For the love of figs



How much does Bruno Garofalo love figs? Enough to smuggle two shoots inside his coat when he came from Italy 52 years ago and to wrap his fig trees every winter to protect them from the cold.

How much does Michele Vaccaro love figs? Enough to bury three or four trees in the fall and to dig them up in early spring so he can get his first taste in July.

How much does Mary Menniti love figs? Almost as much as she loved her late grandfather, Antonio Martone of New Castle, who passed on his love of gardening and inspired her to create the Italian Garden Project, which preserves the Old World know-how of Mr. Garofalo, Mr. Vaccaro and other Italian immigrants.

How much do Italians love figs?

How much does Mary Menniti love figs? Almost as much as she loves her late grandfather, Antonio Martone of New Castle, who passed on his love of gardening and inspired her to create the Italian Garden Project. (Edited by Melissa Tkach; 5/11/2013)

"I'm amazed at what they know about growing things and the traditional ways to garden. They are the experts," said Ms. Menniti, who recently helped Mr. Vaccaro unearth the brown fig tree that grows in her yard in Edgeworth.

The tree was about 6 feet tall when Mr. Vaccaro gave it to her several years ago. Now that it stands 10 feet, it's a little harder each fall to wrap its branches with rope, cut away roots on one side, and lay it in a trench that is then covered with plywood and dirt. Mr. Vaccaro, 58, came from Falerna in the province of Catanzaro 37 years ago and now owns a landscaping business in Sewickley. He unearths his own fig trees in mid- to late April, willing to risk a late frost to enjoy ficazzatta, the Italian word for the first small crop that appears on some types of fig trees in July. Waiting eight months makes them especially delicious, he said.

"They're so good because they're the first ones. "

Mr. Garofalo, 81, is more patient, waiting until a summery day last week to unwrap 12-foot-tall trees he planted more than 50 years ago in the backyard of his Knoxville home. He used to bury them and still forces a smaller tree into a trench nearby, wrapping it in roofing felt and weighing it down with large stones. But the other two trees are too big to bury, so he wraps them in late October or early November with rope and several layers of insulation topped by white tarps and more rope.

Sons-in-law JoeB Fleisner of Arlington and John Autieri of Knoxville helped him last week as their wives, Silvana and Tonia, looked on, sometimes with alarm. Mr. Autieri's foot broke through a rung on a ladder that was probably older than he is.

Classes show how to grow fig trees

Growing fig trees isn't hard, but getting them to bear sweet fruit can be tricky. The Italian Garden Project is offering classes featuring experts -- Michele Vaccaro and Tommaso and Tommasina Floro -- on June 29, July 27, Aug. 24 and Sept. 14.

The two-hour classes, which will include tips on growing figs in containers or in the garden and caring for them in the winter, will begin at 10:30 a.m. with a short lecture at Penguin Bookshop in Sewickley and then visit the Vaccaro and Floro gardens, both in Sewickley.

Cost is $40 and classes are limited to 15 people each month. For information or to reserve a spot, go to www.TheItalianGardenProject.com or email info@theitaliangardenproject.com.

"My dad doesn't like to buy new things," Mrs. Autieri explained.

"Bruno, were you going to catch me when I fell?" her husband teased his father-in-law.

This was Mr. Autieri's first time helping Mr. Garofalo, who emigrated from Petrella Tifernina in the province of Campobasso in February 1961 to join the rest of his family in Knoxville. His father warned him that Western Pennsylvania winters would kill fig trees.

"Son of a gun! I'm not going to eat no more figs?" he thought to himself. "I'm gonna try."

At first he buried the trees that had grown from the sticks smuggled in the lining of his coat. But they became too big to bury, so for at least 10 years, he has wrapped them like two fat mummies for the winter. The first spring that he wrapped them, he found mold on the branch tips, so he ingeniously threaded a perforated PVC pipe beneath the tarps.

"They gotta breathe," the retired contractor explained.

In addition to reusing foam and fiberglass insulation, Mr. Garofalo has a compost pile, rain barrels and raises his tomatoes from seed in a cold frame.

"Bruno was 'green' before they invented the word," said Mr. Fleisner, who has helped his father-in-law for several years.

"Bruno said I had to help him or I couldn't marry his daughter," he joked.

"What's the saying? One hand holds the other?" Mr. Garofalo replied.

The wedding ring that shines today on Mr. Fleisner's hand was a casualty of one fig-wrapping session. Just months after his wife put it on his finger, it disappeared in the dirt. He found the ring on Good Friday when they unwrapped the trees in the spring.

Mr. Garofalo's daughters say his garden keeps him active. "He loses himself in the winter," Mrs. Fleisner said. "He needs this."

Her father acknowledges it's an incredible amount of work "to eat a little bit of fig."

"When you like to do something, for me, it's worth it."

food - mobilehome - homepage - garden

Kevin Kirkland: kkirkland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1978. First Published May 11, 2013 4:00 AM


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