallon pots and placed them under my green house lower shelf with very little water. It wasn’t long before they began to send out new leaves. Occasionally a flower appears, which I try to remove so the plant is forced to continue growing. For several years, I have been successfully using this procedure with my sweet potato vines. The added bonus with yams is that I get to eat the yams that I dug up with the roots, before restarting the roots growing.
Continued enjoyment is found outside where I keep paths and benches cleared of snow in the front, side and back gardens. Ceramic planters are filled with fir, spruce, pine and cedar trimmings draped with small twinkly lights. Each planter has a central porcupine or hedgehog figurine hiding in the foliage. In the snow they are a pleasure to walk through or see from the house. The woody stems of the evergreens gives the soil some expansion room so the planters are somewhat protected from frost damage. Our garden gives us great pleasure in all seasons. This year, our return to our Kelowna winter garden, after our trying and eventful Christmas break, will be looked at with even more thankful eyes.
As Christmas approaches, my thoughts turn back to the preceding year and I begin to write our annual Christmas Letter recapping the year’s events. It not only keeps our family members updated, but also serves as a reflection for me on the ups and downs of the year. Pondering a topic for the Italian Gardener column, I thought I would share with you my gardening background.
My earliest memories of gardening was working with my parents on their farm. There were always jobs that fit every age of the children. Cutting onion and garlic tops was one of those early jobs, as was using an old paint bucket to pick prunes. But I was interested in more than that… at about ten years of age, I took over one end of one of mom’s rockery. I was given complete control over selecting and taking care of the flowers in this section.
Each summer, I became immersed in gardening with the start of our road side vegetable stand in 1960. At first we sold extra produce from Mom’s garden but soon my brother Ray and I got serious and started DON-O-RAY Vegetables. It gave us spending money and eventually paid for my university years.
At age 14, I joined the Kelowna 4-H Garden Club and worked my way up to junior leader. I had a garden plot at the edge of the farm where I grew vegetables and exhibited them at fairs. I learned how to judge vegetables and in 1968 won the gold medal at the PNE agricultural Fair.
While at university, I joined the Kelowna Regatta Agricultural Fair Committee and for several years looked after the vegetable and fruit displays and competitions. My first teaching job was in Wells, BC (near Barkerville). Here the mountain climate put a damper on my gardening success, but I did manage a small garden area against the house. In Wells, it was not uncommon to have tulips blooming along the sidewalk next to two feet of snow.
Returning to Kelowna in 1978 I bought a house in a rocky area of Rutland. I spent the next ten years picking rocks but did manage to establish a large flower, vegetable and fruit tree garden. In 1988 we decided to build a house on part of the Rampone farm (across from the SPCA) with the goal to someday establish an educational farm. The land here, next to Mission Creek, was never cultivated. Instead, it grew wild grasses that was used for summering livestock. The soil was alkali based and very wet. We began by hauling in lots of rocks to build a driveway and foundation for our house. We dug drainage ditches and began cultivating the land. We hauled in many, many loads of wood chips and grass clippings, working them into the soil. In a couple of years we began plant fruit and hazelnuts trees, garlic, tomatoes, peppers and more. We planted a pumpkin patch and started the Far Corner Farm. We offered school groups a farm experience that featured scavenger hunts, pumpkin math, companion planting (the three sisters: beans, corn and squash), and composting and soil making. Two highlights for the students were digging potatoes and selecting a pumpkin. A fire pit and story circle in the pumpkin poatch was well received by the whole community.
After ten years, our five acre garden was doing well, but, due to health concerns, we were forced to leave the farm. We bought a house near Guisichan Village, ripped out all the lawns and started planting trees, shrubs and flowers. Tomatoes, garlic and basilico are now growing between the flowers. Salad greens are grown in wine barrels and are capped off with clear umbrellas. A small greenhouse was attached to our shop. It overwinters my geraniums and provides us with fresh lettuce and greens all winter. To me, gardening is a twelve month love. In winter, our numerous pots are filled with evergreen branches and lights giving us a wonderland to walk through on dull, winter days.
That’s the “Italian Gardener’s” life story in a nutshell. May your year be filled with fresh flowers, fruit and vegetables and may your family time be joyous!
Life-long Gardener Don Rampone shares his tips and advice for gardening