Secrets of an Italian Garden

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Nick Ranieri at work in his garden. Gianna Volpe photos

By Gianna Volpe

Resourcefulness, efficiency and passion are qualities often sown by the Italian gardener; but it is the North Fork’s Nick Ranieri — a former electrician from Mola di Bari — who so exhaustively reinvents his backyard food forest in Mattituck that the Smithsonian Institute’s Community of Gardens is now adding it to their archives.

“Italian gardeners all have the same style of gardening,” explained documentarian Mary Ann Pietanza of the Italian Garden Project. “They seed everything themselves, bring seeds from Italy and plant vegetables they were used to having back home. They’re tree lovers — great barbers who each have things they like — they weed themselves, make their own compost and nothing goes to waste. They don’t spend any kind of money, so if they need a hot house they will build it out of their own stuff and if they need stalks for their vegetables, they’ll use what they have kicking around.”

For Ranieri, what’s kicking around is electrical tape, which he has used to graft trees with both almonds and peaches, as well as one with six variety of pears.

“Nick has the typical Italian style, but he takes it a step further,” Pietanza said of why he was picked for immortalization. “He’s more nurturing in the sense that he had a series of apple trees and, after he noticed one was getting diseased, grafted it with a branch from a more disease-resistant tree and actually saved that tree from being diseased. My own father may have said, ‘Ah, this tree is not gonna do well, let’s just cut it,’ but Nick has a tendency to challenge himself and take things to the next level. He works a lot with the wild shoots in the ground and he’s not afraid to challenge himself with trees from other origins.”

“Italian gardeners pretty much stick to the same format,” she continued. “They have their persimmon trees; their fig trees — they do a little grafting here and there — and they’re excellent at growing whatever they grow in limited space because that’s just the way Italians are; but Nick seems to constantly reinvent his garden. He has the lemon trees — so do the other guys — but he has also created his own Meyer lemon trees.”

Wherever one looks in the garden this 78-year-old immigrant has been cultivating since he first bought land on Sound Avenue in 2000 — before he’d even broken ground to build his home there — one can find some type of fruit, vegetable, herb or spice either growing, dying or making seeds with a purpose and plan for each.

Ranieri grows more types of food than most commercial gardens. While his micro-farm is in a constant state of evolution and may not appear as organized as the average American garden, it far more than works — it thrives. He uses as few chemicals as possible because this is food used to sustain himself and his family.

Here’s a list of what can be found in Ranieri’s garden right now — long enough to make anybody jealous. What’s worth noting is how he is often cultivating multiple varieties: lemons, figs, fava beans, artichokes, asparagus, garlic, potatoes, tomatoes, peas, carrots, celery, zucchini, lettuce, chestnuts, almonds, peaches, pears, plums, persimmons, apples, blueberries, strawberries, tangerines, old bay, basil, thyme, rosemary, myrtle, dill and a sweet sort of broccoli rabe Ranieri named “Rapini,” which is totally a thing.

When walking through a garden like Ranieri’s — one so coveted there’s a bunny rabbit literally lying in wait to storm the gates and get inside like a small child waits for Christmas morning — the question of, “What do you grow” eventually becomes, “Okay, Nick, so what don’t you grow here?”

Nick Ranieri harvests artichokes from his garden.

This is a man with nearly 20 lemon trees, so I finally had to know why he didn’t grow limes, especially considering the controversial shortage of the citrus in recent years and the fact that it was literally the first thing that came to mind that I hadn’t already seen in his garden that day in late May.
His answer to me was as Italian as the way he calls me, “Johnna,” and as endearing a “duh” it sliced right to the heart of this story: What makes the Italian’s garden so special? What’s their secret?

It’s the fact that we don’t know how they grow so well, but they do because they do it. And they do it because they’ve done it for decades and they’ve done it for decades because that’s just the way it is.
The only thing they’re clueless about is our cluelessness. How do we not know when to plant spinach or garlic? How don’t we eat fresh produce all winter long?

Ranieri knows how to farm every conceivable fruit and vegetable for the same reason Claudia Purita of One Woman Wines just knows how to grow ‘Old World’ wines — because for her, growing wine was simply part of growing up in Italy the same way young Nick Ranieri learned from following his father about the enormous farm on which he was raised near the Adriatic Sea in Southern Italy as a small child.

“What do I do with a lime,” he asked in response to my question as if I should know the answer. “If I want a lemon, I take a lemon that is not fully ripe yet and you get a lime. You use the skin, Johnna!

I hadn’t even gotten my head wrapped around the idea that I could — if so inclined — simply replace lime as a favorite flavor accent, before Ranieri was expounding on the problem of birds, which is a favorite pastime of the fruit farmer. Many folks adore creatures of winged persuasion for their beauty, grace and song, but farmers’ feelings about them tend to be, well, far more Hitchcock.

“The birds will leave you with nothing,” Ranieri said with lemon corpse in hand. “They have no mercy — the birds have no mercy — and if you’re not smart enough to protect your fruit, they take it all.”

His lemon grove spent the winter buddied up in the greenhouse beside both an olive and a baby tangerine tree, as well as all manner of veggies, herbs and spices, including a mature old bay plant.

Ranieri doesn’t yet know what kind of olives his tree will produce for its very first time this season as the former sapling is now in full bloom, but he’s as excited about tasting new fruit as he is to explain how he once picked myrtle branches as a child to jar alongside olives and how his myrtle plant traveled slowly across the country — from hotel windowsill to hotel windowsill — until it finally found home in his epic garden on Long Island’s East End.

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