Great Gardens Contest winner: In Canonsburg, memories of the Old Country

Irene Fostyk keeps the garden practices of her Italian grandfather alive

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For centuries, Irene Fostyk's family grew their food on terraces carved into the hillsides of Avellino, Italy. She now grows orange 'Pineapple' tomatoes, Cubanelle peppers and other vegetables her ancestors wouldn't recognize on faux stone terraces that march down one side of her suburban yard.

Louis DeGregory of New Castle would be so proud.

"I was with my grandfather every day. As a kid, I was fascinated by his garden, especially the fig trees. It just stuck."

Mrs. Fostyk has reason to be proud, too. She was chosen as a winner in the fall/year-round Great Gardens Contest sponsored by the Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh Botanic Garden. Although the Washington County lot she shares with her husband Michael, two dogs and two cats is about a half-acre, the unique part of it is the small but efficient backyard. She is the winner of the medium size category (under a quarter-acre) because it is a prime example of what a great all-around gardener can do with the sloped yards so common in Western Pennsylvania.

Nearly half of it is grass to allow room for the dogs to play, yet there's still space on the slope for a perennial and pollinator-friendly garden packed with spring and summer bloomers and the terraces, which take up little space but produced more vegetables this season than her extended family could eat or use.

"My sister [Mary Jo Devido of New Castle] is the canner," she said. "We gave away scads of cherry tomatoes. I had whites, yellows, bright orange ones. They're super sweet and you can't buy them because they're so delicate."

This year, she grew nearly all of her vegetables -- including six types of tomatoes and five types of peppers -- from seed purchased from Territorial Seed Co. of Cottage Grove, Ore. ( She started them in February or March in her sunroom, then transplanted them to her newly built terraces in the spring or early summer. She made her own terraces last year but found them too hard to work in. So she hired landscape designer Keith Morris to create better ones with cast-concrete wall stones and steps made by R.I. Lampus Co. She installed drip irrigation lines to water them, then put in her tiny vegetable seedlings, including lettuce, onions, squash, zucchini, watermelons, onions and two small fig trees.

"I planted too much," she conceded.

To save part of the bounty of tomatoes and peppers, she sliced some, vacuum-sealed them and put them in the freezer so she can make sauce, stew or soup anytime. "It's such a fast way to save them when you have too many at one time."

Mrs. Fostyk is more than just a great vegetable gardener. On the other side of her new steps are beds filled with perennials, many of them attractive to butterflies and other pollinators. The list includes poppies, bee balm, hollyhock, false indigo, Solomon's seal, Jacob's ladder, butterfly bush, clethra and swamp milkweed. Milkweed is a favorite of Monarch butterflies but she saw no takers this year, a terrible one for Monarchs.

The front of the Fostyk house is beautiful, too, with a large Atlas blue cedar and a very happy Southern magnolia. A purple Chinese wisteria near the door will probably find a new home elsewhere, she said. "The front is just fun. I tweak it all the time."

Three years ago, she began taking classes in Penn State Extension's Master Gardener program, where she learned how to grow organically and much more. She also volunteers in the greenhouses at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens and takes part in the Italian Garden Tour in Sewickley. She's the one taking notes.

"I've learned a lot from master gardeners and shared a lot," she said.

Mrs. Fostyk has also inspired her neighbors. It began with the children, who stopped by to see her vegetables, and spread to their parents. Many of them are now growing vegetables, she said.

Maybe they've been infected with the gardening bug she and the rest of her family caught from her grandfather. She noted how her half-Italian, half-Slovak father, William Slifko, gardened until he was 80. Now her nephew, Tim Book, 25, is looking for a Downtown apartment with a balcony so he can garden, too.

"He stirred that Italian heritage in all of us," she said.


Kevin Kirkland: or 412-263-1978.

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