I come from a long line of gardeners. When my nonno (grandfather), Alfredo Rinaldo, emigrated from Italy by boat with his family he brought seeds from his vegetable garden. He was known for his grapes and tomatoes. He started his seeds in America in discarded containers on the fire escape of his New York tenement house. Perhaps that was the infancy of container gardening. Years later, when he moved his family to a house, he promised his wife roses and hydrangeas. Old black and white photos prove he kept his promise.
In the 1950s, my parents moved the entire family to Long Island. My mother gardened with her father while my grandmother took care of the house. Grandfather planted tomatoes from his original seeds and established grape vines for wine. He became the neighborhood plant advisor. Although his English was poor, his green thumb was obvious. The neighbors called him the Ivy Man. The property surrounding the house had the healthiest and most vibrant ivy. Its waxy, dark green leaves were trained into topiaries. People thought his green thumb caused the leaves to climb the trees. He composted long before it was the thing to do. When he had problems with his grass, he went to a nearby cemetery to talk with the caretaker. He wanted to know how the grass on the newly dug graves filled in and looked so lush in such a short time. I went along to help translate. It was too bad he didn’t have the Green Spring Gardens’ help line to call (703-642-5173).
Fast forward nearly 50 years. His favorite granddaughter (me) enrolls in the Green Spring Master Gardening (GSMG) course, a course co-sponsored by Virginia Tech and the Virginia Cooperative Extension. The class is full of people with a passion for gardening matching mine. Every class session brings an expert in for a talk. Topics include basic botany, diagnosing plant damage, pesticide use, plant propagation, growing vegetables and composting to mention a few. I wonder what the Ivy Man, my dear nonno, would think to learn he was growing invasive English Ivy. His lush and beautiful ivy would have killed the trees if he hadn’t worked so hard to keep it under control.
When one of the presenters spoke on composting, I could hear grandfather calling me the Principessa ramoscello (the twig princess). My job was to collect small twigs to start the compost pile. I was also responsible for the kitchen refuse of coffee grounds and crushed eggs shells. I wonder how he knew about that. He would have been thrilled to learn what I learned from the GSMG course on composting.
When he was 91, he came to visit my home in Virginia. When he saw my garden, his first words were “le rose sono magnifici, ma abbicamo bisogno di tagliare” (your roses are magnificent, but we must trim). We trimmed and six weeks later the roses did look a lot better.
The knowledge I gained from the GSMG course has been invaluable. I wish I could share my new knowledge with my nonno. He would have been delighted to know the science of gardening, to know there was a help line to call with questions, and a place where other gardeners gather to learn. And he would be delighted to know that his love and knowledge of gardening is being passed on to others by me and the other Master Gardeners at Green Spring Gardens.
Author Gioia Caiola Forman is a Master Gardener Intern at Green Springs Gardens in Alexandria. There is more information about the Master Gardener program on Green Spring’s website.