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Jack Zaleski, Published February 11 2012

Zaleski: Old-world wisdom grows my garden

It’s still winter, but the promise of spring gardening is in the air. Garden seminars are under way, seed catalogs have arrived in mail boxes and serious (and not-so-serious) gardeners are envisioning the design of their plots. The arc of the sun is higher in the sky. Days are longer. Even in the recent single-digit cold, the sun’s new warmth can be felt.

Nice.

I like the sentiments expressed by George Ball, the seed company president, in his column on Page C8 today. He weaves the joy of gardening with romance and love. His Valentine’s Day theme expresses a relationship with the garden that tugs on our deepest emotional strings.

Not everyone is enamored of gardening or excited by the promise of spring. But I can’t wait for the soil to be released from a frosty grip. For me, gardening is generational.

My parents, Depression kids and World War II adults, had no interest in growing their own tomatoes and corn. They were among those of the post-war generation who saw gardens as symbols of tough times. In the 1950s, they were eager for the convenience of the “modern” supermarket with its miracles of processed and packaged foods. Food was cheap, plentiful and easy to prepare for a young family. Garden? What for?

I must have inherited the gardening gene from my immigrant grandparents, one set from Poland, the other from Italy. Whatever growing skills they learned in the old countries, they carried with them when they stepped ashore more than 100 years ago on New York’s Ellis Island. They eventually made their way to the industrial Connecticut River Valley, where both grandfathers worked all their lives in the factories that made my hometown of New Britain, Conn., a very prosperous city.

But despite the factories and the tightly packed ethnic neighborhoods, they never abandoned their gardens. My Italian grandfather nurtured grape vines, tomato and pepper plants, and aromatic herbs along the high fence behind his tenement. My Polish grandmother, who had a little more land alongside her modest house, grew potatoes, asparagus and cabbages, and tended apple, plum and pear trees. Tomatoes, too, from which she made a marvelous chili sauce I have not been able to duplicate.

I had the privilege, although I didn’t see it that way then, of working with them as they coaxed vegetables from the ground, grapes from the vines, and pruned trees to maximize the harvest of fruits. I learned, although at the time I didn’t realize I was learning.

So I await the thaw and warming. I look forward to working the soil and setting plants – and remembering the times long ago when old-world garden wisdom was given to me.


Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at jzaleski@forumcomm.com.