Thursday, August 9, 2012

Gardening and the Neighbors

Home gardens have traditionally been grown by first-generation Italian immigrants. While most people, when they think of gardening Italians, recall Vito Corleone dropping dead in his Long Island yard, many other humbler Italians also tilled the soil of their yards. For example, my great-grandfather the unsuccessful wine-maker had what my mother remembered as a "farm" in the Bronx of the 1930's. My father's mother had a large garden in her house in Elmont, although I tend not to believe my sister's claim that grandma raised goats; I don't think this would have popular with the neighbors in Elmont in the 1960's. My neighbor in Astoria was able to be self-sufficent from his produce from his two yards. Italians in Glendale, Middle Village, and Canarsie and Bensonhurst all had patches with tomatos, zucchini, and basil.

Pellegrini viewed his yard not as something to be turned into green turf, or cemented over for additional parking space, but as fertile land that could be used to feed his family. He turned twenty-five hundred square feet of spce into a vegetable garden. In addition to a ffifty artichoke plants and a fifty-foot row of raspberries, he also had:

"sixteen blueberry bushes, three peach trees, a plum, an apple, a fig, and a pear. There are also about a hundred strawberry plants. ...The fruit trees and berry bushes provide thefamily with fruit for the year. What is not eaten in season is frozen or otherwise preserved for the winter. We can also give an occasional basket to our good  friends."
(pp 72-3).

He also has herbs, flowers and decorative shrubs, and two thousand square feet of lawn for his children to play on.

Fortunately for Pellegrini, he lived in a Seattle suburb. While Seattle has gentrified considerably since the early 1990's, there were still many ungentrified neighborhoods prior to the twenty-first century. My neighbors in Ballard, for example, had moved to the US from Finland and regularly used the smokehouse they build in their backyard. My neighbors in Queen Anne were  horticulturalists who grew drought-resistant plants in their yard and fennel for their rabbits. The only plants the city cracked down on were marijuana and opium poppies.

Cities in the rest of the country were less flexible. By the mid-1980's, most of my neighbors on Long Island had gardeners, regularly spread chemicals on their lawns, and confined their shrubbery to evergreens pruned in the shape of corkscrews. They would not have welcomed a neighbor who ploughed up his lawn to  plant messy fruit trees and plebian vegetables. My parents had a huge apple tree in their yard, but we never ate the apples. Pellegrini would have turned them into apple sauce and pies.

While there is a new move towards urban farms, particularly in NYC and Detroit, there are also areas where farming is not popular with the neighbors. Fruit trees attract messy birds and rodents. Gardens fallow in winter look like big plots of mud. Rabbits kept in hutches to fatten them before eating would prompt a call to Animal Control. In fact, NYC actually had to amend its zoning law becuase people were completely paving over their  front yards to create parking spots, and the resultant runoff was flooding streets and houses.

Pellegrini's other book, such as the Food Lover's Garden, emphasize the joys of growing your own produce and eating homegrown food. He thinks this helps him to lead a balanced life of both the head and the body, as well as an aesthetically pleasing one. He and his fellow Italian immigrants already know the benefits or exercise, a physical connection to the earth, and a healthy diet.

No comments: