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Keewatin gardener heeds lessons of his immigrant parents

KEEWATIN -- Big blue-green heads of broccoli nestle next to crinkled leaves of savoy cabbage in Frank Infelise's neat backyard garden in Keewatin. Flat board pathways separate the rows, and a bench offers a resting place between weeding chores. C...

KEEWATIN -- Big blue-green heads of broccoli nestle next to crinkled leaves of savoy cabbage in Frank Infelise's neat backyard garden in Keewatin.

Flat board pathways separate the rows, and a bench offers a resting place between weeding chores. Castor beans, amaranth and Nicotiana sylvestris, specimen plants from his brother-in-law, serve as an interesting conversation piece while they decorate the garden.

Herbs for his Italian recipes grow on one end -- flat Italian and curly parsley, basil, rosemary and oregano. A tall 'Sweet 100' cherry tomato thrives in a whiskey barrel near the picnic table and eggplants bask in a container by the back door.

Neighbors cruise down the alley to admire Infelise's crops. There's a friendly rivalry over who has the best tomatoes or the first cucumbers or green beans.

"Gardening has been in our family since I can remember," says Infelise, 74. "My dad loved to garden. My parents used to come over twice a week, and before I knew it my dad would be out in the garden weeding."

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Infelise grows many of the same vegetables as his parents, who emigrated as children from Calabria in the "toe" of southwest Italy. Tomatoes were the most important crop in their Kelly Lake garden, and his mother canned plenty of them for spaghetti sauce and other Italian specialties.

"We had a trap door in the bedroom closet," Infelise remembers, "and below that was the produce we'd canned, a bin for potatoes and carrots stored in sand."

His garden is smaller than when he and his wife, Jeana, were raising their three children, but Infelise can't imagine giving up gardening.

His sturdy compost bins of recycled railroad timbers hold grass clippings and vegetable and garden waste layered with garden soil. He alternates sides of the bin, tilling 10-15 wheelbarrow loads of the 2-year-old compost into his garden each spring.

A school garden once occupied the lot where Infelise gardens today, and the city maintains a separate water supply there for which he pays just $10 a month.

Advice from his ancestors guides Infelise as he works in his plot. "I always keep only two stalks on my tomatoes," he says. "My mother used to tell me you get more and better fruit that way."

Infelise remembers his grandfather planting lettuce seedlings between his tomato plants, and he intends to set out some lettuce for a fall crop soon. He still hand-picks potato bugs, recalling the can of kerosene his father gave him for the same job when he was a boy.

Infelise believes in using organic methods and pesticides whenever possible, and he often recommends to his neighbors to use Thuricide for cabbage worms. "I keep it in a little spray container," he says. "It's a good product, and it's organic."

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After amending his soil for almost 40 years, Infelise seldom needs to use commercial fertilizer. He sometimes sprinkles his vegetables with water-soluble Miracle-Gro in a hose-end sprayer.

"I usually plant what I like to eat," says Infelise, who also is an excellent cook

Three varieties of potatoes grow in his garden: 'Kennebec,' 'Red Norland' and 'Yukon Gold.' Last year he grew two 'Kennebecs' that weighed two pounds each.

Rows of 'Yellow Wax' and 'Tendergreen' bush beans grow next to a tripod where 'Romano' (Italian) pole beans climb. 'Coreless Nantes' carrots are Infelise's favorite, but he confesses he finds it difficult to thin anything so he waits until he can begin pulling small carrots to eat.

Although he often experiments with other varieties, Infelise always plants six 'Better Boy' tomatoes because he prefers determinate types. "You can keep pruning determinate tomatoes," he explained, "and they will keep growing. If we had a long enough season, they would grow forever."

'Walla Walla' onions, zucchini, Swiss chard, cucumbers, beets, romaine lettuce and endive round out the garden, and there's usually enough to share with family and friends. Infelise has planted 'Cylindra' beets for years because they skin easily and slice nicely because they're shaped like a carrot.

"When I think about it, it's funny I still enjoy gardening," Infelise says, remembering that his father made him "work like crazy" in the garden. In his mind's eye, he sees his father out in the garden still, nodding his approval.

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