We at The Italian Garden Project™ are always pleased when we find that the Italian gardening traditions are being carried on by a new generation of gardeners. Several years ago when 18 year old Alessandro Ferzoco emailed to tell us about his passion for gardening, and offered to introduce us to some of his Italian-born gardening mentors in his suburban Boston neighborhood, we couldn’t pass up the chance. Later that summer, we spent a lovely day visiting Alessandro’s expansive garden and fig tree collection. We could hardly believe that someone so young could be so knowledgeable about gardening and fig tree growing. We then visited and documented two classic Italian American backyard vegetable gardens (Joe DeLuca and Attilio Petriello), and captured fantastic photos and videos which are now part of our larger archives. We also visited City Farms Florist (Figtrees.net) where owner Giuseppe Morle spend several hours patiently teaching us about growing fig trees.
Now a busy junior at Harvard University majoring in History, Alessandro continues to find time, not only to maintain his beautiful gardens, but also to share his knowledge with us. You will see Alessandro’s posts very soon on our website as he becomes a much appreciated contributor. Below is a bit of history from Alessandro about how his love of gardening developed, and how he met the gardeners he introduced us to:
My grandfather, Anthony Ferzoco, was the one who really started my interest in gardening. As a matter of fact, we found a home video of my brother and me in the garden with my grandfather from 1999 just a few months ago. It’s really a great heirloom and testament to how early my involvement with gardening goes back. In that video we pick tomatoes, apples, cucumbers, and zucchini with my grandfather in his garden, which was right up the street from where we grew up. I have always loved food and been curious about how it is produced, and my grandmother taught me how to prepare the produce from the garden. My father’s parents really taught me how to love the land and everything that comes from it.
When my grandfather died, my father maintained a small garden and I maintained my interest, however after a few years I grew restless to know more, and so I began apprenticing (I suppose you could call it) with older Italian people in my neighborhood who had the same knowledge as my grandfather. In particular, Attilio Petriello was a great mentor to me. I still spend summer afternoons sitting with Attilio by his garden under the shade of an old apple tree. Each summer, in the last week of June, Attilio’s mulberry tree would shed thousands of pieces of fruit, and he would invite me and my father over to collect as much as we wanted. I think eating the fruit right off the tree really made me become interested in fruit trees as well. At first I was a bit hesitant, so I would sit on our front porch and watch Attilio prune his fruit trees across the street. I was only about 13 or 14. After he went inside I would walk across the street and look from the sidewalk at where he made the cuts. I’m sure that he knew I did this but I wasn’t comfortable enough to strike up conversation on my own. Eventually I started waving from across the street and would walk across and have a garden tour and a conversation with him. Sometimes he’d come over to our house and I’d show him my garden. I remember him being especially impressed one day when I showed him some peach grafts I had done on plants he gave me as seedlings. You could see the different flowers from the mother tree and the scion on the same branch. I remember with great pride Attilio telling me that I could graft just as well as him, and that if I could do that I could graft anything.
Of course my mother and my father were always especially supportive of my interest. I remember going with my mother to buy some of my first fig trees from Giuseppe “Joe” Morle, of City Farm Florists in Roslindale. I only had one tree prior to that time, which had been a gift from a family friend’s neighbor. That story goes like this: I was talking to my great-uncle (my grandfather Anthony’s brother) about his childhood and whether or not they had many fruit trees, and he told me that in addition to all the usual fruit trees (apples, cherries, pears, etc) there was a fig tree behind their barn where he grew up that my great grandfather, Alessandro, had planted. In winter they would build the greenhouse around the tree for protection. As it turned out, one of my great-uncle’s friends was nearby during this conversation and took interest in my curiosity about figs. This friend happened to live next door to an Italian man who came from a town only a few a few miles from my ancestor’s town of Corfinio. I’m sure that because we were “paesans” helped with this interaction. As it happened my great-uncle arranged for his friend to bring me over to this friend’s neighbor’s house. And when I arrived, the man gave me a tour of his beautiful garden, and gave me a little fig tree as a gift. That was the start of my interests in fig trees.
This tree, which really was little more than a stick, had an awkward branch that bent outward at a right angle to the trunk. I didn’t want to cut the branch off, but I knew from Attilio that branches should never be horizontal like that. One day I went down to Joe’s nursery in Roslindale and asked him for some advice, having just purchased a few fig trees from him to add to my original tree and start a collection. Joe showed me how to air-layer the branch, to propagate a new tree from that material instead of wasting it by cutting the branch and throwing it away. That was the beginning of my relationship with Joe, and he taught me everything I know about figs. I stop in whenever I can to talk gardening with him.
I met Joe DeLuca through Boston Mayor Thomas Menino’s Garden Contest. Joe and I both tied for first place in 2012 in the Best Vegetable Garden category. That was the third time I had won first place. Joe also has a beautiful vegetable garden and vineyard. I stop by to see him every once and a while. He still covers his fig trees, as he’s been doing for 50 years. He picks 5 gallon pails of figs, it’s amazing. I’m looking forward to seeing him in the spring.
I have over 100 fig trees right now, but I most certainly don’t intend to keep all of them, and when I say trees, I’m including all of the cuttings I’ve made into plants to sell to help finance my garden. I have 6 trees in the ground, and about another eight or ten in large pots. I only want about a dozen now, fewer if I get around to grafting multiple varieties onto the same tree. There are over 80 that are in 2-3 gallon pots that I will sell in the spring. I have about 12 varieties total. Joe DeLuca has given me a few, Attilio has given me cuttings from some of his relatives’ trees, I bought many of them from Joe Morle at City Farm. Of course, I also successfully rooted 3 cuttings from my great-great grandfather’s fig tree in Italy, which have produced fruit. I’m gradually teaching myself that it’s okay to throw away branches from pruning!
Look for more posts from Alessandro soon!