When Michele Vaccaro returns each January to his native Italy, his family teases him about his fascination with figs.
"For them, figs are nothing. They are for making the pigs fat. For us, they are something special," he said.
The fruit is so special that each November, Mr. Vaccaro partially digs up the half-dozen fig trees behind his Sewickley home, bends them over into a pit and covers them with plywood until spring. It's the only way to be sure he will get lots of sweet fruit next summer and fall.
Preparing fig trees for winter
Michele Vaccaro of Sewickley prepares his fig trees for winter.
Video by Nate Guidry
Mr. Vaccaro will demonstrate how he overwinters his fig trees at 10 a.m. next Saturday as part of a workshop sponsored by the Fern Hollow Nature Center.
Although he's lived here 34 years, the 56-year-old owner of Mike's Landscaping is a relative novice compared with many of the Italian gardeners he knows. These men in their 70s and 80s, many also from his hometown of Falerna in Calabria, have been growing fruit and vegetables the traditional way for generations. On trips back to Italy, they sneak seeds in their luggage; Mr. Vaccaro says one man preserved a foot-long fig branch by poking it into a potato. Whether someone needs seeds, plants or advice, they are ready to help, and they proudly share their bounty with friends and family.
But they are slowing, and few of their sons and grandsons are carrying on the Italian garden traditions. That's the reason Mary Menniti of Sewickley organized the Sewickley Italian Garden Tour last year. Four gardens were opened to visitors twice this summer. Also, Mr. Vaccaro and nearly a dozen other gardeners are featured in a new calendar, "Come Back to the Garden: Italian Gardens of the Pittsburgh Region," produced by Mrs. Menniti and photographer Marcy Holquist.
One day earlier this week, Mr. Vaccaro showed a reporter, photographer and videographer how he prepares his trees for the coming frost, something they never have to worry about in Italy's warmer climate.
"We do all this work. They do nothing. They just go and pick them," Mr. Vaccaro said of the 50 fig trees his parents have in Falerna, where he also has a 10-acre farm.
Having already dug a central pit around 2 feet deep and 5 feet across, Mr. Vaccaro began to dig around the trees' roots with the help of Joaquin Buzo Torres, one of four young Mexicans who get work visas each year to do landscaping here from April to November. The two men wrapped the branches with rope and began bending the trunks toward the pit. The sound of a few roots snapping did not concern him, he said. Figs are very tough.
When all of the branches are below ground level, Mr. Vacarro plans to toss among them two fig seedlings now in pots. One was given him by his friend, Nick Mercurio, 75, of Bethel Park, also from Falerna.
"It produces the biggest figs you ever saw," he said.
Mr. Vaccaro doesn't bury the branches. Instead, he covers them with sheets of plywood, leaving a hole at one corner for air to circulate. After having a problem several years ago with rats eating the tender bark, he adds some D-Con in the hole before the plywood. On top of the plywood he piles rotting fruit, vegetables and foliage. In the spring, when it has turned to compost, he will throw it back in the pit as fertilizer.
In early January, before he heads back to Italy for a monthlong visit, he will seal the small air hole to keep the frigid air from nipping the buds. Around mid-March, when daytime temperatures reach the 60s, he will lift the plywood slightly to let air circulate again. Once the branches and buds have hardened, he will lift the trees upright again in April. The first few figs appear in July, he said, and a much bigger crop in September. Some varieties produce two crops; others, just one.
"It's a lot of work," he said. "But it's worth it because they're so good."
For Mr. Vaccaro, his figs are a sweet reminder of his youth. After graduating from college with a degree as a draftsman, he immigrated to Western Pennsylvania because his cousins here "were telling me how great it was." He enjoyed watching American westerns and "family movies" showing nice houses and streets.
He was 21 and spoke little English, but when relatives encouraged him to seek work in a steel mill, he had no trouble saying "no."
"I like to be outdoors. I like to be with plants," he said. "I wouldn't like working in an office. It's like being in jail for me."
He lucked into a job as a full-time gardener for Tom Walker of Edgeworth. For five years, he tended daylilies, roses and other flowers on the 4- or 5-acre estate, always making sure there was a vase filled with fresh flowers for weekly dinner parties.
When Mr. Walker died, he left Mr. Vaccaro $4,000 in his will. He used it to buy a pickup truck and start his landscaping business.
"He was a very good man," he said.
After 30 years in the business, Mr. Vaccaro has 90-95 customers, two three-man crews and three trucks. His job is to mow lawns, weed and tend flower beds and trim hedges and the like. But at home, he dotes on his figs, tomatoes, beans and other crops.
"This," he said, surveying his tiny farm, "this is for me."
His wife, Linda, jokes that they have enough beans in the freezer "for three families." This week, he still had a large bowl filled with ripening plum tomatoes. He got the seed from his brother-in-law in Australia. He doesn't know the variety but said they taste a little like Oxhearts, only better.
"I give them to my customers. They never taste a tomato like that -- more sweet, less acid."
He tells his customers they would also love the tomatoes, figs and other treats he enjoys when he is back in Italy. While his parents and two sisters chuckle over his simple tastes, he gets a laugh at what excites them -- prickly pear cactus, a native of Mexico and the American West.
"They're all over Italy now," he said. "We love 'em."
To register for the fig workshop on Nov. 20, call 412-741-6136 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Cost is $10 for Fern Hollow members, $20 for others. The Italian Garden calendar, $15, is available at area stores or www.theitaliangardenproject.com.garden
Kevin Kirkland: email@example.com or 412-263-1978. First Published November 13, 2010 5:00 AM