SUDBURY, ONTARIO – This is a story about family, tradition and rituals, as well as some hefty vegetables, such as the 1.6 kg tomato Barbara Ingriselli has been doting on for months.

“Every morning I come and say good morning to the garden, fix it up, take out the weeds and water it,” the 73-year-old says as we meander along its overgrown footpaths. “It keeps me going. I work on it every day.”

Barbara and Steve Ingriselli live in a tidy home in the city’s west end, with a manicured front lawn and a kaleidoscope of flower gardens.

Around the corner their backyard resembles an open-air greenhouse, but there was no garden when they moved in – just mud and rocks Ingriselli says. Now it encompasses the entire 40×40-foot space, save for a small shed that houses wine-making equipment, a deck and a small patio where the couple sorts freshly picked blueberries.

There are rain barrels tucked into every corner and the footpaths are lined with herbs, including oregano. Fresh and strong, it smells like a simmering pot of pasta sauce.

The crop list includes tomatoes, eggplant, beans, cucumbers, carrots, peas, zucchini, garlic, escarole, peppers, chillies, pimento, onions, grapes, celery, endives and radicchio.

“A garden is important – it’s fresh stuff,” Ingriselli says. “There’s nothing like it, you know. We don’t use any fertilizer. Every time I’m in the garden, I can pick tomatoes to eat while standing here. It’s freedom.”

As we tour, Ingriselli shares her sage advice, honed after decades of living in close proximity to such fertile soil. She is beaming and giggles occasionally while pointing out an especially rotund gourd or melon. I suspect there is more to an orto (the Italian word for vegetable garden) than produce and soil. This is passion peppered with practicality.

A 2009 article published in Hobby Farms magazine contends that Italian gardens are built on generations of tradition, with most opting to grow the same crops as their grandparents. The author explains that gardens are not mere pastimes for most Italians; rather, they are the means by which the family chef ensures a steady flow of high-quality food at the dinner table.

A family tradition so deep it seems to be part of the DNA, life without a vegetable garden would be unthinkable for many immigrants.

An Italian in Canada

Steve Ingriselli, who turns 79 in October, arrived in Canada on Sept. 16, 1952. He returned to Italy for a visit in 1958 and met his beloved future wife, Barbara. In November, they will be married for 55 years. They moved into their current home in 1975 and immediately set to work in the backyard, transforming the mud puddle into a five-star agricultural haven.

Approximately 20,000 Greater Sudburians have an Italian background. It is the third largest ethnic group in the city – behind only English and French – and nearly 2% of people (according to the 2011 census) name Italian as their mother tongue.

Maria Mastroianni, 38, is a relative neophyte in her backyard garden, but her father, Guiseppe Cimino, who emigrated from the Calabria region, had an ace green thumb. Three years ago he boxed off a plot of land and established a garden for her family, which includes her husband and two sons.

“It’s a tradition that’s been carried on since they were back in Italy – they worked on the land,” Mastroianni explains. “It was their livelihood. My in-laws in Italy still live off the land. There’s also the enjoyment of growing your own vegetables.”

Cimino passed away in February, leaving his daughter in charge. A busy working mother, she wavered back-and-forth on whether to continue the tradition.

“I figured I would just keep it as a memory,” Mastroianni says. “It’s a good memory of him. He spent a lot of time and money on the soil and all that stuff.”

As the primary caregiver for her pumpkin-speckled plot, Mastroianni has tried to keep the standard set by Cimino, but admits her success rate has been variable. Her learning curve has been steep.

“I think he would have handled the bug situation a little bit better,” she laughs. “I don’t use any pesticides, so it’s all elbow grease.”

While Cimino was still healthy, he harvested and tidied the garden routinely. Mastroianni helped out when a sense of duty nagged at her.

“I find peace coming back out here now and staying out here for a couple of hours,” she says. “It’s different now that I’m doing it. I want to make him happy and I want to prove that I can do it.”

While neither of her two brothers has taken to agriculture, Mastroianni’s mother has stepped in as mentor.

“It’s something we can do together and it makes her feel purposeful to help me carry on my dad’s memory,” she says.

Last year Cimino dropped a radicchio seed on the lawn near the garden. It grows there still, an aubergine-coloured spout nestled snuggly in the grass.

“You’re looking for signs that he’s still around and watching over you,” says Cindy Peacock-Rocca, a friend of Mastroianni’s whose parents were also born in Calabria.

The Rocca family garden (Peacock is her husband’s surname) sits behind a high fence along one of Sudbury’s busy highways. There are at least 15 crop varieties on a plot of land about 1/3 the size of a football field. It is an opulent menagerie of freshness.

“My dad still ran his businesses, but maintained this garden every single day,” Peacock-Rocca says. “He did all this with my grandmother and half the stuff they gave away – they did this just to give it away.”

Her father built his garden for his children – a labour of love, tradition and ritual. It also means Peacock-Rocca’s mother can feed a group of 10 at a moment’s notice.

Labour was divided equally and spanned three generations. Her father used to quip that if she wanted to eat the food, she had to help. Peacock-Rocca lost her father and grandmother in 2013. She, her brothers, her mother and her three aunts have taken over care of the garden.

Five seasons

There are five seasons for Italian gardeners – harvest; sauce; wine; sausage; and seedlings – and Peacock-Rocca’s father imported his skills.

“There are specific ways of doing things; they lived in a remote area and needed this to survive,” Peacock-Rocca says emphatically. “In Canada, even though we can go to farmers’ markets and grocery stores, they’d rather grow their own, put in the labour and watch the seed grow into a large plant. It’s a cycle – everything in here is on a cycle. You’re always preparing for the next season.”

Peacock-Rocca and her crew of nine spent a recent weekend assembling 150 large mason jars full of tomato sauce. A yearly ritual, it involves hours of peeling, pressing and cooking, as well as camaraderie and hotly-anticipated feasting once the last jar has been plucked from the boiling water. She estimates those jars will feed her and her husband, her brothers and their families, and her mother for a year. She also notes that she saves hundreds on her grocery bill.

The sauce recipe is never revealed, but her aunt recently opened up the vault.

“She told me she thinks of me like a daughter,” Peacock-Rocca says, adding quickly that she has been sworn to secrecy.

Mastroianni’s mother has not been as candid. The recipe spans oceans and the younger woman has never been able to crack the code.

“She tends to take over with no recipe – we have no idea what she’s putting in there,” she says. “Now’s the time – my mom is getting older – I need to buckle down if I want to carry on this tradition. Or am I going to buy tomato sauce in a can? We never grew up on that and my kids don’t know what it tastes like.”

Mastroianni even took vacation days to help make sauce.

“It’s very important,” she says. “As much as I stress about the work involved, I think it’s important to continue the tradition. It’s something I hope I’ll be able to do on my own.”

The next generation

As I suspected at the Ingriselli’s home, an orto is more – infinitely more – than soil and seeds.

“Everybody has a job,” Peacock-Rocca says. “It’s not really about gardens. They bring everybody together. We drop everything to make the garden work, because that’s what you do for family. When my mom left for Italy, she got the garden in order so that nothing goes to waste.”

Peacock-Rocca’s grandmother used lunar cues to ensure a healthy harvest. She planted seedlings on the first full moon in March, lining every nook, sill and shelf in her home with diminutive containers housing sprouting seeds – a web of generations of memories.

Like Mastroianni, Peacock-Rocca is slowly taking the helm and plans to start growing her own tomato plants.

“You don’t want to lose those skills; you want to take those traditions and keep passing them on (to the next generation). I think it’s important to keep that,” she says. “We’re already starting to lose a few things, like a little bit of the language. Over the past few years, my brothers and I have started learning how to do things, like the tomatoes. This year my mom is trusting us to make the wine, so we’ll see how that goes.”

Despite the time and effort, she would have it no other way.

“It’s family-oriented and gets you through the winter,” she muses. “It’s Hell and love, all at the same time. It’s your baby – that’s what it is – and you nurture it. And then you put it to bed in the winter.”

But the relationship continues.

“I could talk about it forever,” Peacock-Rocca adds.

Published in The Sudbury Star on Sept. 13, 2014