Your Italian-American Gardening Tips – Fall Clean Up, An Autumn Soup, and Planting for Spring

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

Ciao a tutti! I can’t believe that my last gardening blog was so many months ago in August! Actually, there hasn’t been much to report about maintaining the garden in the early fall,  and I have mainly spent these last few months harvesting, cooking with fresh tomatoes, and posting what I’ve cooked on Instagram. In short, maintaining a garden in early fall is relatively easy in northern Illinois. Simply harvest what you can and clear away the plants that have given their all or die off with the oncoming frosts.

Speaking of freezing temperatures,  I did post on my Conversationalitalian.french Instagam when it was time to take in my herb pots.  Was it really as early as October 5 this year?

Anyway, little by little, I have been clearing out my garden beds of the annual vegetables of summer. For my cold-hardy leeks and leafy greens, like Swiss Chard and cavolo nero (Italian “black” kale), I have been weeding (this job never seems to end) and harvesting sparingly so they will continue to grow.

I have also taken the opportunity this fall to plant an essential Italian ingredient — garlic — which came up faithfully every year in my old garden when I was living in Peoria. I always look forward to garlic scapes (green shoots) in springtime, and of course, harvesting the bulbs later in the season.  I also love shallots, and have planted these bulbs as well this year, so hopefully they will be ready to harvest in the summer. The enjoyable part of my fall garden duties this year has involved planting  for next spring!

As I have mentioned in my previous Your Italian-American Gardening Tips blogs, this year I have been focusing on my raised gardens, and all the wonderful Italian vegetables that can be grown in the suburbs, even in a small space.

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 how to clean up and prepare your garden beds for fall, caring for herbs over the winter, and what to plant for next spring.  

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



Putting Garden Beds to Rest,
Harvesting Leeks and Planting Garlic

Fall 2020

As I mentioned in the introduction to my blog, during these past fall months, I did manage to complete the boring and labor intensive but necessary part of gardening —  putting my garden beds to rest. Little by little, when a sunny day would appear, I took the opportunity to pull out my old and spent tomato and bean plants. I also finally cleared out my lettuce patch.

The soil in the raised beds that grew these annual vegetables all summer was then amended with compost and mulched leaves. I also added crushed egg shells to provide calcium for the tomato plants next year. I planted garlic bulbs in the perimeter of the beds where I will grow tomatoes next year. Some gardeners believe that garlic planted by tomatoes is beneficial and although I am not sure this is true, the particular location  in my garden works for both plants for me and I will be able to harvest the garlic in mid summer before the tomato plants become too large and take over .

To plant garlic, simply separate the cloves and plant as you would any bulb, with the pointy side up. I like the Italian hard neck garlic best, of course. Homegrown garlic is said to be more flavorful, and I do love the garlic shoots (scapes) in the springtime.

Finally, I covered the garden beds that I don’t expect to produce until I plant again in spring with black landscape fabric, which I hope will keep weeds from growing in the meantime.

I had a small fall harvest of leeks from my garden beds as well. In the center of the lettuce bed, leeks had grown up nicely during the cool weather, just in time for me to harvest two for my family’s favorite “Thanksgiving Leek and Potato Soup.”  I have not mentioned that I have been growing leeks up until now, as this year was my first attempt, and I wasn’t sure how things would go. Actually, although the initial planting was a bit difficult (the young seedlings I bought were grown together in one pot), after each seedling separated and placed in the soil, my leeks grew pest-free and virtually weed-free. The only  activity required was to mound up the soil around each plant periodically as it grew.  Here is how my gardens looked in the early fall and today, with the leeks still happily growing in the center of my mulched plot in early December.

Two rows of leek plants growing in a raised garden bed
Young leeks growing in early fall 2020
December leeks are growing in the middle of a plot with leaf mulch
December leeks 2020. Self-seeded borage growing to the left of the raised bed.






Thanksgiving Leek and Potato Soup

Leek and potato soup is simplicity itself.  Just two ingredients boiled together in a little salted water and then puréed, with a bit of cream added, yield a light, delightfully complex oniony flavored soup.  Leek and onion soup is the most requested soup for Thanksgiving that I make, over mushroom and butternut squash. Below is my Instagram post from this year’s version.

My leeks were smaller than the grocery store leeks, but so flavorful that just two worked perfectly.  Whether store bought or homegrown, the only trick is to remember to continuously clean the leeks of the bits of dirt that hide in between the layers. The white, long “bulb” part of the leek is used in cooking, along with the tender green portion of the bulb at its top.  The long green leaves can be discarded into the compost bin.





How to Overwinter Herbs

Overwintering herbs is one of the most tricky things about gardening.  One has to know which herbs will survive the particular winter climate where they are gardening. Herbs that are said to be perennial (come up on their own each year) in one region may have to be grown as annuals in a another, colder region. Here is a short run-down of what I have found to work in northern Illinois.


Since I find fresh herbs essential to good cooking
I’d love to hear more helpful tips on how to overwinter,
so please feel free to leave a comment at the end of this blog!


Rosemary and Bay leaf: Each year I plant rosemary and bay leaf in pots so I can take them indoors to overwinter.  Although their woody stems and tough leaves make it seem like they should be cold hardy, both plants will die with the first frost, so it is essential that they be moved indoors early. Rosemary and bay leaf are an important ingredient in Italian winter roasts and stews, so I find it wonderful to have easy access to these herbs in a sunny corner of my kitchen. The fresh bay leaf in particular has so much more flavor than the dried supermarket bay leaves that I will only use fresh bay leaves from my own plant, or those that I have dried myself the year before.

This is the second overwinter for my bay plant, and this year has been responding will to the blue spectrum of my new grow light, making many new leaves since I have brought it indoors. It is also the second year for my rosemary plant, which is particularly finicky, and needs  good, cool air circulation and therefore to be kept away from any heating vents. Both plants will die if given too much water, so it is best to keep the soil dry.

Parsley: Parsley is a biennial, which means that it will grow into a plant every other year (setting seed in the year in between). Parsley does not always grow easily from seed easily in Illinois, so I take a large pot of parsley indoors every year and keep it as long as it will last. I will obtain new plants in spring from the gardening store.

Basil: Basil, of course, will flower and die back right afterward, and needs to be cut back several times over the summer.  My mother and grandmother always clipped a few bunches of basil that would happily grow roots in water glasses on the window sill.

Marjoram and Oregano: Marjoram, which is also called “summer oregano”  (and I think far more complex-tasting and fragrant than Italian oregano) is a tender perennial, meaning it will not survive a winter in Illinois. I have had Italian oregano bushes outgrow everything else in my herb garden over the years, though! Italian oregano will die back in the winter and come back year after year.

Mint and Catnip: The mint I planted 2 years ago came up again this year, overtook much of the perennial herb garden, and continued to seed flower beds on the other side of my yard! No need to worry at all about mint surviving the winter! I have had a similar experience with catnip as well.

Ancient Roman Herbs: I love rue for its delicate, finger-like leaves and borage for it’s beautiful pink and blue flowers. The Romans favored these herbs in their cooking, even floating the borage flowers in their wine! Both rue shrubs and individual borage plants and come back year after year in my gardens. Rue even grew well during the 3 weeks of consecutive days over 100 degrees last summer. The borage I planted this summer has already seeded out of its original pot and this fall another crop is growing happily along the southern side of my raised garden.




The Zucchini Plot turns into a Swiss Chard Bed

As I’ve discussed in the last blog in this series, Tomatoes, Zucchini, Italian Beans, Brussels Sprouts, Swiss Chard,  by late August my zucchini plants were growing valiantly outside their original garden plot, despite being infested by the squash-vine borer. I cleared out the old plants and harvested a few more zucchini flowers from the newer vines before removing all of the zucchini plants for the season. I specifically did NOT put the vines and leaves into my compost bin, so as not to spread disease. Instead, I bagged them up for the weekly neighborhood garbage collection.

This clean-up revealed the Swiss chard plants I had planted from seed in the summer, which were growing in the perimeter of the bed. Swiss Chard seedling dwarfed by a cucuzza zucchini plant.

Unfortunately, as the Swiss chard plants had been deprived of sunlight, they had not grown very large by the end of August. (See photo to the right.)

I did find a few additional Swiss chard plants that also had not grown to maturity on a visit to the garden store. So I weeded, amended the soil in my old zucchini bed with compost, and planted additional plants in the center of the garden bed.  All my Swiss chard plants have grown nicely in the cool weather and sunlight, and, despite several episodes of frost, one light snow, and a few of my harvests, they continue to do well. A recent photo is below from early December. I expect they will continue to do well as long as the late temperatures stay on the milder side. To harvest Swiss chard and other leafy greens like Italian cavolo nero (“black kale”), which I plan to plant next year, just take a few older leaves from the outer portion of each plant; more leaves will continue to grow in the center.

oval plot of swiss chard plants growing after zucchini have been removed
Swiss chard growing in my old zucchini bed on a sunny fall afternoon 2020


Strawberry Plants with Rhubarb

My strawberry patch was newly planted this year, so I let it grow freely and have many healthy plants in the perimeter of this garden bed growing into the late fall.  Rhubarb is in the center of the same garden bed, since it is said to be a classic companion plant for strawberries. There are a lot of myths that have grown up and been repeated over the years regarding companion planting, and often not much science applied, but to my mind this combination makes sense. Rhubarb and strawberries both come back to life in the early spring, need an open, sunny location to grow, and last into the fall. And, of course, the flavor of the rhubarb stalk and the strawberry fruit blend beautifully together in the classic strawberry rhubarb pie, which was the pie that got me hooked on pie making when I moved to the Midwest!

The strawberries in my previous garden in Peoria did well year after year with a sprinkling of compost in the late fall and strawberry fertilizer in the spring. This year I am a little further north, and I have straw reserved for the coldest days of winter. I plan to cover the strawberries with a thick layer of straw when the temperature drops to -20° for consecutive days, as it usually does in the last two weeks in January.  Another precaution I always take is to cover strawberries with old sheets during a springtime frost, to protect the plants during their time of new growth.


Asparagus and Strawberries  

My newly planted asparagus also did well growing in their new beds this year. I love asparagus, so have two raised garden beds with asparagus growing in the center. I plan to plant strawberries in the perimeter of each bed this spring, which love to grow partially sheltered from the summer sun under the asparagus fronds. The broad leaves of the strawberry plants in turn provide good ground cover in the perimeter of the asparagus, which grow tall but do not spread.  

I will not be able to cut asparagus for the next 2-3 years, but will instead allow them to grow into high, lovely, fern-like plants. Asparagus should be cut back after the fronds turn yellow in the fall and a nice layer of compost applied over the crowns, so the roots can absorb nutrients through the winter and be ready for the springtime sprouts.  This year, they developed pretty red berries before I was able to achieve this task. So, I’ll find out in the spring if the birds were able to spread asparagus plants throughout the garden!


Close up of a fern-like asparagus plant with red berries
Asparagus in the fall with red berries




Until it is time for spring planting, when I will revisit this series,
please follow  my Instagram account, Conversationalitalian.french
for the many ways to cook  with Italian winter vegetables and herbs!

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