Sewickley Valley Italian gardens to be spotlighted in Smithsonian project
Giovanni Macchione simply smiled and shrugged his shoulders when asked what he thinks about his Italian garden being included in the Smithsonian Institute's Archives of American Gardens.
He said he gardens just to pass the time and because he enjoys it.
“I like to be outside doing this and that better than inside with the TV. People stop by all the time and ask me, ‘What's this? What's that?' They stay and stay and talk for an hour,” he said with a chuckle.
Working together to complete and submit information to the Smithsonian are Mary Menitti, founder of the Italian Garden Project that provides garden tours and educational programs, and Village Garden Club Garden History and Design Committee members, chairwoman Cathy Snyder, photographer Alisa Lenhardt, Melissa Sanflippo and Lisa Burrows.
Menniti, who made a presentation about the garden to club last week, said it has been a challenge to document the Macchione garden because it is always changing as the plants get switched to other gardens and new ones are added.
“This genre of garden has never been documented before,” Menniti said. “I haven't seen anything like what we are doing here — what the Village Garden Club is doing for history. What we've been able to accomplish is immense.”
While making about 10 visits to the Macchione gardens over the past year, Menniti said committee members started to get just as excited as she is to learn all about the typical, traditional Italian elements found on the property.
Features of the Macchione garden include: a grape arbor, where they use the fruit to make jelly; apricot, plum and peach trees; a persimmon that Giovanni is working on grafting; herbs, such as oregano and basil; fig trees, which they had to learn to take care of in a special way; and beans that climb past 10 feet high on bamboo also grown in the garden to be used for plant stakes.
They also raise chickens in a coop; harvest nuts from a chestnut tree; grow onions and garlic, which are braided; make chamomile tea from garden plants; cook a tradition Calabrian bean stew; and feature statuary, including the Madonna, at their home on the corner of Thorn and Logan streets in Sewickley.
The committee also learned various ways the Macchiones reuse and recycle. At one point, they ran across across a random corn stalk, which just popped up one day. Marie just let it grow and told the women that in Italy, her family used to use the dry leaves from the stalk to stuff mattresses.
“Each one of these things is like little gems of history,” Menniti said.
But, to Giovanni and his wife, Maria, who are in their 70s, have five grown children and nine grandchildren, all of it is a natural part of life. It's a part of who they are and something they've lived with all their lives since they were children in Italy. Menniti said many Italian gardeners couldn't imagine life without their gardens and tend to use every piece of land they can to grow their produce.
All the produce they harvest every year usually gets given away or cooked, Giovanni said. Nothing is ever wasted.
After settling in Sewickley more than 50 years ago and struggling with the language and customs, the Macchiones lived the life of many Italian immigrants.
Giovanni worked the night shift for Shenango Corp. for 27 years. During the day, he landscaped and kept a garden, with help from his family, for the Oakie family in Sewickley Heights.
He also helped to maintain his own garden, one that the family expanded when they moved into the house, formerly owned by the Flora family.
Menniti said she thinks documenting Italian gardens in the American Archives is an important project, because the Italians who still live the lifestyle of their ancestors are aging and are able to do less in their gardens each year.
Menniti said the Macchiones, who came from the town of Falerna in Calabria in southern Italy, and other Italian gardeners in the Sewickley and Pittsburgh area are the last of the generation who looks at gardening from a different perspective.
“They came from an era in Italy post-World War II when poverty was rampant, and Italians had to live off the land to survive,” she said.
“We are documenting the very end of that lifestyle. It will never be the same again. That's why I'm so desperate to document the garden to capture the last vestige.”
“They aren't going to be around forever,” she said.
To learn more about the Italian Garden Project and the Macchione garden, visit www.trib.me/zwiakm.
Joanne Barron is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-324-1406 or firstname.lastname@example.org.