Nonno’s Garden – A Culture of Gardening

By Gina Biancardi

Food sourcing is one of many challenges facing American families, which makes the idea of bringing back “Nonno’s Garden” more relevant than ever before!

When I was growing up, having a fruit and vegetable garden was part of our everyday life. “Wall to wall” vegetation in the 20 x 20 backyard was nothing out of the ordinary, and not unique to my family. Everyone in the neighborhood had a vegetable garden and fruit trees in their backyard – and sometimes in any available yard space that had soil. You might see basil planted next to flowers, escarole lining the driveway, and pots lining the edges of porch stairs. Italian gardeners grew and jarred enough produce to feed their family for the whole year. My pop would always say, “We might be poor, but you will never starve.”

Pop took advantage of every bit of ground in our backyard to grow tomatoes, string beans, chicory, peppers, lettuce, cucumbers, squash, eggplant, basil, parsley, rosemary, mint and more. Surrounding the garden were fruit trees that bore the most delectable fruits: peaches, pears, figs and persimmons. And, of course, voluminous grape vines swirled around the pergola, laden with luscious clusters that eventually became wine.

The gardening process would begin weeks before it was warm enough to transplant everything to the outdoors. In late winter, Pop would build a cold box made of lumber and a glass top. His seedlings germinated inside his sun-filled work shed, and when they were full and hardy, they were transplanted into Pop’s outdoor garden.

By the way, some of Pop’s stash of seeds came from the previous fall’s plants, while others were seeds “smuggled” from Italy, and passed down from generation to generation.

In early spring, Pop would return from a hard day’s work to till the soil, making it loose enough for young roots to take hold. During the summer months, right after dinner, he would head to the garden to water, patiently pull weeds, prune and pinch stems to make the plants grow fuller. When it was time to unwind, Pop would sit under the shade of his grape vines with his loyal dog Eski by his side.

Ahh, the aromas coming from the kitchen where my mother cooked were amazing. There’s nothing like the farm-to-table freshness that comes from growing your own fruits and vegetables! While mom was cooking, she would often send me into the garden to pick the herbs or vegetables that she needed for whatever she was preparing. At an early age, I knew how to differentiate all the herbs and vegetable plants, a skill not many kids my age had! I loved walking through the garden and stopping to eat a tomato or peas from the pod, then continue playing.

Naturally, my parents were proud gardeners and like many other Italians in the neighborhood, they would jar their grown vegetables. Tomatoes were the main crop, and the garden’s yield was often supplemented with purchases of even more bushels of tomatoes. It was enough to make hundreds of tomato jars, enough to last us until the next year’s harvest. Every plant grown in the garden was either eaten, jarred, dried, smoked, preserved, turned into a delicious sauce, or pressed into wine.

In 2020, in memory of my father, Vito Biancardi, Casa Belvedere launched a gardening project called “Nonno’s Garden” – something I had hoped to start while my Pop was still alive. This will be yet another example of Casa Belvedere preserving the legacy of our parents and grandparents for our children and generations to come!

What a fantastic view it was to look at the neighborhood and observe the beauty of gardens in bloom. There were rows of red tomatoes, hot and sweet peppers, string beans, leafy Swiss chard, purple eggplants, zucchini and cucuzza squash with yellow flowers. Memories that I will cherish forever!

Want to learn more? Click here for a special video presentation on this subject!

The Italian Cultural Foundation at Casa Belvedere is a not-for-profit organization that celebrates everything Italian by sharing stories such as this, and offering exceptional public programs: Language and cooking classes; art and photo exhibits; film festivals; opera luncheons and casino nights; Italian car shows and fashion shows; live concerts and theatrical performances; guest chef experiences and wine tastings; bocce and bingo (tombola); and much more. Casa Belvedere (house with a beautiful view) has established itself as a vibrant and buzzing cultural center in New York City. For more information, visit casa-belvedere.org.