I have been thinking a lot about Italy lately. The reason is because I started conversing with an Italian I met in an international homesteading forum. He was raised in California and has been living between the US and Italy for most of his life. He is in the process of planting himself in Italy permanently, between Rome and Naples. I couldn’t help but be envious. I am admittedly the world’s worst cherry picker and those are all wonderful places in my opinion for many reasons. Years ago when I worked in an office, I came across a skirt with cherries on it while shopping for clothes. I simply had to have it, because it summed me up perfectly.
I don’t wear that skirt anymore now that I am a gardener but even now, if I had to pick fruit for a living, cherries would suit me to the ground.
While New Zealand is a very long way from Italy, I have been able to bring Italy to the garden for over a decade by growing veggies and herbs in the famous Franchi Seeds range, which are made available here thanks to the New Zealand importer and distributor Italian Seeds Pronto, which is owned by the lovely Gillian Hurley-Gordon. Franchi Sementi dates back to 1783. All of the seeds in the Franchi range are heirloom, which means that you can save seeds from your plants and be assured that they will come true to type. Just be careful as cross-pollination can sometimes occur. There are ways around this such as planting different varieties far away from each other if space permits, or sticking to just one variety per family if space is tight.
In true cherry picking style, I have selected my favourite varieties which I have grown over the years to share with readers.
I always grow brassicas in our garden during winter. While they take a long time to mature, they are not difficult to grow. I highly recommend Cauliflower Macerata, Cauliflower Romanesco and Broccoli Calabrese.
I highly recommend the Black Tuscan Kale Cavolo Nero. It has a wonderful flavour.
Towards spring when the plants have grown a lot, we harvest large leaves which are perfect for making kale chips.
Lettuce is one of my favourite veggies to grow as the taste is so much fresher and succulent than what you would find at the supermarket. Italian Seeds Pronto stock a very wide range and I have enjoyed growing quite a few different varieties over the years. For a peppery flavour, you can’t beat the Rocket Coltivata.
I came across Lamb’s Lettuce, which was something I hadn’t heard of until I saw it in Italian Seeds Pronto’s range. My favourite variety is called Verte de Cambrai.
Mesclun is really good to have in the garden as it contains lots of different varieties and the leaves can be harvested as you need them. I have grown both Misticanza di Lattughe and Misticanza Quattro Stagioni, which each contain 14 different lettuce varieties.
For a great lettuce variety which can be harvested whole or picked as required as a cut-and-come again, you can’t go past Degli Ortolani, which I have grown successfully season after season. It performs well planted both in the ground (ideal if you want it to form a head and harvest it whole) and containers.
There are two fantastic spinach varieties in Italian Seeds Pronto’s range, Merlo Nero and Matador. Both perform very well in spring in our Auckland garden.
I highly recommend the three zucchini varieties Romanesco, Fiorentino (which wasn’t available last year) and Striato d’Italia. They are prolific, have great flavour and the large flowers are perfect for stuffing. Not all zucchinis produce blooms that are ideal for stuffing. The flowers on my other varieties were small by comparison. Last year, Gillian kindly gave me a round variety called Tondo Chiaro di Nizza, which I had never grown before. It performed incredibly well, despite the floods and cyclones in Auckland. They can be stuffed, baked or steamed.
Italian Seeds Pronto offers a wonderful range of tomatoes that are meaty and full of flavour.
Every summer, I look forward to growing Prosperosa (a round deep purple variety) and Violetta Lunga (a long deep purple variety). I always grow my eggplants in containers as space is tight and I leave the ground for growing root crops as well as veggies that sprawl, such as pumpkins and melons.
I highly recommend the variety Marina di Chioggia. Don’t be put off by the warts on the exterior! Personally, I find them charming and they help the pumpkin to store longer. This variety also has a great flavour. One of my favourite ways to consume pumpkin is in cannelloni made with fresh spinach (ideally Matador and Merlo Nero, which are covered above).
Basil is a staple in our summer garden. I always grow it in containers to save ground space for other crops and for ease of harvesting. For pesto, the perfect variety is Italiano Classico which has deep green glossy leaves.
For something different, I have also grown the lettuce leaf basil variety Foglie di Lattughe. This variety is ideal for wrapping balls of mozzarella.
Italian Seeds Pronto stock the Italian flat leaf parsley variety Gigante di Napoli, which has a fantastic flavour.
The thyme Timo di Provenza is hands down the best variety I have ever come across. It has so much more flavour compared to common thyme. It did very well in 9 litre household buckets with holes poked in the bottom for drainage.
We always use fresh oregano in homemade pasta sauce. The oregano in Italian Seeds Pronto’s range has a wonderful flavour.