I’d like to introduce you to my grandpa Sal. Nonno Sal moved to Manhattan from Sicily in 1954. He lived alone on 92nd Street, working, saving money, and creating a home for my grandma and dad until they immigrated over 2 years later. He worked in road construction, laying tar to build the city streets. He recently told me that he built the roads for the terminals at JFK and for the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens, among other major streets. I can go on…I can’t sit down with him and my grandma without getting some crazy story that makes me wonder how much I really know them.
You’ll be hearing about them a lot, but I’d like to start with Nonno’s garden. He and Nonna have lived in their house in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn since 1963. It’s the only house that’s been consistently in my life since birth, and its magic is not to be taken lightly. Take their garden, for instance. When I was a child it seemed like acres, but in truth, it’s a 15 x 20-foot patch surrounded by concrete and fences. But that’s never bothered them. They came from the country, running around on farms and picking vegetables every day. They moved to America for a new life, but the country never truly left them.
And so, naturally, the only thing to do was turn that patch into a fully-functioning vegetable farm. Wouldn’t anyone?
Their little concrete farm houses a two-story persimmon tree, beds of scallions, garlic, onions, fava beans, string beans, escarole, eggplants, zucchini, celery, and cucumber vines. Their tomatoes alone deserve an entire chapter in a book. The vegetables aren’t even the best part. My grandfather has taken the art of using what you have to an impressive level. Nothing has been overlooked for building material: wood, road signs, sheet metal, old window screens—they’ve all been transformed. Road signs and wood planks were turned into dividers for raised beds. Sheet metal creates barriers for squirrels and mice; bright orange caution tape tied around aluminum poles mark vegetable beds. Severed stereo chords tie vines to support staffs. Paint buckets and faded bed sheets cover fig trees for winter. Squash vines weave in and out of repurposed piping overhead to create a canopy. Old work shirts wave from fences as makeshift scarecrows.
Recreating this garden is something that any sensible person understands is not entirely possible. You can’t just start transforming scrap household items into garden equipment all willy nilly. He’s been digging in that dirt for 47 years, building and “designing” the beds, supports, layout, and scarecrows; learning what thrives best in Brooklyn soil, what can survive the winter, how to wrap up a fig tree in t-shirts and garbage bags just right.
There’s still a lot to learn from his vegetable garden, even if you can’t recreate his world. Most of his advice won’t be found in gardening books, and experts may disagree with much of it. For example:
- Never underestimate the usefulness of anything. Coffee cans, old screens, sheets, pipes, broom handles, Tupperware—this is all building material for raised beds, support systems, and weatherizing.
- Talk to your troops. At 5am, preferably, when it’s just you and them, with no city distractions.
- Baby them. Then baby them some more. In high heat, he waters them twice daily and talks to them even more. All they want is water, sun, and company, he says.
- Anything can be a scarecrow. And by scarecrow I mean scaresquirrel, scaremouse, scarepigeon, scarealleycat…whatever deterrents you’re building, you’re probably not worried about crows if you’re in a city. Growing up I remember he used to put pipes through the sleeves of an old flannel shirt and top it off with a bucket for a head. Cowbells placed in unexpected places to catch the wind also help.
- You don’t need as much room as you think. In the years I’ve spent fussing over gardening books, I found this is the one rule my grandpa defies the most. Forget planting tomatoes 12, 24, 36, however many inches apart. He squeezes 3 to 4 plants into a 12-inch pot, and they’re all bulging with fruit. Plum tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, whatever. They’re all squeezed in, and they’re all happy.
I can’t match his efforts; not in the backyard of our ground-floor rental, where our neighbor’s flowers occupy most of the yard. But it doesn’t mean I can’t create a little patch of madness here. A couple of months ago I planted pots of tomatoes out of seedlings from his yard. I have 10 babies growing right now, plus a few cucumber vines. If all goes well I’ll have the goods for sauce, pickled green tomatoes, salads…let’s see what the summer brings.