Your Italian-American Gardening Tips: Leeks come back! Planting Strawberries, Asparagus, Spinach and Peas in the Springtime

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

Ciao a tutti! It’s been so nice to be out in the garden again this spring! It seems like ages have passed since my last gardening blog in December of 2020.

January was temperate in Chicagoland.  It finally started to snow in earnest in February, and then seemed like it would never stop.  By the end of the month, my yard was blanketed in 4 feet of snow!  But once the snow cleared, I was excited to see the tiny, bright yellow, sun-like faces of my winter buttercups, followed by daffodils, tulips and hyacinths in the early spring. Check out my Instagram posts at Conversationalitalian.french  to follow my flower beds  more closely if you like.

I have great expectations for the vegetable garden this year, since I hired a landscape crew to build 4 new raised beds! These beds are on the top of a hill, in the sunniest location in my yard, and I know this will be wonderful for the Italian summer vegetables my family loves. 

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 how to get started in the springtime with vegetables and greens that love the cool weather, and set out my garden plan for 2011. 

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



Watching Leeks Spring Back to Life


In my December post, I mentioned my first attempt at growing leeks last year. In short, I had found leek sets in the garden shop and  planted them in two rows in the center of my lettuce bed by the house. Although I did not realize it at the time, they were planted in a good location for over-wintering; that particular bed is sheltered by a large tree on one side and the house and patio wall on the other two sides. The leeks provided greenery in the center of that bed all winter, their long so I knew they were alive. By early spring, when the ground thawed I was able to pull two fragrant leeks to make with my salmon for Friday night during lent.  

A few tips about cooking with leeks:

Whether store bought or homegrown, remember to continuously clean the leeks of the bits of dirt that hide in between the layers.

The long, white “bulb” portion of the leek (called the “shank”) is used for cooking, along with the tender green portion of the bulb at the border with the white.  The long green leaves are normally discarded into the compost bin. Although, I did find an article from La Cucina Italiana that mentions boiling the tough green leaves and rolling each to make individual serving “rounds,” with a filling or to use them for soups or stews. Interesting ideas!

The “white part” of the leek is usually cut crosswise, is tender when cooked, and has a delicate, oniony flavor and  floral scent.  This portion of the leek alone can flavor an entire dish. So when I paired leeks with salmon for the Instagram post shared below, I did not use the usual Italian technique of a preliminary sauté in olive oil to soften them, and I did not include garlic in the dish. But the pasta in this dish is cooked and then added in the “typical” Italian way.

My salmon, leek, and cream with pasta dish is so simple to make. It takes only one large pan and I think the flavors meld beautifully. Check out how I did this on my Instagram video below and then try it yourself and see if you agree!






Planting Seeds for Spinach

and Italian Greens


This year I wasted no time ordering seeds. As soon as the catalogues appeared in my mailbox in January, I sent out my order. The first item on my list was spinach, as it is one of my favorite leafy green vegetables. It is said that Catherine de Medici from Renaissance Florence loved spinach so much that when she was queen of France she asked it be served at every meal! Perhaps this is why dishes that feature spinach are called “Florentine.”

Spinach grows easily from seed in the cool spring of Chicago, and homegrown spinach has a fresh taste that the supermarket spinach lacks. I especially love young spinach leaves and it is wonderful to have them available right in my backyard for an afternoon lunch. This year I planted two varieties of spinach, both of which were advertised as being resistant to going to seed and dying out in the warm weather. Fingers crossed, because it typically turns from a cool spring into a hot summer very quickly in Chicagoland.

Other than spinach, I like to plant greens that are not commonly found in the grocery stores here in the US. My favorite company to order from is Seeds from Italy. They are an American distributor of seeds from authentic Italian producers.  As a result, I was able to find two varieties of arugula, lamb’s lettuce, and several types of Italian leafy romaine that love cool weather but are also supposed to be resistant to going to seed when it turns warmer. 

Another of my favorite Italian greens that can be planted in the springtime is cavolo nero.  The name means “black cabbage,” but it is really a kale. This leafy green has become popular lately, but I’ve grown it in my garden for years. Cavolo nero grows easily from seed and will last all summer into the late fall. Cavolo nero is an attractive, tall leafy green and needs a lot of space, so I planted the seeds in their own row just outside the garden bed. 

Just north of the cavolo nero is my bed of Swiss chard. One valiant plant came up again on its own this year. I’ve planted more seeds in the perimeter of the old bed since Swiss chard needs cool weather to germinate. The package recommended soaking the seeds in water for 24 hours prior to planting for best germination. And in the center of this garden bed, I trying to grow some new vegetables from seed: broccoli rabe and romanesco broccoli from Seeds of Italy.  

Shallot sets and green onion sets from the garden shop in my neighborhood complete my lettuce beds this year. My chives came up again in their own pot nearby, as expected early in spring, as they have been for over 10 years!

Of course, before planting this year, I added more soil to my garden beds and amended the soil with cow manure and some garden compost. In my experience, lettuce will grow well without any other additions to the soil. 

See below for an image of my garden beds with the greens and onions this year.  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. The leeks are in the center of the southern raised garden bed. Otherwise, not much to look at right now, but I know from experience that it will not be long before the seedlings pop their heads out of the ground!

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.




Last Year’s Overwintered Strawberry Plants

and Planting New Bare Root Strawberries


Last year’s strawberry plants have greened up again. At this point, with many of the leaves now green and functioning again, I’ve read it’s important to cover the plants with a old sheet if the temperature dips below freezing at night. I’ve sometimes followed this advice and sometimes not. Either way, my strawberry plants seem to survive. They do need fertilizer for berries early in the spring and then in mid spring (about 30-45 days later)  when they get ready to flower.


Raised garden bed with overwintered strawberries, now with green leaves
Strawberries spring 2021, overwintered with green leaves. Two small plants showing new red stalks and green leaves, peeking out in the center are overwintered rhubarb.

I’ve also planted more strawberries in the periphery of my asparagus beds at the top of my hill. Strawberries love the dappled shade that asparagus provides and are a nice border plant. I’ve always found the two to grow well together.

This year I was able to get down to Peoria (where I lived for about 18 years and learned to garden) and bought bare root strawberries from Kelly’s Seed in Peoria, Illinois.  A family run business since 1905, Kelly’s seed only sells plants that will grow well in central Illinois. All of their staff today are knowledgeable about when and how to plant the seeds and root stock they sell, which is a huge added benefit. Plus is is always fun for me to share stories with them about my garden and they always listen and are helpful!

Check out your area for a  local gardening store instead of the big box stores. If you are lucky enough to have a garden store in your area, and can buy bare root strawberries, just click on the link I’ve found to a post that will walk you through each step for planting strawberries:  How to Plant Bare Root Strawberries.

Below are my morning’s adventure. Only 1 1/2 hours and 18 strawberry plants planted in each box! For that little work, hopefully I will be enjoying strawberries for years to come.


Bare root strawberries as they are sold on the left, demonstrating their long roots and a second image of the roots trimmed and ready to plant.
  Bare root strawberries as they are sold on the left, and trimmed and ready to plant on the the right. Roots were soaked about 4 hours.


Newly planted strawberry crowns peeking out of the soil
Strawberry crowns, newly planted














Last Year’s Asparagus Plants


I planted asparagus crowns in the spring of last year,  and after they came up posted about how to get them ready for winter. 

Since it is now spring again, here are some tips about planting asparagus. First: check your location and see if asparagus will grow. Asparagus likes cool weather. The best way to plant asparagus is by buying “crowns” or the roots of the asparagus plant. I found an excellent post about how to plant asparagus that will take you through each step, with lots of pictures. The details about how to plant the crown are in the middle of the post. I would skip there as the home gardener would find it difficult to plant asparagus from seeds (as mentioned in the article).  I have only grown asparagus from crowns. How to Plant Asparagus.

Asparagus that has overwintered needs a covering of cow manure compost in the spring and fall and with this little care the plants should continue to produce asparagus each spring for about 10 years and even up to 25 years. Since I live in hardiness zone 5 (temperature falls to -20 degrees for part of the winter) I cannot cut my asparagus for the first three years or the plant will die. Extra root power is needed to survive the cold Illinois winters! So no posts on fresh asparagus will appear until the year after next! 

I plan on planting potatoes in the beds next to the strawberry patch along the west side of the house, and moving the tomatoes that were in these beds last year to the new beds when it gets warmer this spring. But for now, I have other plans for the new beds…




This Year’s Peas and Then…

Tomatoes, Peppers and Eggplant


And in my four new raised garden beds? I’ve planted peas! My family and I love fresh peas and this year I hope to have enough peas to enjoy all spring. A second planting in two to three weeks will help to prolong the season as long as it does not become hot too quickly.

Peas are also a good vegetable to start with in a new garden bed because they accumulate nitrogen gained from a symbiotic relationship between their roots and the bacteria in the soil. The bacteria are able to obtain nitrogen from the air and transfer it to the pea plant. After harvesting the peas, the remaining plants can then be turned into the soil to increase the nitrogen available to the next set of plants to be grown in the bed. Which in this case will be the Italian favorites — tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant.

Here is an image of the raised beds. Nothing to look at for now. I just need to keep them watered and my fingers crossed they will germinate. A tip: Soak peas overnight in cold water and they will germinate more quickly.


Four new raised garden beds planted with peas
Four new raised garden beds planted with peas




 My Grand Plan for 2021

Below is a map of my garden plan for this year. A map always helps me to plan what I need to do for each part of the spring and summer. You may notice the blackberries, raspberries and cherry trees… hopefully we will have fruit from these new plants in a few years also!


Italian garden plan for Spring 2021
IItalian gardening plan for Spring 2021



Please write and let me know what you are planting in your garden this spring.
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 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!

Conversational Italian for Travelers Just the Important Phrases
Conversational Italian for Travelers Just the Important Phrases (with Restaurant Vocabulary and Idiomatic Expressions) is YOUR traveling companion in Italy! All the Italian phrases you need to know to enjoy your trip to Italy are right here and fit right into your pocket or purse.

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Your Italian-American Gardening Tips: Planting a lettuce patch and starting tomato and basil from seeds

Raised garden now has tomatose and peppers growing. Marigolds in the corners.

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

Ciao a tutti! After the (hopefully) last snow, spring has arrived in Chicagoland! Despite all the turmoil in the world right now, in the last week, tulips and daffodils have popped up again around my neighborhood. To me, the reappearance of these pastel-colored, flowering bulbs has a special significance. It means that it is time for me to clear out my garden beds and plant my lettuce patch!

As I have mentioned in previous blogs in “Your Italian Gardening Tips,” last year I had to start a new garden from scratch after I moved from Peoria to a new house in the Chicago suburbs. For me this is a large job, so at first I focused on growing herbs in pots and shared Italian summer recipes that use fresh basil, parsley, and oregano.

This year I plan to focus on tending to my new raised garden. I’ll share photos taken while I plant lettuce and then Italian summer vegetables later in the season. In this blog, I’ll describe how is easy it is to plant a lettuce patch in the springtime and I will start San Marzano tomatoes and Genovese basil from seed.

My hope is that you will enjoy the tips I’ve learned about gardening through the years 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 and basil from seed.  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

Luckily,  planting a lettuce patch provides some outdoor activity while we are all home bound this spring. All lettuce seeds require to grow is a rectangular bed of soil, some sunshine and a rainy springtime. Even a rectangular tub with low sides can be filled with soil, placed near a sunny, cool spot, and watered regularly for a small “indoor garden.”

But first, I’d like to share some photos from when I built my raised garden beds last year. When I lived in Peoria, I had lots of help from friends who knew how to do carpentry work and as a result I had a large, raised garden along the entire perimeter of my backyard.  But, after I moved, a friend told me about an easy-to-assemble kit that can be bought at Home Depot. Slats are carved into the posts that come in the kit. The planks fit snugly into the slats to create the walls of the garden bed and no nails are required. Being not very handy with a hammer and nails, I was thrilled to hear this!

There are many  raised garden bed kits to choose from on the Home Depot website, of all shapes and sizes. The kit I choose is a Greenes Fence Unfinished Cedar Raised Garden Bed.  I bought two 4 ft. x 8 ft. x 10.5 ft. sets, which I assembled one at a time.  I also bought Vigoro WeedBlock Weed Barrier Landscape Fabric to line the bed with prior to filling it with soil, as I’ve found this black fabric helps tremendously to keep the weeds at bay.  The WeedBlock fabric keeps sunlight out, so weeds cannot grow,  but allows water to drain through to the roots of the plants.

Below are the photos I took as I was assembling my garden last year (with a little help from my son and a friend). In the last photo, taken about a month later,  topsoil has been added and the raised garden completed with “tops” set on the corner posts. Tomatoes and peppers are starting to grow.

One rectangular raised garden bed, showing the slats in the posts and the planks that comprise the sides.
The slats in the posts fit the planks that form the sides of the bed in this raised garden.

A second rectangular raised garden bed has been added to the first and filled with soil, doubling the space available for planting.
Second raised garden bed added to the first








Raised garden now has tomatose and peppers growing. Marigolds in the corners.
Tomato and pepper garden, with marigolds in the corners



I like to put marigolds along the borders of my vegetable garden.  This year I put groups of them in the corners. Marigolds are said to attract beneficial insects that prey on garden pests. 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.

So, where is the lettuce patch, you ask? Well, after last year’s harvest, I have to admit I left the garden a bit messy.  But the posts and walls held up well over the winter. Today’s job was to finish clearing out the gardens and to plant the lettuce seeds. We will have to wait to see the lettuce grow! I plan to post the garden’s progress on my Instagram account,  Conversationalitalian.french.

Raised garden with one side cleared of leaves and the other side still to be cleared
Cleaning up a raised garden after winter

Raised garden cleared. Lettuce and sugar snap peas have been planted, but cannot be seen. Brussels sprouts plants along the center of the garden wall.
Lettuce and sugar snap peas planted

By the way, did you notice the Brussels sprout plants along the middle wall between the two gardens? I was shocked to see the stems from the Brussels sprouts that I had planted last year partially alive. They had tiny Brussels sprouts growing near the base of the stem and at the very top. So for now, I left these volunteer plants in place.



My daughter once called my method of gardening, “Survival of the Fittest” gardening. Sometimes, I think this is true. I don’t like to harm things that are already growing, and am hoping to see a few volunteer tomato and pepper plants from seeds left last year later in the season as well! But, to be honest, I am often distracted by different projects, leaving the poor garden vegetables to compete with the weeds or fen for themselves in the August heat.  I’ll try to do better this year so I have a few respectable photos to show.

Anyway, planting lettuce seeds is very easy.  Just make a shallow row with your spade and sprinkle the tiny seeds along the row.  Yes, there are instructions on the back of each seed packet about how to do this — the depth (important not too deep) and how far the seeds should be planted from each other (less important).  Lettuce seeds are so small, it is almost impossible to space them as described on the package. When the seeds sprout, any sprouts planted too closely can be pulled for your salad, and this will even up the spacing. So I simply sprinkle the seeds in a shallow groove, cover the seeds loosely with soil, water gently, and let them grow, as I know they will!

In the first bed I made 8 rows and planted radishes and different types of lettuces. In the second bed I planted 8 rows of sugar snap peas.  Peas love the cool weather and my family loves peas  so I am hoping these do well this season.

Below are  pictures of the lettuce seeds I planted today, with the row numbers labeled on each. I also planted radishes because they grow quickly and are great in salads and even as a snack. When I was in Paris a couple of years back, I saw a French couple eating them at a very nice restaurant as an appetizer. They spread a whole fresh radish with a bit of  butter and then gently bit into it. But, I have to say, I have not tried this myself. Maybe this year…

Packets of seeds include pictures of radishes, arugula, mixed greens, and romaine
Lettuce and radish seed packets, with rows numbered.




 Growing San Marzano Tomatoes
Genovese Basil from Seed


At my latest visit to the local Home Depo this year, I was excited to find seeds for Genovese basil and San Marzano tomatoes. I also found a small kit called a “Jiffy Professional Greenhouse” that will allow me to start these seeds indoors with just a grow lamp. I have not tried growing either tomatoes or basil from seed before, but for me it is worth the extra work to have these special Italian varieties available for my Italian cooking this summer.

The kits are small, square plastic containers with rows of starter peat moss.

Jiffy Professional Greenhouse, small plastic square box with San Marzano tomato seeds on top
Jiffy Professional Greenhouse with San Marzano tomato seeds

San Marzano tomato seeds have been planted into expanded soil packets
San Marzano tomato seeds planted











Simply fill with water to expand the peat moss, place 2-3 seeds in each, and cover. Place the beds on a small table with a grow lamp over-head.

When the seeds sprout, there are more instructions on the package about how to transfer them outdoors.  I can’t wait to see how mine do.  I could have as much as 36 plants of tomatoes and 36 more of basil.  Guess I will have to get started building another raised garden…


Conversational Italian for Travelers Just the Important Phrases
Conversational Italian for Travelers Just the Important Phrases (with Restaurant Vocabulary and Idiomatic Expressions) is YOUR traveling companion in Italy! All the Italian phrases you need to know to enjoy your trip to Italy are right here and fit right into your pocket or purse.

Available on and Learn Travel