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…


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