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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