The Italians in My Garden

My father had more square feet of garden space on his property than he had of lawn. This was not an unusual sight when I was growing up in Blue Island, Illinois. Many Italian immigrants had huge, beautiful gardens overflowing with all manner of fruits and vegetables. Gardening was to my father what motorcycling and writing have become for me. Working in that yard was his pastime, his passion, his outlet. He tried to pass that along to me—not only his knowledge but his passion. Alas, only some of it stuck, mainly because yard work interferes with my motorcycling and travel hobby.

But as I said, some of it stuck. And now that my father has been gone for six years, my feeble attempts at keeping a garden are one way I stay spiritually connected to the old man. Yeah, sometimes when I’m toiling away on my rocky, weed-choked soil, I can hear my father admonishing me, half in Italian and half in English.

“Michele, che fai??? That’s not the way I showed you!”

“I know, Pop, I know.”

If he were still here, I’d get frustrated but now I only smile, glad to recall the sound of his voice, and I keep working, the sweat raining off of me in buckets.

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It took three years of trying before I was able to keep a fig tree alive by my house. My father kept sending me home with shoots from one of his large trees, which are not easy to keep alive in the midwest, and I kept losing them over the winter. Either my burial technique (a subject for another time) wasn’t quite right or the sapling hadn’t taken sufficiently to overwinter beneath the ground. But on that third year, my little tree survived and I practically broke my back door down running for the phone to tell the old man.

“Pop! Pop! The little sonofabitch is still alive!”

“Eh?”

“The fig tree! My little fig tree is alive! I did it!”

“No shit! See? I told you…”

And so the conversation went. The following month, while at my father’s house, he handed me another shoot, to start a second tree. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. But for a good ten years or so, I had two fig trees growing in my back yard and they produced enough figs to be able to give some away (see my 2015 article, “The Ups and Downs of Growing Fig Trees in Northern Illinois“). Then two years ago, one of the trees perished due to a cracked base below the soil line. And last year, something happened to my second tree over the winter and it, too, perished. I felt terrible, not only because I would no longer have figs, but because my trees had begun as shoots from my father’s trees, which like him, are no more. I vowed to start over.

Last winter I began looking into fig varieties, hoping to come as close as possible to replicating the Italian dark fig variety that I got from my father. Without going into any details or the legality thereof, it is highly unlikely that my father’s trees came from an American nursery. But I digress. My brother-in-law advised me to check out a variety called the Chicago Hardy Fig. As I understand it, this is a hybrid developed from a Sicilian variety and bred for hardiness against the harsh winters of the Midwest. As luck would have it, the Chicago Hardy is now sold at local nurseries. This last fact amazes me, as most of the non-Italians I know have never even seen a fresh fig.

Well, like I implied earlier, yard work at my house takes a back seat to my motorcycling and writing endeavors, and it shows. Most of my seedlings did not survive long enough to get transplanted. But for a couple of Italian squash varieties, which I will get to in a moment, and my cucumbers, which can be started outdoors almost any time, I have no garden this year. Yeah, but I still managed to keep one promise to myself.

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On the afternoon of July 4, 2017, while walking the garden center at a local Home Depot, I spotted a handful of Chicago Hardy Fig trees that, along with all other trees and shrubs, were being offered at 50% off. The trees were quite small, but also very much alive and for six bucks apiece, I figured I could afford to take a chance on two of the healthiest specimens. Trees are generally installed in springtime, not July (thus the low price), but I decided to take a chance. And so with temps near 90 and the humidity making it feel warmer than that, I installed those two fig trees. Again my father’s words came to me.

“Michele, if you do it right, they’ll live. Don’t leave any air down by the roots, but give the roots good soil to grow in. Put some fertilizer and give them a drink every few days. You’ll see.”

“I will. Thanks, Pop.”

One day later, my little trees showed no signs of stress. That’s good, but we still have a long way to go. So we wait, cultivate as needed, and pray a little.

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I promised to tell you about the other Italians that made it into my garden this season. Besides cucumbers, which anybody can grow if you can just keep the rabbits away for a while, I have the ever-prolific zucchini and a newcomer to my yard this year, cucuzza.

I know, I know, what’s a cucuzza. My parents, along with many of the other old Italians, used to regularly grow these things in their gardens. In simplest terms, cucuzza is a type of gourd that is grown and prepared like a squash. The plant is a climbing vine. The fruits can grow as long as softball bats. The outer skin is not edible. The flesh is light in color and quite mild. When cooked it tends to hold its shape and texture well. You can saute it, bake it, grill it, etc.

In all candor, I do not have any experience growing these things and since I wasn’t much for vegetables in my younger years, I haven’t had much experience eating them, either. A couple of years ago, I grilled a cucuzza that my brother-in-law had grown and it turned out okay. This year, if all goes well, I will have quite a few with which to experiment. This could be good or bad as just one cucuzza is enough to feed several people. I’ve got four to six vines growing out there. Pray for me.

Gardening has been and will always be a love/hate thing for me. I derive much satisfaction from eating foods that I grew myself. Furthermore, gardening is one of several ways in which I honor my father. At the same time, I detest every minute I give up working in that yard that could have been spent plying great roads on a pleasant, sunny day—the very same type of day that is ideal for yard work. But you see, some people say that having balance in life is not about either/or; it’s about and. I guess that’s why I devote at least some of my time and energy to my garden, even if I am not fanatical about it.

Anybody got any good cucuzza recipes? Just asking. Thanks for hanging with me.

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The Ups and Downs of Growing Fig Trees in Northern Illinois

Figs on a tree

Yesterday my son and I buried our fig trees for the winter. Well, we buried one and removed another that had been struggling for two years now. Most people look at me funny when I talk about burying trees. Some people look at me funny when I talk about growing figs where I live, because they don’t believe one can grow figs in this latitude. I can state from experience that yes, you certainly can grow fig up here, but it isn’t necessarily easy.

When I was growing up in the Chicagoland suburb of Blue Island, many of the “old Italians” kept fig trees. My father had kept three or four going at any given time. My grandfather across the street had a couple. My uncle “below the hill” (Blue Island’s east side, which was predominantly Italian at the time) had some, as did some cousins and assorted paesani. As you might imagine, fresh figs were abundant among my extended family during the growing season.

Wait. Can you imagine? Do you know what a fresh fig looks like? Perhaps I’d better back up a little.

Another maleFigs are a tree/shrub fruit that grow throughout the tropics, Asia and the Mediterranean. They have been around for a while. Indeed, fig trees are mentioned numerous times in both testaments of the Bible. If you are familiar with the book of Genesis, you know that after having eaten from the tree of knowledge, Adam and Eve used fig leaves to cover their nudity. The gospels of mark and Matthew include accounts of Jesus cursing a barren fig tree, which proceeds to wither and die.

FemaleFigs themselves (i.e. the fruits) are considered aphrodisiacs and their unique shape and characteristics are representative of both the male and female sex organs. Without getting too graphic here, the whole fruit is thought to resemble a man’s family jewels, while the cross section bears a resemblance to the female… um.. that is… oh, my. Well, anyway…

Presumably because of their thin bark and high water content, fig trees were not designed to withstand our harsh Midwest winters. I have no idea who first had the idea to preserve fig trees by burying them during the winter months, but the practice clearly works. As I said earlier, the process isn’t easy. It isn’t even particularly fun. And the larger the trees grow, the more difficult the process becomes, until finally it becomes impossible, at which point the tree remains standing during the winter months – and dies.

burialSo how does one bury a fig tree? I’m glad you asked. In mid-to-late autumn, after all the leaves have dropped and there is little to no chance of another warm-up before winter arrives, you prepare the tree for burial by pruning and bundling the branches into a narrow, manageable package. Then you dig a trench from the base of the tree outward. The length of this trench must be equal to or slightly greater than the height of your tree. I should also mention that each year (this is an annual process), the trench will be dug in the same direction.

The idea is to bend/pivot the fig tree at the roots level, beneath the soil surface. Mind you, the tree will not want to lie down. It will help to loosen the soil around the base of the tree and gently rock the tree back and forth until it is willing to lie down for a winter nap. I should also point out that in the spring, this same tree that resisted laying down will also not want to stand back up. Such is the stubborn nature of a fig tree.

buriedOnce the tree has been convinced to lie down in the trench you’ve dug, you must cover the trench with boards, corrugated metal, etc., forming a sort of protective tomb for the tree. Then you pile dirt on top of the covering, closing off air flow and providing an insulating layer from the harsh elements of winter. In order to let moisture escape, my father would fashion a breather vent from an old section of downspout and some window screen material. Worked like a charm, so I began using them, too.

The first time I tried this process, I failed. My father had given me a shoot from one of his mature trees and advised me to take it home, stick it in the ground, keep it watered and see what happens. The shoot took – under the right circumstances, fig trees are very prolific (must be all that sexuality with which they are associated) – but when it came time for winter burial, either the tree had not yet been established enough to withstand the process or my methodology was somehow off. In any case, the little tree died. I felt terrible.

The following summer, my dad handed me another shoot, its base wrapped in a ball of newspaper containing a quantity of the tree’s native soil. “Try again.”

“But Pop…”

“Try. See what happens.”

I’ll tell you what happened. I failed again. The shoot threw roots and sprouted a few new leaves, but did not survive winter burial. By this time I had become quite willing to give up and leave the fig tree cultivation to people who knew what they were doing.

My dad had other ideas. The following summer, he once again handed me another shoot, nicely wrapped in a ball of dirt surrounded by newspaper. “Try again.”

I could not refuse. I took the shoot home, stuck it in a patch of cultivated soil, kept it watered, watched it take root, etc. Then, when the last leaves had fallen, I dug a tiny trench, for a tiny tree, laid the little guy down, as I had been instructed, covered the trench with a length of plywood, covered the plywood with an ample amount of dirt, then crossed my fingers and waited until spring.

At the appropriate time, I unearthed the entombed little tree, my third attempt at a craft that my dad had made to look so easy. Weeks went by… nothing. Still I waited. More weeks went by. Then one morning I walked past my kitchen window and glanced out toward this stick standing up in the middle of my garden… and saw something green. Green!

I ran outside to confirm it. Yes, that speck of green was indeed the start of new leaf growth! Then I ran back inside and called my father just as quickly as my shaking fingers could dial.

“Pop!”

“Hey.”

“Pop! Guess what! The little sonofabitch is alive!”

“Eh?”

“The fig tree! My fig tree!! It’s alive! I did it!”

“See? I told you…”

Thus began my love affair with the common fig tree. A month or so later, my father proved his faith in my ability by presenting me with yet another shoot from one of his trees.

“Here,” he commanded and he thrust the carefully wrapped bundle into my reluctant hands. “Take it home, stick it in the ground, keep it watered…”

early figsBy then I knew the drill. But even more importantly, by then I knew it could be done! A year later I had two thriving trees. At first they yielded only a handful of undersized (but delicious) fruit, but a few years later, I was collecting enough full-sized figs to warrant giving some away. I was happy. My father was proud. Life was good.

In the few years leading up to my father’s death in 2011, I began taking over the burial and resurrection of his fig trees, which were much more mature than my own. During those years, two wonderful things happened. First, my dad was able to watch and counsel me on the finer points of this craft. But at the same time, my son was able to begin learning, first by watching us and then by actively assisting my father and me.

Today, at the age of 22, my son knows as much about this process as I did when I was 20 years older than him. More often than not, we work the trees together. I believe my father would have been proud. I know I am.

FIGS