Your Italian-American Gardening Tips: Zucchini,Tomatoes, Strawberries and more!


Kathryn Occhipinti, MD
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD, for Conversational Italian for Travelers books

Ciao a tutti! It’s been another month since my last gardening blog and over these last weeks I’ve been thinning out my lettuce patch and enjoying delicious, fresh salads almost every day of the week.  Some of you may have already seen my Instagram posts of my “Salads du jour” “Salads of the day”

As I have mentioned in my previous Your Italian-American Gardening Tips blog, from March 29, this year I plan to focus on tending to my new raised gardens.  In this blog we’ll check in on the lettuce seeds I planted in early spring, and then set up our zucchini, tomato, and strawberry beds.

And also… we will check out how our perennial herbs I planted last year made it through the winter.

My hope is that you will enjoy the tips I’ve learned about gardening through many years of experience and be encouraged to start an Italian garden yourself — be it large or small, in a yard or on your porch, or even indoors in pots near a sunny window — after reading the blogs in this series “Your Italian Gardening Tips.”  

Check out my Instagram account, ConversationalItalian.French to see photos of my garden as it progresses.

Below are my insights on growing lettuce, tomatoes, zucchini, strawberries and herbs.  Please leave a comment if you want. I’d love to hear what you’ve learned about gardening!  

And remember the Conversational Italian for Travelers series of books on and Learn Travel if you want an easy, step-by-step way to learn the Italian of today. Free Cultural Notes, Italian Recipes, and Audio to help you practice your Italian are also found on Learn Travel


Planting a Lettuce Patch…

and Harvesting!

When I last wrote, in March 2020, I demonstrated how a little plot of tilled soil can be used to spread lettuce seeds in rows.  Since that time, I’ve been watching the seeds as they have sprouted and started to mature.  It was a very rainy spring here in Chicagoland, so I did not have to water, except for the first few days after planting, to encourage the seeds to germinate.

As of this post, I have small radishes to harvest and also a variety of immature lettuces growing closely together.

Radish plants with small radishes growing in a row in a garden, with their identifying seed packet as a marker.
Radish seeds planted two months ago yield small, fully developed radishes.

2 months lettuce 2020-3

Radishes are one of the quickest vegetables to mature, and are not as harsh tasting if the weather remains cool.  They are also good to harvest young and small before they develop a more tough, woody texture.  I harvest radishes as I need them, pulling the entire plant out and choosing the largest to thin out the row and leave space for other plants to grow.

I scatter the radish bulbs in salads.  The radish greens are edible, but even young greens have a coarse texture that is not appealing in fresh salads.  Radish greens can be cooked on the stove-top in the same manner as other edible greens (olive oil and garlic if you are Italian) and I’ve even seen internet recipes for pesto, although I have not tried these.

Now that the lettuces have started to grow, I have been making my own “baby lettuce” salads, which I enjoy, while at the same time thinning out the rows so the lettuces can mature.  I especially like to eat these lettuces young, as in my area of the Midwest the weather tends to go from cold to very hot quickly.  Unfortunately, the heat will make lettuce “bolt,” which means a long flower stem will quickly grow and mature.  After this, the plant dies back.

Mixed green lettuce salad with chive flowers and radishes set out on a plant with brie cheese in the center.
Mixed green lettuce salad with chive flowers, radishes and brie cheese

For more (many more!) salad ideas this spring and summer, visit my Instagram at Conversationalitalian.french

This year I grew arugula ( also called roquette, or garden rocket), romaine lettuce and mixed lettuce greens.  I have yet to get romaine lettuce to fully mature (see reason above), but the young leaf makes a nice salad. Like most Italians, I like the bitter taste of arugula in salads, which technically is a mustard green. It is best eaten young,  because the hotter it gets outside and the larger the leaf, the more pungent and peppery the flavor. Spinach can also be grown easily from seed and is wonderful in salads, of course, and many years I also have young spinach leaves at this point as well.

Three rows of new greens in the garden, romaine lettuce, arugula and radishes.
Lettuce and arugula alongside radishes
Different types of young lettuce greens growing in a row with their identifying packet in the background
Mixed lettuce greens



And how did the herbs overwinter? 

Overwintering herbs is always a challenge for me mainly because the heat and sunlight that herbs love are difficult to provide indoors. Rosemary, in particular is picky.  Rosemary likes a lot of sunlight and cool breezes; it needs heat, but does not like our heated homes. It grows wonderfully in the California bay area, where I’ve seen entire hedges of rosemary.  At home, this year I managed to find a corner close to, but not too close to a heat source, which was also by a large window, and this seemed to work fairly well. The plant survived, but looked a lot less happy then when it was growing outdoors this summer.

Also, as the winter progresses, I pinch off rosemary and bay leaves for cooking stews, leaving much less of a plant then when they started! Since there were only small herb plants this year at the nursery, and not much variety, I am glad my rosemary and bay plants survived indoors.

My potted herbs lead the pathway to my raised garden out back again this year.  I love having herbs right out my kitchen door, fresh and ready to use from spring to the first frost in the fall.  It takes only a morning of planting the annuals (and a little watering during dry spells) for a month’s long reward!

The rue, oregano and mint I planted outdoors last summer are perennials and loved our mild, rainy winter and have reappeared. Rue and oregano are already many times their original size! And the chives I planted about 10 years ago in a pot and have left outdoors in all types of weather, have predictably come up once again this year and are showing their lovely, spikes of purple flowers.

Small plant of rue with its identifying marker planted in 2019. Leaves have an unusual feathery appearance.
Original rue plant 2019
Large rue plant after one year of growth outdoors
Rue, May 2020
Close up of the leaves of a small oregano plant from 2019 with marker
Original oregano 2019
Large oregano plant one year later, May 2020
Oregano, May 202
Chives growing outdoors in a pot with spikes of purple flowers in May 2020
Chives flowering May 2020



Planning Your Vegetable Garden

Before I plant my vegetable garden each year, I always draw a diagram that allows me to determine how much space I have for what I want to grow. Most times, I have more ambition than space! The drawing allows me to realize this.  I also (usually) check the seed packets and a gardening book to make sure the area I choose will give the plants the sunlight they require. I love the book Growing Fruit and Vegetables,by Richard Bird, but have also found lots of helpful advice on the Internet.

My raised garden with the lettuce patch is in a shady area of the yard, and in the more sunny raised garden next to it contains sugar snap peas for my spring greens.  I planted  zucchini along the side of the raised garden that gets the most sunlight.  Even here, I will probably not have enough space and will end up with vines growing on the lawn, but which looks a bit messy in a suburb, but it is the best I can do for now! I am going to try to train the vines to grow into a small area between the sunny part of the garden and the raised bed. We shall see…

Below is my “idea” of how my garden should look.  You will notice that I’ve made notes and “inter-planted” leeks and shallots between the rows of lettuce in the lettuce garden and seeds for an Italian turnip that is eaten like a broccholi rabe (cima di rapa) between the pea bushes.  The pots along the perimeter of the raised bed will start herbs from seed that I could not find in the nursery this year (more on these in later blogs).

Drawing of where lettuce, peas, zucchini, swiss chard and herb pots are to be planted
Lettuce and zucchini garden 2020

Oh, and I almost forgot the Swiss chard in the perimeter of the zucchini mounds. I’ve had good success in the past growing Swiss chard and cavolo nero (the so-called black Tuscan kale that has lately become so popular) from seed, with both plants producing stalks with large, colorful leaves that last through even in the hottest Illinois summers into the fall. These large, leafy greens have the added benefit of providing a natural “fence” that shelters the garden a bit from onlookers.  My plans for sorrel, cardoon and turnips had to be scratched for next year as I realized later that I will need a place to train my zucchini vines.

Because I like a large number and large variety of tomatoes and peppers, I built another raised garden in the sunniest part of the yard.  It is also a bit sheltered, just beside a fence, which will help protect the tomato plants from the fierce wind and thunderstorms we get in the Illinois summers. I also love strawberries and these fruits come up nicely each year in Illinois (although they are best when covered with sheets during episodes of frost), so I planted these in the middle of this raised garden.



Planting Zucchini 

Zucchini grow wonderfully from seeds in the hot, humid summers of the Midwest. A few stray seeds have even been known to germinate in my compost heap!  I started growing zucchini in my home garden mainly for the zucchini flowers because zucchini flowers were not available at our local farmer’s market 10 years ago. They’ve become more popular now, but are often wilted in the heat of the market, and have to been cooked right away. So instead of purchasing them,  I’ve been growing zucchini for their flowers every year since I found out how easy it is to do.

There are only a few things to know about zucchini to ensure a large crop of zucchini to pick throughout the summer.

First, plant zucchini after the threat of frost is over in your region and the soil has warmed up.

Second,  zucchini love rich soil.  I always weed and then loosen the top soil and mix in cow manure. I know, not a fun job but put on your gardening jeans and long gardening gloves and use a shovel with a long handle!  Every time I do this I think of my Grandfather Occhipinti dragging my father along on the subway from Manhattan to their garden plot in Brooklyn, along with  bags of manure for their summer vegetable garden.  That must have been a sight (and a smell), no doubt!

Third, and maybe most important: there are both male and female zucchini plants. Bees must fertilize the female flower from the male flower for the female to mature into a zucchini.  (See blog from last year about zucchini).  For this reason, it is best to mound up the soil and plant the seeds around the mound, rather in a row.  The male and female vines will be close to each other for easy fertilization.

This year I found a company called Seeds from Italy that imports Franchi brand seeds from Italy and will mail the seed packets directly to your door. Below are the zucchini types I will try to grow.

Three seed packets with pictures of different types of zucchini.

Zucchini seeds from Italy

I am particularly excited about the zucchini variety that yields large flowers for making stuffed zucchini flowers called “le bizzarre. ” This will be my first year attempting to grow cucuzza, the popular very long, southern Italian gourd that grows in the summer and is eaten like a squash.  More about this particular squash can be found in my blog from last year, Your Italian-American Gardening Tips (with Recipes): Oregano (Origano) and Zucchini (Zucchina)

Unfortunately, I did not discover the flyer that came in the package with the cucuzza seeds until after I planted!  The flyer advised, ” Because the seeds are so hard, germination can take as long as four to six weeks. To speed germination, scarify the seeds before planting: the easiest way to scarify is to rub the seeds on coarse sand paper, just enough to weaken the seed coat without damaging the interior part of the seed. Then soak the seeds for 24 hours to further soften the seed coat… Germination of scarified seeds occurs in about 10-14 days.”  So, I will follow this process and replant at another sunny location in my yard, as advised, along a support by my fence for these vines that can grow 25 feet or longer. Even the best plans may need to be modified!


 Planting Tomatoes

This past Memorial Day weekend,  I got lucky and coincidentally planted my nursery-bought tomatoes the day after a furious spring thunderstorm with hail.  It is possible to plant tomatoes earlier in Chicagoland, and many gardeners set Mother’s Day weekend as their target day for planting. This year was a bit cooler than most years in May. Also, because one year previously  my entire tomato crop was ruined by a hailstorm, and had to replanted just 3 days later, I always plant very late in May.

In general, tomatoes need to be planted after the last threat of frost is over.  They need a manured, fertile bed, lots of sun and lots of water. And with these three things the results will be so far superior than any store-bought tomato you will ever come across! I think it is the amazing flavor of a home-grown tomato that has kept Italian-American gardeners at it all these years more than any other vegetable.

Things I do:

I save my egg shells all winter, and then put them in a paper bad and crush them while inside the bag with a meat mallet. The calcium in the crushed egg shells is said to prevent bottom rot, and I’ve never had a case of this so it may be true. It may also create a sharp environment that slugs do not like to slide over, and I have not had a problem with slugs in the past either.  It is best to work the egg shells into the soil at the same time as the manure about a month before planting.  Calcium should leak out of the shells as they disintegrate over time, providing a steady source of this nutrient throughout the summer.

Marigolds are said to attract beneficial insects that prey on garden pests, so I plant marigolds in along the borders of my tomato patch. I’ve also read that if you sow marigolds as a cover crop and then plow them under before planting, they will repel harmful nematodes, such as roundworms, that like to feed on the greenery of growing vegetable plants.

Raised garden bed with tomatoes and their steaks. marigolds in the perimeter to keep away pests..
Just planted tomatoes and marigolds May 2020

Before planting a nursery-bought tomato plant, I pinch off any tomato flowers or tomatoes that may have started to form, to give the plant a chance to grow a bit before producing.

I plant the tomatoes as deeply as the first true leafy branch to encourage root growth. I set a tomato cage around the cherry tomatoes.  The rest have a steak set next to them so I can tie the stem loosely to give the plant support as it grows. There are other methods to support tomato plants, of course.

Watering  to get tomato plants through dry spells is essential.  It is best to water in the morning so the plants have water available during the hottest hours of the day.  Watering at night may also lead to mold formation.

Always check they information each particular tomato variety comes with. The “cordon variety” of tomato (not cherry tomatoes) will produce a side shoot (sucker) between the main stem and the fruit bearing stem.  If these are not trimmed off, the plant will  grow bushy and not produce much fruit. The best way to tell if you need to pinch off a side shoot is to watch the tomato plant as it grows.

So what happened to our San Marzano tomatoes that were planted from seed?

The good news is that almost all of the tomato seeds germinated nicely.  Their stems are spindly, so next year I will buy a grow light to help them to grow straight.

I transplanted the San Marzano seedlings into containers I had left over from last year.  When I first brought the transplanted seedlings outside, I left them in the shade as directed.  But, I think I brought them into the sunlight too quickly afterward, as the leaves started turning white around the edges, equivalent to a “plant sunburn,” according to my reading.  So the seedlings are back indoors to harden off for a bit.   There is a third raised garden with marigolds planted in the perimeter waiting for them.

transplanted San Marzano tomato seedlings in their small containers
San Marzano tomato transplants



Planting Strawberries

There is really not much to know about planting strawberries, except that it is essential choose a variety that will grow nicely in your region and to use a berry fertilizer.  I like having a strawberry patch since my family loves strawberries and it seems like the ones in the grocery have become larger and larger and have less and less flavor as each year goes by.  Home-grown strawberries will be smaller, but taste more like the highly prized “fragole di bosco” or wild “strawberries of the woods” hand harvested in Italy.

There are many different varieties of strawberries that fruit at different times, some more continuously than others. It is best to go to a local nursery that you can trust with someone you can talk to before choosing your strawberries since, if properly planted they will come up again for many years.

There is a professional seed store I used to go to in Peoria, Kelly Seed and Hardware,  that sells just the root and shoot of a berry plant. The strawberries I bought from them over 10 years ago are still producing.  Soak the root in water for 24 hours and then plant the root underground, leaving the shoot above ground.

Or, just go to your local nursery and buy a strawberry plant that has already been started in a small container. Remove from container and plant at ground level, as you would any other container plant. The plants I bought for my new strawberry patch were the last flat of berries  at the nursery near me, so really no choice this year.  They are “ever bearing” type and the label says these berries produce fruit in June and then in the early fall.

Plant strawberries in a sunny location. My strawberries in Peoria like a bit of shade in the afternoon from companion-planting with asparagus. I will put a bit of straw under them when they start to produce berries to keep the fruit cleaner, although this is not absolutely necessary.  Water as you would any new transplant. The instructions on the strawberries I planted advised pinching off any strawberry flowers that develop for the first month. So, I will likely not have many (or any) berries this June, as I planted too late in the season.

Runners will develop after fruiting to create new plants. They can be removed once you have enough plants established and planted in another part of the garden if you wish.

After strawberries have fruited, my gardening book recommends cutting off the leaves and disposing of leaves and straw to prevent the spread of mold and diseases; although, I have to say I have not often (ever!) done this.

In the spring, when the plants start to come alive again, fertilize and cover with an old sheet to protect from frost when necessary. Below is my strawberry patch.  Since I planted late this year, I’m hoping for some berries this fall!

Raised garden bed with strawberries planted in the perimenter
Strawberries just planted May 2020

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Relaxing after a morning of gardening! Planted 3 types of authentic Italian zucchini and also Swiss chard in my garden next to the raised beds. Also some herbs I can’t find at the nursery are now starting from seeds in pots – borage, chervil, camomile, and sorrel. Borage is a uniqueherb loved by Romans. It makes both pink and blue fowers on the same plant. Can’t wait to float them in my wine the way the Romans did! Maybe I can make some Roman food with the leaves. I love the French Sorrel in my salads – tastes a bit like celery. If I can get it to grow in it’s pot I can transplant and it will come up easily every year in Illinois. Fresh Chervil is a must have for French cooking. And who doesn’t love the beautiful daisy flowers of camomile for their beauty and tea? Visit to follow my garden this year. More info and gardening tips on the blog! @theitaliangardenproject @niafitalianamerican @sons_of_italy #italiangarden #italiangardens #italiangardenstyle #frenchherbs #plantingherbs #plantingherbs☘️ #plantingherbseeds #frenchgarden #frenchgardenstyle #frenchgardenhousestyle #camomile #camomila #sorrel #borage #borageflowers #borageflowergarnish #borageflowertea #chervil #romancooking #romanscookingcorner #foodblogger @burpeehg @burpeegardening #italianzucchini #zucchiniflowers #zucchiniflowers🌼🌼🌼

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I hope you enjoyed reading about my gardening adventures so far this year.

Do you have a garden?  

Do you have a gardening story to share or any gardening tips? 

Please leave a comment!  I’d love to hear!

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3 thoughts on “Your Italian-American Gardening Tips: Zucchini,Tomatoes, Strawberries and more!

  1. I love zucchini and strawberries. I recently learned that chive flowers are edible, so thank you for sharing the picture of your salad! My husband has the green thumb and I don’t know much about gardening, but I’m learning. I find it fascinating that egg shells prevent bottom rot, so I’ll start saving them. I enjoyed reading this post! Loved your pictures, too. Grazie, Kathryn!

    Liked by 1 person

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