The Italian Gardener visited Frank and Romi Marcanio's garden and talked about how a backyard garden is at the heart of a continuing tradition of sharing the harvest with family and friends, whether it's shared "a tavola" or as a box of zucchini, tomatoes and beans that suddenly appears at your front door!
I believe garlic can be described as the perfect symbol that portrays both an Italian garden and Italian cooking. It is an essential part of both. There are many types, varieties and selections of garlic. Some of the most commercially grown include Spanish Roja, Yugoslavian and French. California Early and California Late are also grown, but markets seem to prefer pungent types compared to mild. Roadside and specialty markets prefer selections having pink, red or purple streaks in the skin. Supermarkets generally prefer white skin garlic. Elephant garlic is not a true garlic. It is more closely related to leeks. And then there are the Italian home garden varieties. Many of these are unnamed, having made their way to our gardens from family and friends many generations ago. The complete guide for growing garlic can be found at the AgriServiceBC website: https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/industry/agriservice-bc/production-guides/vegetables/garlic.
There are two main types of garlic: hardneck and softneck. Hardneck varieties develop a long flowering stem, called a scape, which eventually develops tiny bulbils at its top end. Scapes should be cut from hardneck garlic plants in the early summer, as the production of bulbils can rob energy from the plant and result in smaller garlic heads at the end of the growing season. Hardneck garlic varieties tend to do best in colder climates as they are more winter hardy. Hardneck garlics peel easier. Hardneck varieties do not store as well as softnecks. They begin to deteriorate and shrivel within four to six months of harvest.
Once harvested garlic may be stored in mesh bags or slatted crates or hung in braided ropes or bunches from the rafters. Any cool, well-ventilated place will do for storage through the winter months. In very cold areas the bulbs should be protected from freezing. Garlic can also be frozen, stored in wine or oil, dried or pickled. To freeze garlic, peel the cloves and puree them with oil in a blender or food processor, using two parts oil to one part garlic. The puree will stay soft enough in the freezer to scrape out parts to use in cooking.
As far as I know soft neck garlic was the only type of garlic grown in the Okanagan. Occasionally there was one or two garlic plants that would produce a scape. If there was a field full of scapes, it was said to be planted during the “wrong moon”. Somewhere in the past 25 years the majority of garlic in our gardens seems to be the hardneck type. Many markets now sell these garlic scapes for use in stir fries. I have begun to mince the majority of my garlic scapes with olive oil, in the food processor. Some of this pulp is stored in jars to use on garlic toast or in stir fries. I add some pumpkin seeds to the rest for use in pesto sauce.
Garlic production by market venders is growing in numbers. This year I visited Janzen Garlic Acres in East Kelowna and attended the Garlic Festival in Lake Country. Janzen Garlic Acres combines a garlic market with an outdoor play space. This play and picnic are has a cow train, hayrides, play sandboxes, retro vintage tractors, seeding and transplanting activities, petting zoo and picking up freshly laid eggs. It is operated by Monde and Fred Janzen. The Garlic Festival was organized by The Ghostly Garlic market. They started in the Fall of 2013 planting 20 head of garlic in one 4x8 planter box and fast forward to 2021 they now have 40,000 head in the ground. They plant, grow, harvest, cure and process every single clove. Their products can be found at various Farmers Markets around the Okanagan Valley. At their festival numerous venders shared their garlic products. There was lots of garlic in loose, braided or dried forms. Other garlic items included: pots, grinders, towels, art, jewelry, sauces, jams, pirogies, honeys, syrups and salts.
October is the perfect time to plant next year’s crop of garlic. It can be planted in rows or, as I do, interspersed among the flower plants. Put your garlic to bed by giving it a good mulch cover and next year, once more, enjoy your garlic, however you use it.
As we approach fall, some of a gardener’s time is spent on seed saving. Many of my fellow gardeners grow plants that have their origins with their family and friends and that have been growing in their yards for many years. What true gardener has not brought back seeds with them from their home town and home countries?
Old time, or heritage seeds, are the best candidates for seed saving. The seeds saved from heritage varieties will be true to their origins and produce a new plant identical to its parent plant. This is not true of hybrid seeds, which are the basis of many modern day gardens. Having several varieties of similar plants growing close to each other could also result in the new seeds being a cross of two varieties. The easiest to cross, possibly, are pumpkins and zucchini. These two plants, grown side by side, will easily cross with the resulting plant being a green, zucchini shaped pumpkin.
Not all crosses are bad. Often, crosses produce some new colours, growing habits and flavours. Last winter, a neighbour gave us a greenhouse tomato plant. It was bred to produce a small split-proof fruit that ripened in the lower light conditions of February. One of these tomatoes fell off and landed in the pot below where it produced a great number of seedlings. I took two of these seedlings and they grew to produce large, very meaty, split-prone tomatoes.
Diligent seed savers take care to make sure their seed comes from plants that avoid these cross pollinating situations. All of the Italian gardeners to whom I have talked, have at least one or more plants that have a long pedigree. Asking the variety name usually results in the name of the person who gave the gardener the seed or the town from where it came. Romano beans and Chicoria were two items passed on to our family by the Mattioda family, hence they were always referred to as Mattioda beans and Mattioda lettuce.
Perhaps the plant with the oldest history in an Italian garden is garlic. Although garlic seeds can be used for propagation, it takes two years to produce a cloved head. The most common procedure is to save one’s best garlic heads for replanting in October. Paste tomatoes are probably the most shared seeds among our fellow gardeners. Chicoria often self seeds, ensuring each spring a fresh supply of greens.
To the Italian gardener, seed saving goes beyond the money saved. It is considered a very important and an integral part of their gardening. A phrase that is very common these days, is to “know where your food comes from”. Saving ones own seeds ensures that we know exactly from where that food item comes. There is also the Italian gardeners sense of pride, pride in the produce they grow, pride in being self-sufficient and pride in sharing those seeds with family and friends. Pride is the very essence of the Italian garden.
Don visits the garden and backyard of Silvia DiRenzo to talk about tomatoes and garlic, looking after the birds that visit and how gardening keeps you young at heart!
In Il Giardiniere Italiano, Don Rampone will be taking us into the backyard and gardens of friends and neighbours in and around Kelowna. This time, he visits Joe and Gerry Petretta, where they talk about garlic (naturally) and Joe shares some history of his family.
Emilio Nanci immigrated to Canada in 1953. In 1958, he sent for Lina and they made their home in North Vancouver for twenty years. After a holiday to Kelowna in 1970, they decided to move there permanently, in 1974. They built several houses before settling at their current location on Casorso Road. I recently visited Emilio and Lina in their garden.
A food garden has always been a part of Emilio and Lina’s lives. Their present garden is a combination of grapes, vegetables, herbs and meticulously groomed fruit trees. Garlic, lettuce, beans, chards, corn and tomatoes are in abundance. Seeds are saved from the best plants and are exchanged with family and friends. This exchange, sometimes, results in mystery plants. This year some unexpected buttercup and butternut squash are growing quite well. They have some beautiful specimens of bay leaf, basilico, rosemary, cicoria and parsley. They also have colourful flowers such as Oleander to grace their garden. A splendid grape arbour is adjacent to their greenhouse and surrounds their eating area.
According to Emilio, his garden is the “Italian style”… a place where growing and eating are merged. He also credits the call of the garden for his quick recovery from hip surgery. The tomatoes are his pride and joy. Each year, he grows a few tomatoes that reach 1 kg! The rest are preserved for tomato sauce and a lot of their vegetables are frozen for use over the winter. That’s truly organic.
The garden, sometimes, throws new challenges for Emilio and Lina. This year, the visiting deer thoroughly enjoyed their fresh lettuces and grapes vines. Numerous quail have also feasted here. Nets and wire meshing have been installed to protect some of the produce. They have set up some elaborate wiring over the gate to keep them out, but the deer are determined to eat the beet greens.
Sitting in the shade, surrounded by grapes, it was a pleasure to chat with Emilio and Lina about life in Italy, raising rabbits, chickens, pigs and goats. Their daily procedure of joining the community sheep parade to the hills, each morning, was reminiscent of the stories my grandmother told of her home town. This is where I found out Emilio and Lina were Abruzzi residents, like my grandmother, Francesca. I was overly elated to realize their current house and garden sits on land that my Nonna Francesca, farmed… what a small world we live in.
The Year-Round Gardener, Don Rampone is out and about this summer enjoying some garden tours! IL GIARNIERE ITALIANO (The Italian Gardener) Series has begun. Don visits local gardeners in their gardens to learn more about traditional gardening techniques, stories past down from the generations, gardening tips and how we garden today.
We start this series with a tour of Don & Jane Rampone’s SPRING garden.
During the last few years I have witnessed Emma and Elmo bringing large bowls of fresh salads to many Kelowna Canadian Italian Club events. I had heard they tended a garden at their former acreage, now owned by their son. I recently had an opportunity to spend a morning at their garden, and what a beautiful morning it turned out to be.
I picked up Emma from her home in their retirement community and stopped by the farm where we found Elmo, already tending their garden. I was led through a tour of where I saw: tomatoes, garlic, onions, beets, cabbage, potatoes, cucumbers, squash, beans, zucchini, peppers, broccoli, eggplants and basil. There are numerous varieties of lettuce and radicchio. Newly seeded fall endive was lovingly covered with burlap sacking to ensure a good germination. We talked about both the successful and less than successful crops this year, pondering the why’s of nature. It was great to see the use of some tried and true gardening techniques. Of special note were the bean poles. These were harvested from the local forests, just like our pioneer farming families did in the 40s and 50s when acres of beans were grown in Kelowna for the local canneries.
Their garden plot is next to an old shed that seemed to be a treasure trove of “old things.” Included are several tools that came from Italy with Emma and Elmo’s parents. They are still being used to tend their garden. An old hoe, made from Austrian forged steel, is well worn on one corner from repeated use.
Our talk, as we walked through the garden, was interesting and informative. But, what followed was even more special. Emma had set up some chairs under a cherry tree, overlooking the garden. We were sitting in the shade, there was a slight breeze, we had coffees in hand and we chatted about gardens, old Italian families and memories of family events. We talked about how so many of Kelowna’s early Italian families are interconnected. We relished in the telling of stories that show we are really one big family.
This was a very special morning… but one that is in everyone’s reach, at almost any time… all we need to do is take the time to be with each other and enjoy some of life’s simpler events.
The spring tradition of foraging for dandelions, then chicory is replaced in May and June by the search for ‘asparago selvatico’, wild asparagus. Many of the country roads were lined with asparagus that were wildly sought after by our ancestors. Sadly, as roadsides were developed, most of the secret hot spots have disappeared. This week I was able to find a couple of straggling clumps that gave me a few to add to my dinner. My grandparents, as well as many others, established their own plots of asparagus that were still producing fifty years later. In Northern Italy, ‘bruscandoli’ (wild hops) are also known as wild asparagus. The new shoots look very similar to our asparagus. Broccoli is also known as Italian Asparagus. Broccoli was derived from the Italian word ‘Braccio’, which means arm. Italian Broccoli spears resemble arms or asparagus. Whatever their name, when brought to a boil and drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with pepper and covered with fresh dill, they are another spring favourite.
Gardens, teaming with birds and bees, can also be the home to more than plants. Adding year round interest to our garden, are statuary and pottery. Unlike many Italian gardens, that make use of terracotta pots, our garden is home to many colourful ceramic pots, that are filled with geraniums, some of which are still being propagated from my Nonna’s original plants. In the winter, these pots are filled with Christmas greens. Our “parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme” and basilico, too, are grown in hypertuffa pots that we made. Hypertuffa is a mixture of concrete, peat moss and perlite, that when mixed together, gives concrete a very malleable form. It can be used for sculpturing, forming into pots or making stepping stones, using rhubarb leaves for imprints.
Jane’s numerous hand crafted ceramic art pieces are treasured. Many of them tell stories as well as providing decoration. Some are fossil art, made by embedding plant material from our garden into the clay. One can spend a lot of time studying Jane’s fairy gardens… they tell many stories. Our garden is also home to numerous whimsical garden art items, many of them gifts from fellow gardeners. Of special note are the many hedgehog and porcupine art items hiding among the plants. One night, on a scavenger hunt, we had over forty recorded.
Some garden items involve movement, which adds interest to what sometimes may be an uninteresting spot. Some of these weather vanes, mobiles and whirly-gigs have been made by family and friends. Others are equipped with solar panels and light up as they turn. Fountains and falling water also provide movement. They also provide pleasant sounds erwhich can be used to block out unwanted traffic or air conditioner sounds.
Our most pleasant sounds come from the numerous chimes we have hanging around the house. The front door has welcoming light tinkling chimes, while those by the hot tub are deep and very melodic. Whether they are metal, wood, sea shell, ceramic or glass chimes, they are all very welcome in our garden.
Cicoria, the first greens of the season in many gardens, was a mainstay of our spring diet. At our house, it was referred to as Mattioda Lettuce, first given to us by the Mattioda family. It was seeded at the edge of our playground, under our hazelnut trees. Mom made sure a few plants were always left to go to seed, thus ensuring a new crop every spring. This lettuce was often mixed with dandelion greens in our salad bowl. Cicoria is a good example of a xeriscape plant. It can be found growing along roadsides and other marginal areas. It has a blue daisy like flower that if sometimes referred to as a blue daisy.
Another hardy green, that does well in the spring or fall cool weather, is radicchio. Raddichio can be covered in the fall and harvested during the winter. Escarole and Endives complete the picture of the Chicory family. Both these plants are fall and winter storage greens for many families. Endive usually refers to the lacy leaved plants and Escarole to the broad leafed curled chicories.
The Birds and the Bees are both welcome guests in our garden. Each morning the finches, nut hatches, chickadees and sparrows give us much joy as they start their day at our feeders. We have switched to squirrel proof feeders and use fine grade sunflower chips as a food source. This has changed our bird visitors to the smaller birds, kept the squirrels at bay and left less mess in the garden. It is always a pleasure to watch birds at the bird bath. But, there is nothing more enjoyable than to watch the antics of larger birds, like our neighbourhood robins, while doing their bath routine.
Our Mason Bee hotel started out as a single house and has been growing every year. Mason Bees are great pollinators. Unlike honey bees, they do not have stingers, so they make great garden visitors. Also, they do not move on to new sources of food. They stay in ones garden in close proximity from where they were hatched. They are considered solitary bees. They do not live in hives or colonies. Rather, they lay their eggs in cracks and crevices and remain there until next spring, when they hatch at the first sign of spring heat.
We have ours next to our blueberry bushes, and rely on them to pollinate the berries. To ensure they are around at bloom time, it is suggested that the pupae are harvested in the fall, and stored in a refrigerator. At the appropriate time the pupae can be placed back in the hotel. Once the pupae have hatched they spend their time collecting nectar and laying eggs in cracks, crevices or tubes we have supplied in the hotel. These tubes make it easy to harvest the pupae in the fall. Separating each egg in the paper tube, the mason bees add a layer of mud. To facilitate this a small bird bath, filled with mud, is kept near at hand.