Your Italian American Gardening Tips: Spring Greens – Healthy and Delicious Recipes for the Season

Joshua McFadden Cavolo Nero Salad; cavolo nero greens topped with large bread crumbs and Peccorino-Romano cheese in the middle of a ceramic plate rimmed by flowers.
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD
Kathryn Occhipinti, MD, for Conversational Italian for Travelers books

Ciao a tutti! A lot has happened in my garden since my last “Your Italian-American Gardening Tips” blog in early April. I’ve been posting photos periodically on my Instagram ConversationalItalian.French to demonstrate the progression of fresh vegetables available during the springtime in Chicagoland. I also post videos on Instagram of seasonal Italian and French dishes using with what’s available in the kitchen garden.  For our blog today, it’s time for a recap of cool weather vegetables and for a report on which warm weather-loving Italian vegetables I’ve planted this year for summertime harvest.

Recap: the seeds I planted in early spring have really taken off and the harvest of cool spring greens has been going on for about 2 weeks now! The cool weather in Chicago lasted throughout April and into the very last week of May, which is wonderful for the Italian lettuces, spinach, cavolo nero (Tuscan kale) and broccoli rabe (Italian: rapini)  that I am growing. Hearty greens don’t mind a bit of frost, and even though we had several nights of frost May they were not stunted by the bit of extra cold. And by May 15, the arugula and broccoli rabe had matured and were ready for harvest. See below for how to prepare broccoli rabe the Italian way as a side dish for dinner.

My overwintered leeks have picked up growing where they left off last fall and now are grocery-store size. I harvested several to make “pot-au-feu” (see below) and planted new sets I bought from the garden store in their place. I should have an almost continuous harvest of these fragrant oniony vegetables available throughout the year. All other members of the onion family are growing nicely with the cool weather, including my overwintered chives (now flowering), and newly planted green onions and shallots.

The potatoes I planted in the first days of spring struggled a bit with frost-bite, but their leaves seemed to have recovered. Those planted later were saved this difficulty as they are just now starting to show their first leaves.  I’m hoping “new” potatoes will be available for harvest by mid June and for weeks after.

The strawberries in the raised garden between the potato beds are going strong, covering almost every inch of their box and flowering nicely, also getting ready for a June harvest.

As I have mentioned in my  Your Italian-American Gardening Tips blogs, for the last two years, my focus has been on how to grow Italian vegetables 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.

In this blog I’ll describe when to harvest springtime greens that love the cool weather, and provide some ideas for how to use them in simple dishes you can make at home.

And remember the Conversational Italian for Travelers series of books on Amazon.com and Learn Travel Italian.com 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 Italian.com.

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Another Recipe with Leeks!

Pot-au-feu: Classic French Dinner

 

In my April post, I provided some tips about growing and cooking leeks, and provided an Instagram post of a salmon, leek and cream dish that I think is the perfect combination of flavors.  With my leeks now grocery-store size and available to harvest by mid May, I made a classic French dish called “Pot-au-feu,” which means “Pot on the fire,” that pairs veal shank with fragrant leeks, fennel bulbs, carrots and parsnips.

The veal broth created by cooking the veal shank with spring vegetables makes a traditional and  flavorful starter for this spring-time meal. Vermicelli noodles are often cut into shorter pieces, cooked, and then added to the soup for a bit of texture. 

The leeks, fennel, carrots, and parsnips are cooked in the broth after the veal is done to until just tender and make a wonderful accompaniment for the veal as the main course. Most Italians love a fragrant broth, as well as fennel, and I was glad I gave this simple dish a try. Watch me make Pot-au-feu on Instagram below by clicking on the image and then try your own. Your family will love the flavorful broth created while cooking the veal and this perfect springtime meal. (Ingredients listed on Instagram.)

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Italian Lettuces and Greens Growing Strong

 

What a difference a few weeks makes! Check out the image of my raised garden bed below on May 15, where I planted spinach and lettuces from Seeds from Italy early last April. (“Seeds from Italy” is the name of an American distributor of seeds from authentic Italian producers. Check out their website!) 

Arugula: Both common and “wild” varieties of arugula were ready to harvest by May 15, and other lettuces and spinach followed shortly after. I enjoyed the “wild arugula” leaves that I planted for the first time this year. The wild arugula variety has leaves that are smaller and more tender then the common variety, so they are easier to mix into a salad. Both Italian varieties of arugula have the same peppery flavor.

Cavolo Nero: The cavolo nero (a Tuscan kale, called “black cabbage” in Italian) seeds I planted in their own row just outside the garden bed are growing nicely and I’ve already thinned them out a bit, which created the opportunity for a kale and citrus salad. See the link to my Instagram post below.

Broccoli rabe: As mentioned earlier, the broccoli rabe seeds I planted from Seeds of Italy took off and grew nicely all spring, and were ready to harvest by May 15. Broccoli rabe is actually a type of turnip that is grown for the greens rather than the root. Turnips and broccoli are in the same family, called the Brassicaceae family, so it is not surprising they can look similar.

Broccoli rabe (cime di rapa or rapini in Italian) looks like a leafy green with several small ” broccoli-like clusters at the tip of their stalks.  Broccoli rabe should be harvested when the center stalk with the cluster of broccoli-like clusters becomes taller than the leafy portion of the plant. After this stalk elongates, it can take only a day or two for the plant to “go to seed” by forming small yellow flowers from the green clusters. I sewed a second set of seeds, in late May when I had harvested about half of my broccoli rabe, although these may not germinate or reach full maturity before the heat of summer sets in.

Below is an Instagram post of how to cook broccoli rabe. It is usually sautéed in a large pan with olive oil, garlic, and 1 or 2 hot peppers, and with or without a bit of sausage. A large bunch will cook down significantly, just like spinach. I like to trim the stems off, although they are edible. Orecchiette pasta can be added for a classic pasta dish.

Romanesco broccoli: The romanesco broccoli I planted started to perk up by the end of May, as did my Swiss Chard. 

Onions: Shallot sets and green onion sets from the garden shop in my neighborhood complete my lettuce beds this year. As I’ve mentioned, it is easy to grow  all relatives of the onion family in Chicagoland. My chives came up again in their own pot nearby, as expected early in spring, as they have been doing for over 10 years!

 

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See below for an image of my garden beds with the greens and onions this year just after planting and in mid May.  Between the garden beds are lavender that I planted last year as part of my herb garden. A row of sedum was planted by the previous owners of my house, and comes up reliably every year, so I have kept it in place as a border. 

Leeks growing in the center of a raised garden bed; in the distance another raised garden bed and additional land for leafy greens. Seeds have just been planted.
Italian garden beds for lettuce, onions, and leafy greens, after seeds were planted. The leeks overwintered from last summer.

 

 

 

 

Raised garden bed with rows of spinach, arugula, leeks in the foreground and lettuces and onion sets in the back. Broccoli rabe growing in the ground behind the beds.
Raised bed in the foreground, left to right: 2 rows of spinach, 1 row of common arugula, 1 row of wild arugula, leeks. Raised bed in the back: mixed lettuces and onion sets. Semicircle plot: broccoli rabe to the right.

 

 

 

 

Broccoli rabe growing in the semicircular plot behind the raised garden beds, ready to start harvesting. Large, saw-tooth type leaves are growing in a cluster.
Broccoli rabe growing in the semicircular plot behind the raised garden beds, ready to start harvesting.

 

 

 

 

Broccoli rabe close up, ready to harvest before the yellow flowers develop and the plant goes to seed.
Broccoli rabe close up, ready to harvest before the yellow flowers develop and the plant goes to seed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Broccoli rabe gone to seed; the stalk has elongated and the leaves are shriveled and small. Small bright yellow flowers sit atop the stalk.
Broccoli rabe gone to seed.

Just one week later, the temperatures reached 90° and this lasted for 3 days in a row. All broccoli rabe went to seed. The delicious leaves seem to shrink and most of the plant is just a long stem with yellow flowers on top.  The season was fairly long, but ended suddenly. 

 

 

 

 

 

Salads, Salads, and More Salads

 

Last year, I provided a method for how to create salads with the lettuces I grew in my garden and described how to make a classic vinaigrette in my blog  Four Salads for Summer Days.  I also showed methods for making herbed and garlic croutons. Check out this blog for the following salads: 

  1. Mixed baby greens, chive flowers and radishes (with Bree cheese and crackers) — a great salad for spring, using what’s available in the kitchen garden!

     2. Insalata mista (Typical Italian salad of mixed lettuces, carrots, tomatoes and radishes) with garlic croutons 

     3. Mixed greens, gorgonzola cheese, walnuts, and raspberries

     4. Spinach salad with goat cheese and strawberries — spinach and strawberries are usually available at about the               time in early summer.

 

Even with all the varieties of greens I had planted in my garden this year, I decided in early spring to follow the advice of my grandmother on how to make a nutritious salad and harvest dandelions freely growing around my property.  Dandelions are called “dente di leone” in Italian, and their saw-toothed leaves and bright yellow flowers are unmistakable. They come up on their own reliably in early spring every year (to the chagrin of those in the American suburbs who like a tidy lawn) and are a good source of Vitamins A, C, K and even minerals like iron and calcium. The stems always grow out from one central root, so be careful to watch for this root if harvesting ( especially before they flower), in order to make sure you are picking the correct weed! The smaller dandelion leaves are the most tender; when using the larger leaves, remove the thick rib along the back. Inspect both sides of the leaves for dirt and rinse very well and leave in the refrigerator; rinse again before using. 

 

Dandelion ready to flower. Dente di leone in Italian. The image shows all stalks growing toward a central root.
Dandelion ready to flower. “Dente di leone” in Italian. All stalks grow from a central root.

Italians love dandelion greens with a simple dressing of red wine vinegar, pinches of salt and pepper and finely chopped garlic. The garlic is an important ingredient, as it counters the bitterness of the dandelion. The finely chopped garlic sold in the grocery store in jars and kept in the refrigerator is best for this type of salad dressing, as it is softer and less sharp than freshly chopped garlic. Chives and parsley are also available at the same time as dandelions in spring and can be freshly chopped and added to the salad dressing at the end. The ratio: 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar to 6 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil.  See below.

 

Dandelion salad with a simple red wine and chive vinaigrette arranged on a plate in a starburst pattern like a composed salad, served with a breadstick.
Dandelion salad with a simple red wine and chive vinaigrette served with a breadstick.

A warm bacon dressing can also be used on dandelion greens, just as with spinach or frisèe. A thick slice of pancetta cut into rectangles and cooked slowly over medium heat makes delicious lardoons, as pictured below.  For a traditional vinaigrette that goes on this type of salad, sauté a chopped shallot in the rendered fat from the pancetta until it softens. Remove the shallot and 1 Tbsp. of rendered fat into a bowl and add 2 Tbsps of red wine vinegar and a pinch of mustard, salt and pepper.

Dandelion salad Lyonnaise style with pancetta lardons; poached egg in center of greens with bacon bits and croutons in the periphery
Dandelion salad Lyonnaise style with pancetta lardons

For a salad made with fresh baby cavolo nero greens, check out my Instagram post below. The dressing I used was taken from the cook book “Six Seasons,” by Joshua McFadden, the chef who trained in Italy and started the kale craze from his Brooklyn restaurant.  He writes in his cook book “This is the kale salad that started it all.” Make your own large breadcrumbs with a good loaf of bread dried out in the oven at 200 or 250 degrees for about 20 – 30 min to sop up the delicious dressing. It is worth it! 

For the Joshua McFadden dressing: 1/2 garlic clove, smashed, 1/4 cup finely grated Peccorino-Romano cheese, 1/8 tsp hot dried chile peppers, pinches of salt and coarsely grated pepper, “large glug” (2-3 Tbsp) olive oil and juice from one lemon. Whisk all together all ingredients.

Chiffonade (roll up and cut into thin strips) cavolo nero, toss in dressing, and top with more grated cheese and breadcrumbs. 

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Joshua McFadden Cavolo Nero Salad; cavolo nero greens topped with large bread crumbs and Peccorino-Romano cheese in the middle of a ceramic plate rimmed by flowers.
Joshua McFadden Cavolo Nero Salad

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Cooking Broccoli Rabe the Italian Way

Broccoli rabe traditionally needs only a quick sauté in olive oil, garlic and small red chile peppers. The olive oil and garlic work counter the bitterness of the broccoli rabe and the chile peppers add an extra bit of zest, but can be omitted for those who cannot tolerate spicy-hot food. Red bell peppers cut into small pieces are a good substitute, although not traditional.

I created a video while I was cooking up some broccoli rabe as a side dish to show how much of the vegetable you need for just 2 people. Quite a bit, really! The broccoli rabe really cooks down.  I added a bit of Italian sausage and could have also added Orecchiette pasta at the end for a traditional pasta dish and a satisfying meal. In fact, my children ask me to make broccoli rabe in the spring time and all summer long! 

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Strawberries and Asparagus have come to life!

 

Check out the difference in last year’s strawberry bed after the first fertilization in early spring and the second fertilization in mid May below. The strawberry crowns I planted earlier this year have struggled a bit, as there was not much rain this spring to help their roots grow, but are coming into their own slowly in the same raised beds as the asparagus.  Too bad I will have to wait at least another year to harvest my asparagus! 

 

Raised garden bed with overwintered strawberries, now with green leaves
Strawberries spring 2021, overwintered with both green and brown leaves. The small plant with new red stalks and green leaves peeking out in the center is overwintered rhubarb.
Strawberry bed from 2020 with rhubarb growing in the center. The strawberry plants have taken over the bed.
Strawberry bed from 2020 with rhubarb growing in the center. 

 

Second year asparagus with first year strawberries in the perimeter
Second year asparagus with first year strawberries in the perimeter.

 

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This Year’s Peas and Then…

Tomatoes, Peppers and Eggplant

 

Peas did not come up as quickly as I would have liked this year. I think this was due to the lack of rain. We had the driest April and May months on record in Chicagoland. But luckily, I have plenty of space in my raised garden beds this year, so they are free to grow as long as they like. I reserved the far bed (#4) for my late  tomatoes with large fruits and tall stalks and my cherry tomatoes, both of which take up a lot of space.  Plumb tomatoes and early tomatoes are in the next two beds over (#2 and #3), along with eggplant, arranged in spots where peas did not come up. Not ideal, but they are adequately spaced.  Hot and sweet peppers are in bed #1.   

 

Four new raised garden beds planted with peas
Four new raised garden beds planted with peas
Four raised garden beds with tomatoes, eggplants and peppers from background to foreground. Peas growing in the beds in the foreground.
Four raised garden beds with tomatoes, eggplants and peppers from background to foreground. Peas growing in the beds in the foreground.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Please write and let me know what you are planting in your garden this year.
I’d love to hear how your garden grows!
Until the next blog, follow my Instagram account, Conversationalitalian.french
for recipe ideas from my garden to yours!

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

Curved pathway is lined with pots growing herbs with markers in each pot. This leads to the background of a raised garden growing lettuce in one plot and peas in the other. Further in the background are zucchini mounds marked with the type of zucchini being grown.

 

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 Amazon.com and Learn Travel Italian.com 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 Italian.com.

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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

 

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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

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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.

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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!

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 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

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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 www.conversationalitalian.wordpress.com 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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