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!