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Spring Planting: Generations in the Garden

Today's post is from Alexis Rizzuto, the editor of nature and environmental books at Beacon Press.


In spring every gardener's fancy turns to thoughts of planting. But I cannot write about my own garden without first writing about my great-grandmother's. Though I never met that remarkable Sicilian, and her garden had become a parking lot by the time I was born, I long nonetheless for the place she made.


Biaggia Rizzo left Sicily in 1911 with her husband Salvatore, and settled in Malden, now a densely packed suburb of Boston, but then considered "the country." There, they bought a parcel of land with a small house on it. They added a third storey (for extended family), built a huge greenhouse, planted an orchard, and began cultivating the land, as they had in their home country. They also raised rabbits and chickens.


Salvatore died a few years later, leaving Biaggia to raise their only child—my five-year-old grandmother Josephine—on her own. From then on, she supported them both through the work of her hands. She grew vegetable and herb seedlings in the greenhouse, to sell and to plant. She raised peppers, broccoli, tomatoes, cauliflower, string beans, celery, eggplant, parsley, basil. And as my grandmother remembered, "Everything she planted seemed to thrive."

Lilacs by AriCee via Flickr She had a green thumb, but she also had some interesting tricks, such as infusing rainwater with rabbit pellets and using it for fertilizer. Another one I won't be trying is staking the tomatoes with unbent wire hangers and tying them on with old nylons; the static electricity produced was supposed to do something beneficial with ions. (Burying a rusty nail with the plants added iron and minerals, but I don't think I'll be issuing that tetanus invitation.) The trees produced cherries, apples, peaches, pears, apricots. She grew both purple and green grapes on arbors, and made muscatel wine. She sold her produce, both fresh and canned, and also became the neighborhood herbalist; she had tinctures and pastes for every ailment presented to her, and was said to have had the power to banish the mal occhio ("evil eye"). Her gardening prowess wasn't limited to veggies: she sent my grandmother to school with bouquets of her roses and lilacs for the teacher, and at least once with flowers tucked in her hair.


My favorite photograph of Biaggia speaks of her strength: she stands among her rows six feet tall in a dress and dusty shoes, hair covered in a babushka, hoe hoisted over her broad shoulder. Her look is modest, but one can sense the pride and satisfaction she took in working her land. (Unfortunately that land was eventually sold to a developer, and the only trace of the little urban farm are some glass panes still somewhere under the blacktop: broken greenhouse windows my grandfather buried to keep the kids safe.)


My grandmother grew up eating food that her mother had planted, grown, harvested, and cooked. She knew the bounty of the earth and the self-sufficiency it provided. To her, food was trustworthy, unquestionably nothing but healthy and nourishing. When she cooked for her own children and grandchildren, food was her expression of love and the way she took care of us. She had no reason to be suspicious of food, and so thought I was a bit crazy when I stopped eating meat and started fussing about "organic." But rather than just changing my consumption, I wanted to become generative. So last fall, I converted my tiny yard, a strip of about 4 feet by 40 feet, into a raised bed. As soon as I turn it over and incorporate the manure, the soil will be ready for planting.


Mark Winne book cover Food RebelsI've been reading gardening books and catalogues all winter (what my husband calls "garden porn"), imagining the peas and green beans climbing up their trellises, the tomatoes rounding out, the smell of basil, the full baskets of veggies at the end of the season to share with friends and neighbors. I'm planning an experiment with hay-bale gardening, a la the urban farmers of Cleveland (which activist Mark Winne writes about in his forthcoming book, Food Rebels, Guerilla Gardeners, and Smart-Cookin' Mamas) who use compost on top of hay to turn brownfields into farms. Soon I will be planting my seeds, with Pete Seeger's "Garden Song" in my head, and praying to my own patron saint of growing things, Biaggia Rizzo.

Photo of lilacs by AriCee via Flickr: / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0