The Joy of Family Gardening

This appears in the December/January edition of Organic Gardening magazine. For great gardening, cooking, and living tips, pick the issue up today!

I learned about flowers from my mother. Her goal was to get the flowers planted before the Indy 500 was over, in late May, and up until her last few years she was out there every season, pursuing her passion, and getting her hands all dirty and calloused while creating beautiful flower scenes to be enjoyed from every window of the house.

From my father, I learned about the magic of soil and a love of farming. He always took us kids to visit farms and farmers, and wax poetic about the incredible complexity of our living soil. Through these visits and his stories, I became a farmer (and through his leniency, I learned to drive a tractor when I was 13—that was trouble!).

Both of my grandmothers’ gardens taught me how it takes time to make a beautiful landscape. Their homes were surrounded by mature, vibrant gardens, filled with fragrance (oh, the roses!), hidden sculptures, and other surprises—did my mother’s mother have a lime tree growing in one protected corner of her yard, or am I dreaming? Childhood days spent growing up in those gardens are some of my most precious memories.

My in-laws, Louie and Rita Cinquino, opened a new gardening world to me. In their home garden in LeRoy, New York, they raised garlic, tomatoes, basil, and peppers—the Italian cook’s essentials. But they didn’t just garden, they also wild-gathered bitter mustard greens and any other edibles they could find, like wild cardoons or burdock. No meal in their home was complete unless there was a dish of bitter greens sautéed with garlic and dressed with cheese and olive oil. And cardoon stems, dipped in egg and flour, then sautéed with olive oil and garlic and sprinkled with grated Romano cheese, are the crown jewel of the Cinquinos’ dinner table.

Today, in our garden, my husband, Lou, plants his father’s garlic, and we nurture our own (secret) wild cardoon patch. The wild pink sweet peas that I’ve been trying to grow from seed from my in-laws’ yard for years have finally arrived on their own (I’m keeping them). And most special of all, Rita Cinquino’s heirloom rose, ‘Belladonna’, with pink, amazingly fragrant blooms, is planted all over my garden.

Happily, Lou’s folks are still alive to share their gardening wisdom, but at 89, they are getting too old to garden themselves. But that’s what us kids are for now. And why it’s important to pass our knowledge on to our own kids! I’m lucky in that all three of my daughters enjoy gardening and cooking from the garden. This year my oldest, who works at the Rodale Institute, helped me put up the tomato sauce and pesto. My teenager planted a “seed tape” that we got from an event in California this year hosted by Nature’s Path (thank you, Maria Emmer Aanes!), and the pink and red flowers that grew from it created what is by far the most beautiful section in the vegetable garden. And, well, the little one—it’s hard to keep her out of the garden. She comes in, covered in dirt from digging and peppered with tomato seeds from eating our organic tomatoes right from the vine, shouting for me to come look at something she has found—a special rock, or a dead bug. Lou and I feel blessed to have so many great gardeners around us and happy that our kids have picked up the tradition. As we get busier—and older—it’s great to have enthusiastic help in the garden, especially if they know what they’re doing!


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11 Responses to The Joy of Family Gardening

  1. Pat LaPoint November 29, 2010 at 11:00 am #

    Maria, I will make a bet your in-laws picked asparagus from my 7 acre u-pic farm in Pavilion. We also had batches of italian families that hunted cardoons from our fields surrounding our asparagus fields. It would be interesting to me to see if this is true. Our fields were on Perry Rd. and Rte. 20 in Pavilion Center.

    I just discovered your blog today, and will keep it on my favorites. Just finished reading “The Town that Food Saved” by Ben Hewitt and was looking on Rodale site to find it so I can make many purchases as gifts. Pat LaPoint Pavilionite

  2. Donna in Delaware November 29, 2010 at 1:01 pm #

    That’s beautiful. There’s nothing so wonderful and important as passing on something to your children and their children that’s meaningful in this world. I too learnt from my grandmother about gardening. She kept the most beautiful yard and garden and sometimes I think the yard was kept better than the house! I remember having to pull weeds for her when she was getting older and clipping the edge of the lawn with hand shears or even scissors as a child. She and I was always planting four o’clocks, pink petunias, her favorite and lilacs that she kept trimmed to bush size. The smell was wonderful in the summer. I found myself constantly watching things grow and watering, feeding and weeding. We went out early morning and was in by 11:00am in summer.

    I miss those days with her and wishes that she was around to give me more pointers on gardening. My love for gardening came from her, and after her, my step father who was an amazing gardener. The man could build anything from scratch. Rarely did he buy a tool for gardening, he made practically everything himself. As he aged, I help my mother take up the mantle and we enjoyed eating everything we grew and gave to neighbors because everything grew in abundance. I even took things to co-workers that they used for their dinner the same day. My brother is also an excellent gardener. Nothing gets his blood going like growing good things to eat. Life was good! Life IS good! Pass it on!

  3. Jean Nick a.k.a. Rodale's Nickel Pincher November 29, 2010 at 1:13 pm #

    The “lime” tree you remember was most likely a Trifoliate Orange (Poncirus trifoliata) a close relative of the citrus clan that is hardy through zone 5. It bears green hard fruits a bit larger than a golf ball that are dry and seedy inside, but can be made into marmalade or dried and powdered for seasoning. The small tree has HUGE thorns and drops its leaves in the fall (unlike true ctirus trees, which are evergreen). We had one here in PA when I was growing up.

  4. dani February 21, 2011 at 10:53 pm #

    i just looked up cardoons to see if i could try some in my spring garden this year. i’m going to buy a few packs, but here’s a question: it said something about blanching the stalks after they are 12-24 inches. is that only if i buy them as adults or do i need to go ahead and blanch them when they grow to that size regardless. loved this post!

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