Podcast Episode #10: Grow An Italian Garden With Seeds From Italy

Transcript with Show Notes Embedded:

Will Nagengast: The Italians, I think probably as much or more than most other cultures really value heirloom seeds. I can think of very few other places where a specific variety of seed has been passed down from the hands of the Nonna or the Papa (nonno) to their kids, and the kids pass it down to their kids, and those kids pass it down, and everyone remembers the one famous eggplant, for example, or something that is really emblematic of their family or their city or the region where their family hails from.

Kathy McCabe: This is Kathy McCabe. Welcome to the Dream of Italy Podcast. You know me from the PBS travel series, Dream of Italy, and the award-winning website and publication. Join me as we explore the sights and sounds of Bell’Italia. From the canals of Venice, to the piazzas of Puglia. From the fashion houses of Milan- Ciao, Bella!- to the vineyards of Tuscany. Hop on. It’s going to be a great ride. Andiamo!

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[02:07]

Kathy: So I’m thrilled today to have one of our sponsors for our new special, Dream of Italy: Travel, Transform, and Thrive. I have Will and Lynn from Seeds From Italy (use code dreamgarden to save 10%) with me today to talk about gardening Italian style. And if any of you have had an Italian American grandmother, grandfather, aunt, uncle, anything, you know the garden is like the church of the house. So Will and Lynn, thank you so much for joining me today from Kansas.

Lynn Byczynski: It’s our pleasure.

Will: Thanks Kathy.

Kathy: So Lynn, I have a soft spot in my heart for you because I know that you are a publisher, as well as the farmer, and now you import seeds from Italy, so tell me how all of this came about

Lynn: Sure. Well, I started market farming in 1987 with my husband, Dan. We grew about four acres of certified organic vegetables. And in 1992, I started a magazine for other market gardeners called, Growing For Market. And that has just celebrated its 30th anniversary. And we have subscribers all over the United States and Canada. We have digital, as well as print additions too. In 2010, one of the people who advertised in “Growing For Market” called me and placed his regular January ad and said, “I had hoped not to be doing this because I thought I had sold the business, but it fell through.” And when he said that, there was just this realization that this was the next thing that we were going to do in our family. I don’t know how I knew, I just immediately knew that this was where we were going. So we negotiated with him and we eventually bought the company from him and we took it over in July of 2011, and so it’s been almost 10 years that we’ve been doing Seeds From Italy.

Kathy: And anyone who follows me, or knows anything beyond the surface about me, knows that I believe in signs and serendipity, especially when it comes to Italy. So I love how you knew that this is what you needed to do. So Will, tell me about these seeds. And it’s an Italian company, correct? And you’re selling their seeds here in the United States.

Will: That’s right. Yeah, so we import seeds primarily from a Italian company called Franchi Sementi and they’re maybe eighth or ninth generation now.

Lynn: I think they’re in their seventh generation. They were founded in 1783.

Will: So 250 years old.

Kathy: That’s young. That’s young for Italy, right? Young for Italy.

Will: Yes, by Italian standards, but they’re a wonderful family. John Pero Franchi is the owner still, so it’s really cool. They have been doing things for much longer than we have, so we have a lot to learn from them, but they’re a really well known seed producer in Europe. They distribute seeds all across Europe, and they’re widely considered one of the better seed companies in Europe so we feel really fortunate that we were able to bring their seeds here.

Kathy: And where are they based? Where in Italy?

Will: They are in Bergamo.

[05:44]

Kathy: Which is a beautiful, beautiful place. So what is it, if you need to summarize… What is it about Italian seeds that makes them so special?

Will: Sure. Well the Italians, I think probably as much, or more than most other cultures really value heirloom seeds. I can think of very few other places where a specific variety of seed has been passed down from the hands of the Nonna or the Papa (nonno) to their kids, and the kids pass it down to their kids, and those kids pass it down, and everyone remembers the one famous eggplant, for example, or something that is really emblematic of their family or their city or the region where their family hails from. So I think the Italians, they focus on vegetables more than most other cultures and cuisines.

Really, it seems like having the freshest vegetables and the highest quality vegetables is the heart of their culinary tradition, so that’s really important to them, and we find it translates really well with really high quality seeds and awesome produce that we grow here.

Lynn: One of the things that I like to hold up as an example of that is our selection of summer squash zucchinis. We have 24 varieties and almost every one of them is named for the place that it originated. And so we have a very dark green zucchini from Milan, and we have a very pale, pale green from Cecilia, and every place in between, and people recognize that. They like to grow vegetables from the region where their families came from.

Kathy: And cuisine in Italy is so town specific, so regional, and even Italians, since it’s such a young country, they really are more connected to the city they’re from, the region they’re from, then to even saying they’re Italian. So those very local stories are really important to Italians and to Italian Americans. Do you feel like you have a lot of Italian American customers?

Will: Yeah, definitely.

Lynn: Yeah.

Will: We have a lot of people that don’t have Italian heritage as well too about, but certainly, probably every other name on the customer’s list is very obviously someone whose family hails from Italy. So, it’s pretty cool.

[08:34]

Kathy: Well, for me, and when we’ve spoken about your involvement with our new PBS special, I think I shared that I spent every day of my childhood at my grandparents house a mile from my parents’ house. My parents both worked. They were my daycare. My grandfather had the most extraordinary garden filled with pumpkin, and sunflowers, and roses, and anything you could plant in the ground. And I had a worm farm in his garden, and so it’s not just the food, it’s the memories. It’s the connection to my heritage that if you ask me one of the number one memories of my childhood, it is this garden which seemed really magical. And I think that’s probably true for a lot of people with Italian heritage and without.

Will: Yeah.

Lynn: We hear that all the time from our customers. People have such wonderful memories of time spent with their family and the garden as children. And it’s something that we really hope the next generation passes on to their children. And this has been one of the good things that’s happened in 2020 is that people returned to gardening in such a big way. Everybody wanted to have a vegetable garden. And it was such a solace for so many people to be able to grow these wonderful things that they remembered from their family histories and to spend time with family in someplace that was safe, and outdoors, and it was just a really good time for gardening.

Kathy: No, and I appreciate that. And in this special, we of course talk about Italians and their connection to the land, that the land has almost a life of itself and Italy. Also family, and I think it’s something like, you’ll appreciate this, 70% of Italian businesses are family owned and run. And so there’s so much more that goes into this idea of gardening, and also just being more in touch with ourselves and what we’re eating. I’d love to know, especially since I know you’ve had a great year, what are some of the most popular seeds from Italy, and why?

Will: Well, it seems like many categories have one incredibly popular product. We’ve got one Roma type of bean, called the Super Marconi, (use code dreamgarden to save 10%) which is maybe our best-selling product. And that one in particular, it’s the bean everyone thinks of when they think of a Roma bean.

Kathy: Yeah.

Will: Herbs are usually quite popular. The Genovese basil, which maybe you know this, unless it’s grown in Genoa, it has to have a different name and it can’t be called Genovese, so Franchi produces theirs in Bergamo, so it’s called Italiano Classico, (use code dreamgarden to save 10%) but it’s the same variety. That’s incredibly popular. There’s a gigantic parsley from Napoli that’s really incredibly popular as well.

Lynn: There’s a lot of specialty items that you don’t see in the normal American seed catalog. The first one that comes to mind is the Cucuzza (use code dreamgarden to save 10%). You may remember the Louis Prima song about my little Cucuzza. A Cucuzza is actually a vegetable, and it’s a kind of like a cross between the summer squash and a winter squash. It’s also known as the Pergola Vine because it climbs up pergolas and creates dense shade. It’s a beautiful, beautiful plant, and we love to grow that one, but that’s not something that’s very common in the United States.

[12:34]

Kathy: So if somebody is interested in starting a garden, and they’re not well versed in it. And obviously, most of our listeners are in the United States, when do they start? Give us a timetable of the year. What’s a good time to get started? I know people… We’re talking, and it’s the winter, people are ordering their seeds now, right?

Will: Yeah.

Lynn: Well, I just posted on our blog, which is on the homepage at growitalian.com,(use code dreamgarden to save 10%) a list of when you should start your seeds indoors based on the frost-free date in your area. So the frost-free date is kind of the benchmark around which you measure everything, and so you’re going to want to back off as many weeks as these plants should be indoors before they’re planted outside. So if you’re going to plant onions, you can plant those three weeks before your frost-free date, but you want to start them eight weeks before you plant them out, so that gives you a way to just kind of look at what your frost-free is, and then back off whatever I just said, 10 or 11 weeks to start them at that time.

Will: But maybe a more…

Kathy: Wonderful.

Will: … answer for that would be, for new farmers in particular, people who want to grow at home and haven’t grown before, there’s a lot of vegetables that you do want to start indoors and then transplant outside. That’s kind of an extra step, and maybe adds a slight bit of complexity, so I think for a lot of people, if it’s their first time and they’re just dabbling, there’s also a lot of things like lettuce or basil, or-

Lynn: Arugula (use code dreamgarden to save 10%)

Will: … arugula, or spinach. And those would all be planted outside, straight in the ground in the early spring, usually after the frost date, maybe for most places, April or something like that, March or April. And then that heralds the start of the spring and summer gardening season. That’s when you’re planting most things that you want to have grow throughout the summer. And then late summer, usually around August, is the time when you might consider starting fall crops and grow through the fall season. Many things will survive until November or something like that.

[14:56]

Kathy: I was going to ask, and people who watch the show know that I can be sort of klutzy and sometimes I don’t cook that well, what is the fool proof for people who are new gardeners? What’s the easiest thing to not mess up, or it really depends on the frost?

Will: Yeah. Yeah.

Lynn: Yeah.

Kathy: You can get that right.

Will: Mm-hmm (affirmative). There’s some really great lettuce, or chicory, or-

Lynn: Arugula.

Will: … arugula mixes that are all quite easy to grow, and a small packet usually has 6,000 or 7,000 seeds so you have room to make some mistakes. But arugula in particular, you just scatter it, and it will almost certainly come up.

Kathy: Is it a weed? No.

Lynn: It’s a weed outside of Rome apparently, and it will become a little weedy if you let it go to a seed in your garden, but it’s not a bad weed to have, it’s a good weed.

Kathy: It’s delicious. It’s absolutely delicious. And I’m pretty intrigued, if you will humor me, there’s a couple of seeds you can’t get from Italy. Which ones are those and why?

Will: So this year, this has been a major headache for us, the USDA… Actually, this was in fall of 2019 is when this started, but the US Department of Agriculture heavily restricted the import of tomato and pepper seeds, which is something that many people think of Italy when they think of tomatoes or peppers, so that’s a big loss for us, but it is what it is. The USDA is really worried about a tomato and pepper virus called the Brown Rugose virus, which they think has the potential to just decimate commercial tomato production in the US. And so to protect commercial agriculture at large, they’ve more or less banned the imports of those, and that is not an uncommon theme. I think five or six years ago, we weren’t able to bring fava beans over anymore, which is another classic Italian-

Kathy: Oh, definitely.

Will:… thing. They were worried about a pest that can live inside the fava bean. And so usually, there’s some sort of pester disease concern and that makes the ruling bodies enact restrictions on the importation. And so we’re always dealing with that, and trying to find ways to get our tomato seeds tested and found free of the virus so that we can hopefully import them, and things like this, but it’s… You solve one problem and then there’s another problem next year with something else, so you can just jump around.

[17:46]

Kathy: So let’s cross our fingers for next year for tomatoes, because there’s nothing like Italian tomatoes. How much does the soil… Obviously, we talk about San Marzano tomatoes or tomatoes that grow on the side of the Suvi as they’re truly the most delicious in the world. How much does flavor change because of the soil?

Lynn: Well, a lot of the things that people think about with regards to a specific tomato, like the San Marzano, or the Pasubio, are really dependent on the soil and that’s why they have that status in Italy that you can’t call it something unless it’s actually grown in that area. But for the most part, all of these varieties that we import from Italy grow just fine all over the United States, certainly as well as anything else in the same variety. If you can’t grow artichokes in Minnesota, you’re probably not going to have any luck with the Italian artichokes. But if you can grow them in California, they’ll be great for you. So, it’s a regional difference in what people can grow under any circumstances. And there are products that we’re bringing in from Italy that do just great pretty much everywhere.

Kathy: And Lynn, I know you’re famous as a flower farmer.

Lynn: Right.

Kathy: And we’ll link, in our notes, some articles about you and the publication that you run, but give me an idea of some special Italian flowers and seeds that people can get from you.

[19:26]

Lynn: Well, our sunflower collection is really nice, and they’re all branching, open pollinated sunflower varieties. So you can save the seeds from those, if the birds will allow you to. Generally, the birds hop in and get them first, but those are really nice. We also have some beautiful Zinnia (use code dreamgarden to save 10%) seeds that are open pollinated. We have a Cactus Zinnia that produces these great big fluffy heads in gorgeous saturated colors. Those are probably my two favorite things to grow because I’ve always been a cut flower grower, and those are both long stemmed flowers that are wonderful to bring inside for bouquets.

But we have lots of other kinds of flowers too, that are nice in pots and containers. You can grow Geraniums (use code dreamgarden to save 10%) from seed. I don’t know if you have noticed that in Italy, pretty much every doorway and window box has Geraniums spilling out of it in the summer. And to grow that many Geraniums, you pretty much want to grow them from seed because it would get very pricey if you went down and bought the fancy ones at the garden center. So they’re actually very easy to grow and certainly give you a lot of rewards for your efforts.

Will: And Poppies-

Kathy: That’s amazing. Oh, Poppies.

Will: … Poppies too.

Lynn: Poppies are big.

Kathy: Oh, God.

Will: And red Poppies that are so iconic, that they do very well.

Kathy: They are incredible, and also the sunflowers in Tuscany. I brought my dad… Unfortunately he’s since passed away, but I brought him in June of 2019 and we took photos. There were just Poppies everywhere, everywhere, everywhere in Tuscany. And one of my favorite things of course, and people who follow me know, are sunflowers. And my grandfather… I mean, maybe I was little, but those sunflowers were 10 feet tall that he had on the side of his house. And I think something we talk about in this special as well is the Italian appreciation for beauty, that even the color of the vegetable, the flowers, to cut flowers and have them at the dinner table on a regular day, is something Italians do that I think Americans don’t do as much, and something that you can add to your life, not just seeing them in the garden.

Lynn: And it’s so easy to add that to your life, and it benefits your vegetables too because flowers attract the pollinators that you need to pollinate your crops, especially things like your zucchinis and cucumbers and so many of those cucumbers, so they need to be insect pollinated. So if you have a little row of sunflowers in the back of your garden, you’re attracting all kinds of bees and other pollinators.

[22:20]

Kathy: It’s amazing, and it’s amazing how nature works and nature regenerates. And in this special, I know you’ve seen a preview of it, talks about how you give to nature, and nature takes care of you, and regenerates, and they replanted their vines, and it’s something that lasts well beyond us. Is there anything else you could share with our audience that… Some of the common questions people ask when they call, some tidbits that you can give them if they’re thinking about starting an Italian garden, or even if they’re experienced and they’re looking for something new and different?

Will: Sure. Well, we do get a fair amount of people who wonder, “Will these Italian seeds grow here?” And in general, as my mom was mentioning, most of them will. If you live in Southern Texas, you maybe won’t have luck with a variety that-

Lynn: Chicory.

Will: … a chicory or a variety of something that’s grown in the Alps or in the mountainous regions, and vice versa if you live in Vermont or something, you maybe won’t do so well with something that thrives in Sicily or around Rome or anything like that. So I guess the thing people don’t realize is how diverse the climate is in Italy and how you can have… Southern Italy is 100 degrees for much of the summer, and sun every day, and Northern Italy is a much cooler, more temperate climate, and so that’s kind of the same as the US but just in a more compact geography. So yeah, usually it’s just finding the right things for your area and the right varieties.

Lynn: One of the things that really surprised me when we first bought the business was how much attention beans get from Italian Americans. Beans are really, really big and they’re very specific to areas, and so we have a huge selection of beans. And I think that to a lot of people, they can really taste the difference between a lot of beans that look the same, and so that’s been kind of a really interesting thing. The other thing that’s so interesting is the number of chicories that we sell.

Kathy: Oh, I know.

Lynn: Americans are not big chicory eaters, although they are starting to be. We have a few customers on the West coast who are farmers who grow them in huge quantities, many, many acres of them to sell to restaurants. And so I think they will eventually catch on. But gosh, we have so many different varieties of chicory from all these different regions in Northern Italy.

Kathy: And the funny thing, as we wrap up, Italians are so precise about food. They will have a meal, and analyze it for days, so I can imagine it’s the same thing with seeds. Like, “It was this one from this place, and you did this to it.” It’s very invigorating to talk to Italians about food and gardening, isn’t it?

Lynn: Absolutely.

Will: Yeah. I’ll very regularly get stuck on the phone for 30 or 45 minutes talking to somebody who wants to tell me their exact… “Then I put this in the soil, and then I amend with this at 16 weeks. And then at 17 weeks, I cut off the water, and then at 18 weeks I turn it back on again.” And they’ll tell me their whole planting schedule, and it’s great. I learned something new, and frequently there’s someone who… If it’s an 80 year old guy who has been growing for 80 years, he knows way more about it than I do, I’m sure. So, there’s something for me to learn as well.

[26:19]

Kathy: And how can people find you about finding seeds?

Will: Our website is probably the best way. It’s www.growitalian.com (use code dreamgarden to save 10%). We also send out a catalog. We only have the error version in front of us, so this is where we’re finding the little…

Kathy: Oh, I see the… Are those Poppies? Yeah.

Will: There are sunflowers there, yes.

Lynn: Yes, they’re sunflowers.

Kathy: Oh sunflowers, sorry. I just saw the red. Oh, that’s so adorable. The thing is it’s nice to get something in the mail and have it in your hands, right?

Will: Absolutely. Yeah. The second that our catalog is late by a day or two, people start calling and asking where it is, so it’s something that everyone loves to get, which is great. We’re really happy about that.

Kathy: And one of our other themes in the show is passion, Italians and passion. And I can tell, obviously if you’re spending a half an hour with a customer, you’re very passionate about what you do.

Will: Yeah, definitely. And everyone else is so passionate too. Everyone I talk to. What they grow in their garden will be the highlight of their year for a lot of people, so it’s cool and we’re lucky to be able to provide that.

Kathy: Well, thank you so much for sharing with us. And the website again is growitalian.com. (use code dreamgarden to save 10%). We’ll have notes about all of the things you talked about, and links to the seeds. I’d love to ask you guys for a recipe or two also to contribute so people know what to do. I mean, sometimes you have too many zucchini, right?

Lynn: Right.

Will: Absolutely.

Lynn: Yeah.

Will: Well, great. Thanks.

Lynn: Thanks so much. It was fun.

Will: Yeah. Thanks a lot, Kathy.

[28:08]

Kathy: Order your garden seeds from Seeds From Italy at growitalian.com, and use code dreamgarden to save 10%. For show notes on this episode, visit dreamofitaly.com/10.

Thank you again to our podcast sponsors. Travel Your Tree. Curious about your European roots? Travel Your Tree provides ancestral destination adventures, as unique as you are. With a passion for travel and family history, Lisa and her network of genealogists tour guides provide you with an unforgettable experience tracing your ancestors’ footsteps. Visit travelyourtree.com.

If you love Italy, love to cook or simply enjoy a good love story, Love in a Tuscan Kitchen has something special for you. The book includes 38 recipes, including many by the author’s husband, Chef Vincenzo. And of course, the hot chocolate love cake that started it all. Find it on Amazon.

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