DIY Project: Our very own vegetable garden

With the new house have come new noises at night, new hiding spots for Diego, adjustments to a new routine and a fantastic grassy backyard completed with a fish pond (and a waterfall, no less).

Although I grew up with a vegetable garden and parents who believe in growing our own food (and grandparents who were farmers), I never actually spent any time asking important questions about gardening or growing food. All I thought I needed to see veggies grow were seeds, or plants, sun and water. Oh, was I mistaken. Sure, sun and water are the fundamental ingredients for a bountiful garden, but knowing what type of soil you have is just, if not more, as important. Good thing luck was on my side: My garden rests on very fertile land!

The trick now is not screwing it up. The gorgeous raised/rock beds already inhabited our yard, so we can’t take credit for them, but the happy and sprouting greenery is definitely our doing.

I went a little veggie-plant crazy, but I believe we have the beginning of a great produce season. First off, three plants of zucchine and one of watermelon. I’ve probably said this over and over, but watermelon is one of my favorite foods, ever. It won’t be easy for the little plant to grow, but I am giving it my best care (and I am happy to report it is doing just fine).

A vegetable garden cannot be complete without basil (can you imagine how many jars of pesto I will make by mid-summer? I can hardly wait!) The vegetable I completely lost my mind with is tomatoes. I have 8 plants of many different types of tomatoes: Roma, grape, heirlooms. The scent of their leaves is so distinct, strong but not overwhelming. I am in love with my tomato plants.

Ah, lettuce: the best summer treats. We have two kinds in the garden: a buttery one (my favorite) and an arugula look-alike, perfect for a little spice aftertaste.

And mint: a request from Francesco. As they say….when life gives you mint, make Mojitos!

Of course, my favorite flower…the daisy.

One of my favorite features of the backyard is our fish pond: 19 koi and beautiful waterlilies, I take it as a sign of good luck. May be garden force be with you! 🙂

Out and About: My parents’ orto in Los Angeles

It’s been quite a while since my last post. My apologies. I have done some traveling, some eating, cooking. It’s been an interesting summer, but I am back and ready to roll.

Our first stop was Los Angeles. My cousin Federica, her daughter Gaia and husband Alessandro traveled from Italy for their first U.S. vacation. I hadn’t seen them since our wedding in May 2010 and since Federica and I are really close (she is the older sister I never had), it just felt right to hop on a plane and spend some time together…plus, the last time I was home was Christmas. Either way, it was a win-win.

One of the things I love coming home to is a plentiful garden, l’orto. My grandma Pierina and grandpa Piero used to tend to what I used to call “a little forest:” carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, eggplants, cabbage, you name it, they were growing it. My parents are keeping up this family tradition.

After only a few minutes in the garden, we had at least 20 big carrots, a couple of bunches of green onions and tons of lettuce. It never really hit me until I found myself without an orto, but getting my hands (and knees) dirty is divine: the cold and wet soil underneath my fingernails, the occasional snail slowly making its way through the arugola patch. It’s an almost invisible microcosm, a grounded cycle of life.

These tomatoes were juicy and so much tastier than the ones I usually buy at the local grocery store. These fantastic fresh veggies didn’t go to waste, they went right into our bellies! My mom and dad made a simple, yet sensational, veggie soup, much like a Minestrone.

Our tomato bounty. Can you imagine a fresh Caprese salad with these and Mozzarella di Bufala? That’s right. I dream of it at times.

Aside from the orto, the garden sports an impressive spread of citrus trees: two orange trees, one lemon and a grapefruit, too. Every summer morning, my brother and I used to make homemade orange juice. Of course we complained and our—well, at least my less-than-optimal arm strength, would only produce a couple of drops. Nonetheless, we never got sick – no fever, sore throats, no flu. This summer, we all pitched in and collected pounds over pounds of oranges, and even little Gaia got into the game.

A homemade garden is a healthy, communal and revolutionary notion. It brought my family together, enhanced my desire to learn how to cook and made for a better life, plain and simple.

Of course, a Los Angeles vacation could not be complete without its stunning sunsets. Cooking with family is good for the soul. Do it and do it often.

A garden on our little, fake balcony

I have been doing some research on small gardens, alternative gardens, anything dealing with growing plants in small spaces. I finally landed on this really interesting website: Life on the Balcony, where space and weather are not deterrents for some hearty gardening—even on pallets! Francesco and I live in a one-bedroom apartment in a nice community. Our outdoor space is close to nothing: a 6” fake balcony. That’s right. What you see here is what we’ve got.

Our "garden"

I was a bit disappointed at first. Granted, I was raised helping mom and dad take care of strawberries, rosemary and basil plants. I even remember that we each chose a fruit tree to care for: I went with the pear tree (I adore pear yogurt and juice), my dad got the cherry tree, my mom the apple tree and my brother…we ran out of fruit trees in our garden, so he adopted the apricot tree that sat triumphant in the middle of my grandparents’ garden. Not too shabby. [We sadly sold our home in Milano, Italy – where I grew up, but I believe my brother’s tree still exists].

Sage

As I was saying before I took a turn to the sentimental and nostalgic, I was disappointed with the outdoor space, but knowing that my green thumb was still very much in training, I did a little research and decided that we could still make a garden happen.

Mind you, before this little experiment, I bought a miniature orange tree. It lasted about a year, until my new kitten Diego, who is also my sous chef in the kitchen, ate the only two leaves the plant had ever had. I know. Sad story.

I charged on and went to the local hardware store and bought myself a flower box. I entertained the idea of just seeding flowers—lushious, colorful daisies, daffodils and gerberas. But I realized herbs would be much more in tuned with my style. I like flowers, but I love herbs. The decision of which herbs to seed was simple: basil, rosemary, sage and lavender. (I tried carrots and lettuce in pots, but always failed to get decent results). Had I thought more deeply, I would have added some thyme, too.

Believe it or not, my little basil plant that could brought me some happy times making delicious pesto that I used with pasta and that I added to tomato sauce in an attempt to emulate my grandmother’s pesto-pomodoro sauce. The rosemary adorned some mean pork and beef roasts.

As you can see for yourself, these plants are now in need of love. Not having space to keep them indoor, they survived a tough Virginia winter with snow, hail and ice. But it’s time to start over and welcome spring with open arms. What could I plant/seed this time?

Lavender
Rosemary

A morning at Maple Hill Farm – The Local Food Hub

This morning, as part of a volunteer event for Charlottesville’s Future Fund,  a group of about 12 of us trekked to Scottsville, Virginia to help with planting and seeding at Maple Hills Farm, the educational farm of The Local Food Hub, a nonprofit working to strengthen the regional food supply by helping small farmers. Since Francesco and I use our fake balcony as our small…minuscule garden, I jumped at the chance to get dirty.

Maple Hill Farm

This is the entrance to Maple Hill Farm. The farm is about a 18-mile drive from Charlottesville, just a few minutes from downtown Scottsville.

Tractor

This tractor caught my eye…old, rusty and perfect.

 

Greenhouse

It was an amazing spring morning…the first ray of sunshine after a very LONG winter. The greenhouse was humid and hot, hence the fogged camera lens. Genovese Basil, Roma tomatoes, peppers and flowers are the happy residents of this house.

 

Potting basil

After seeding flowers and tomatoes, we switched gears and began potting basil plants…hundreds of basil plants that will eventually be sold to raise money for the farm and for the nonprofit.

 

Cuteness

The farm is house to about 250 chicks and an equal number of chickens. If this photo doesn’t melt your heart, I don’t know what will. Although the farms barely breaks even with their egg business, co-0wner Steve told us that keeping and growing chicks and chickens is a great way to teach local teens how to care for animals.

 

Bluebird

Just one almost-spring day at Maple Hill Farm: Sun, wind, blue sky, birds chirping. Doesn’t get any better than that.