Italian gardeners strive to preserve Old World lifestyle in Sewickley

| Wednesday, June 11, 2014, 9:01 p.m.

It's 10:30 a.m. and Mariano Floro has been at it for awhile. It's hard to find him for a few minutes in the back of his home at 713 Centennial Ave. in Sewickley.

But look closely among the flourishing rows, plots and potted plants and Floro is there, caring for each one — especially his fig tree, which took a beating over the harsh winter.

For the first time since Floro began planting fig trees in Sewickley in 1952, just one potted fig survived.

“In Italy, we had no refrigerator. Fresh from the garden, we pick and eat. I got used to that,” says Floro, now retired from Bethlehem Steel. “I don't like to go to the store ... that stuff isn't good.”

Many people — especially some Italian-Americans — prize their fig trees, according to Mary Menniti of Edgeworth, co-founder of the Italian Garden Project. Fig trees are delicate — they must be wrapped and covered, or put into a pit in the ground during colder months. The plants thrive best in hot, dry climates, and must be coddled to survive through Western Pennsylvania winters.

Some immigrants brought cuttings to America from Italy or Sicily. That kind of determination to preserve and grow food is a theme carried through Floro's garden and others today.

Floro built a sprawling garden around his home. His daughters and a brother live in houses on either side. Their yards are full of his plants, too. He works to keep the garden thriving and hasn't stopped, even after the death two years ago of his beloved wife, Italia.

He built grape arbors and fava bean teepees, supported by bamboo he also grows. There are rapini, zucchini, honeydew, berries, tomatoes, onions, eggplant, fennel and herbs.

Floro tends to his chickens as he ponders his menu for a lunch he'll serve to friends in about an hour. He bursts with pride as he explains his lettuce is better than all others. Then, he bends down to pick some fennel to offer to a visitor.

“I don't put in too many hours — a couple a day when it's dry outside,” he says.

He explains that nothing goes to waste: he cans it all, freezes it or cooks it right away.

Just a few blocks away, at 315 Chestnut St., his sister-in-law Tommasina Floro sits at a newspaper-covered picnic table cleaning the day's onion harvest.

Like Mariano's garden, not an inch of ground has gone unused in her backyard. Walk around a grove of bamboo and discover fava beans, lettuce, tomatoes, broccoli, eggplants, arugula, along with chamomile, Sicilian zucchini and chicory, a bitter green. The garage roof is festooned by flourishing grapes.

Her fig trees also seem to be coming back — one is full of immature fruit. She and Mariano grow light and dark figs.

“For me, I don't want to go to market every morning, so I do this,” she says. “This is my church. What better place to know there's God than in my garden.”

Tommasina adds: “My problem is that I grow things from seeds and never want to throw anything away, so I keep the seeds from the new plants and plant them, too.”

Some plants came from seeds her mother gave her in Italy more than 30 years ago.

She remembers as a child having fig and olive trees “galore.”

Married 54 years, she and husband Tomasso come from Falerna, a town in the Calabria region of southern Italy. They moved here in 1968.

The Floros, and many of their Italian friends in Sewickley, have become friends with Menniti, who is working to help them preserve their heritage.

Menniti, 50, has made it her mission to help support Italian-American gardens such as those grown by the Floros.

The Italian Garden Project, now in its fifth year, aims to preserve, share and celebrate the Italian immigrant experience. Menniti explains that the project is not a nonprofit, but rather a “social enterprise,” while it sets out to make money, any money made is going back into it.

Menniti knows how devastating it can be to people who have cultivated their love of fig trees when a harsh winter takes one of the trees. She has had 1,000 shares on her latest blog post from people seeking help with their figs, Menniti says.

“People are aware of all of the fig trees in Sewickley, but not how hard the winter was on them,” she says.

Menniti has made it a goal to get people to recognize the importance of these trees — and gardens such as these two — in telling immigrant stories.

“Some people had to sneak them over here stuck under their coats. The fig trees have become symbolic for children and grandchildren of immigrants — they remind them of that experience. And reminding others of the quality of heirloom gardens, as well as their historical significance, is my mission,” Menniti says.

“They brought their wonderful food, their great traditions,” she says.

Menniti developed the idea for the Italian Garden Project while giving tours of Italian-American gardens as a volunteer for Fern Hollow Nature Center. Now, the project is gaining a following beyond Pennsylvania's borders.

“These gardening practices teach us discipline to care for our natural environment and create an appreciation for sustainable living,” she says.

Mennitti says she soaks in as much information on technique and tradition from the Floros as she can, so that she can pass it on to others.

“One day, these beautiful people will be gone, and then who will we learn from? We need to document all of this — this lifestyle of having to live off what you grow,” she says.

As for how the Floros feel about Mennitti's work: “She's beautiful. It means somebody cares enough to want people to know what we do” Tommasina says.

Mya Koch is news editor for the Sewickley Herald. Reach her at mkoch@tribweb.com or 412-324-1403.

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