by Rick Gush
Many Americans have an emotional attachment to Italy, from both a food- and ethnic-heritage perspective.
A piece of Italy in our lives is a sentimental gesture mixed with the practical acknowledgement that the Italians have been growing gardens for quite a bit longer than we have, and that there might be a fun or useful thing or two that we could learn from them.
An Italian vegetable garden is called an “orto.” Italian ortos and American vegetable gardens are quite similar. Most everybody grows some tomatoes and zucchini and then spices up that pair with an assortment of peppers, beans, eggplants and so on. But what is it that makes an orto different? What are Italians growing that American gardeners aren’t?
For starters, Italians almost always grow the same crops that their grandparents did.
Italians also grow more leaf crops than Americans; they’re more likely to eat some of the spring weeds that appear in their gardens; and they take their squash quite seriously.
Finally, no Italian-style orto would be complete without a healthy planting of herbs. Vegetable gardens in Italy are not a leisurely pastime, rather a dead-serious attempt to provide oneself with high-quality food and flavorings.
Near Rome and south into Sicily, greenhouses
full of cherry tomatoes supply the celebrated
vegetable to all of Europe.
Italians were among the first Europeans to consume tomatoes. They started eating the ornamental fruit in the 16th century.
Today, Italians enjoy probably the most sophisticated tomato horticulture on the planet. Vast acres of greenhouses near Rome and further south in Sicily pump millions of crates of perfectly formed clusters of cherry tomatoes, in particular, to markets in Italy and all of the other European countries, and it’s generally agreed that these perfect tomatoes are also among the best-tasting fruit ever produced by a factory farm.
Not all the tomatoes that Italians grow are heritage varieties—not by a long shot. Italians are as crazy about American vegetable seeds as Americans are about Italian food, and it’s common to find Rio Grande and Ace tomato varieties for sale in the Italian nurseries and Peto, UC and Heinz varieties growing in the big fields.
Of the 315 varieties of tomato in commercial production in Italy (not counting seeds traded by hand), 162 are varieties that come from outside the country. Most of these imported varieties are American, but there are also Dutch, French, Spanish and English varieties in cultivation.
Like Americans, Italians eat lots of cherry types and lots of round types. The two Italian varieties most often available in the states are the famous oblong Roma and San Marzano, both considered cooking and sauce tomatoes.
But if you’re searching for something a bit more exotic, you might want to try any of the big convoluted tomatoes that are so popular in Italy.
The Ligurian Cuore di Bue and Tuscan Costoluto varieties are tough plants and heavy producers—much easier to grow than their fussy American counterpart, Beefheart. The tasty little pointed cherry tomatoes from southern Italy called Datterini are another classic Italian tomato variety.
One characteristic of a typical Italian orto is the abundance of greens. Some popular greens are used both as cultivated plants and as self-seeding plants.
Three of the most popular greens of northern Italian gardens are bietole (beet greens), rucola (arrugula) and borage. All of these greens are both planted deliberately and collected as spontaneous weeds.
Bietole are the rustic relatives of Swiss chard that can grow wild in the open spaces of a vegetable garden.
Particularly suited for areas with mild winters such as Florida, California and Arizona, bietole are eaten steamed, cooked into soups, used as the filler for filled pasta like ravioli, and baked into vegetable pies.
Torta di Verdure (vegetable pie) with bietole is a common rustic dish that enjoys continuing popularity among the urban population. (Click here for the recipe.)
On the northwest coast of Italy, a wild-greens mix called preboggion is commonly harvested during the spring. Preboggion includes a half-dozen different dandelion types and a variable list of other species such as rumex, dock, bietole and borage.
All over Italy, similar mixtures of wild greens are commonly harvested for personal use and are also sold by small farmers in the open-air markets. Another particularly enjoyable weed is wild asparagus, and hikers head up into the wild to collect asparagi selvatici in early spring, just before the mushrooms start appearing.
Learning how to eat the weeds that appear spontaneously in gardens and woodlands is definitely an Italian trait.
While Italians grow a lot of lettuce, the favorite salad green is probably rucola. Rucola is a common garnish for pizzas and appears frequently in mixed salads. Rucola has two forms, cultivated and wild, and both are most commonly seeded, but any garden that has been growing rucola for a few years will surely have some rucola that has reseeded itself naturally. Self-seeded rucola is often more robust than seedbed plants and can produce enormous, deliciously crunchy leaves.
Bright-red radicchio is another classic Italian vegetable, but Italians these days are much more likely to buy these blanched chicory heads from the market. Blanching red chicory is an involved process that includes digging up and replanting the heads in between trimming and resting periods. The easier-to-grow mixture of colored garden chicories resembles lettuce in cultivation and mixes particularly well with lettuce in salads.
Fava beans have the reputation of a poor
man's crop, yet they continue to be enjoyed
both raw and in soups.
Horse Beans and Broccoli
Aside from the leaf crops of the colder season, Italians are also enthusiastic winter cultivators of several other crops. In areas where snow doesn’t fall regularly, a range of unusual cabbages are widely grown.
One of these, cavolo nero—black kale—is an upright, dark-leaved kale. Like the ornamental kales, this is a striking plant. Covered with wrinkled, strap-like leaves, that are steamed or added to soups and vegetable pies, black kale is represented by several ancient varieties.
Winter is also the season for growing one of the most classic Italian crops: horse beans.
Horse beans are also called fava beans, or simply fave in Italy, and are usually planted in fall and harvested in the spring. Fave are traditionally eaten raw, on a picnic on the first day of May (shucked by the guests), with salami and sheep cheese. While fave are almost always eaten raw, some are also added to soups. These beans never caught on commercially and are traditionally considered a poor man’s crop.
Fave can produce a large crop that can be stored for future use, but these days, they’re usually grown as a sentimental crop; a celebration of how good things are these days and a reminder of the old days when times were tough.
Broccoli is another all-star of the Italian orto. Although about half of the broccoli sold in farmers’ markets is of the large-head type, the other half is made up of smaller shoot types with meaty legs.
Most of the broccoli grown in Italy is green, but there are several red and purple Sicilian varieties. Broccoli culture is another traditional activity, and local records from 500 years ago mention broccoli varieties that are still commonly being cultivated today.
Some of the old varieties don’t make large heads but instead produce several waves of smaller buds, which are often preferred when making pasta with broccoli. The plants of the large-head-producing varieties are left in the field after the large heads have been cut off and will produce one or more successive crops of small shoots.
Squash and squash blossoms are sold at markets throughout Italy.
Cooks prepare both for meals.
One notable difference in the way Italians use their orti is that they Italians eat the squash blossoms as well as the fruits.
The markets even sell squash flowers separately and attached to small zucchinis. The blooms are either stewed along with the rest of the squash, or they are prepared separately, often battered and fried. Italian zucchinis come in a range of pale to dark greens, and also in the round form, called Tondo, that are popular for making stuffed zucchini dishes.
There are a number of regional specialty squashes in Italy, but the star has to be the trumpet squash, tromba di albenga, also known as trombette (pronounced tro-m-betty). This prolific vine produces copious amounts of skinny green fruit and bright-yellow flowers. It’s best grown in such a way that the fruits can hang, so an overhead trellis is best.
Trombette are eaten fresh, like summer squash, or allowed to get large and saved as winter squashes. Hanging trombette fruit look a bit like the gourd lagenaria, but the trombette’s skin is much softer, and the flesh is always crunchy, like young zucchini.
While fresh summer squashes are highly appreciated, winter squash are equally popular among Italian gardeners. Although pumpkins are mostly grown in Italy for commercial use, the beach-ball-sized variety quintale is popular in central Italy, and a particularly beautiful yellow-and-green pumpkin variety called tonda padana is grown extensively in the north. The other popular winter squashes are generally smaller with very hard flesh that can easily be kept for months, such as the lumpy, green-skinned marina di chioggia.
Italians are serious about growing herbs for their personal culinary use.
Rosemary, sage, thyme, marjoram, oregano, parsley and basil are all sold in little pots by everyone from the florists to the vegetable markets, and you can see herbs growing in every nook and cranny of the entire country. Certainly, those with a garden plot are sure to include a handful of flavoring plants, and even those with balconies frequently cultivate herbs in pots.
Although oregano gets a lot of press as the dominant Italian seasoning, growing good oregano is difficult, most Italian gardeners purchase oregano from someone else. There are also many who prefer the often stronger-tasting oregano cousin, marjoram. Marjoram is an easily grown little plant that’s widely sold in 6-inch pots that are then either planted in a garden or maintained on a balcony.
Fresh herbs are often touted as superior to dried, and this seems to be true with marjoram, basil and parsley. On the other hand, sage, thyme, rosemary and oregano are more commonly used dry, as cut branches are kept in the kitchen to provide a bit of seasoning when needed.
Two flavoring plants that are common ingredients in Italian recipes but that aren’t really herbs are garlic and spicy peppers. In general, the Italians aren’t as crazy for hot sauce as Americans are, but cuisine from the south, in Calabria and Sicily, includes hot peppers in everything from cheese and salami to spaghetti and calzone.
For Making an Italian Garden, go to page 2.
About the Author: Rick Gush, an agricultural writer from California who now lives in northern Italy, is fascinated by the farms in his new, adopted homeland. Follow his Italian gardening stories on his blog, and get the scoop on organic Italian farming here.)
This article first appeared in the July/August 2009 Hobby Farms.