Thursday, June 26, 2014

Gardens Near and Far: Comparing and Contrasting the Gardens of Tuscany and the Texas Gulf Coast.

"No two gardens are the same. No two days are the same in one garden." ~Hugh Johnson

I thought I knew everything there was to know about gardens until my eyes were opened up to a new world of possibilities in Italy. I was shocked at the variety of plants and herbs the first time I stepped foot in a Tuscan garden!

After touring through the local gardens of Castiglion Fiorentino, I observed that vegetable gardens in a typical Tuscan town are much more diverse in contrast with those of Texas. The primary reason for this difference is that the Italian climate is more temperate and ideal for a wider variety of crops. Texas soils (especially in College Station) are not the best, though they vary by region (because Texas is huge!). Additionally, Texas experiences extremes throughout the seasons. Summers are miserably hot and dry while there are unpredictable freezes or ice storms in the winter. 

Cherries from a tree in Italy

My home garden is in Richmond, Texas, located southwest of Houston near the Gulf Coast. My mother, a Texas Master Gardener, typically grows a spring/summer vegetable garden and sometimes a fall garden. On the Gulf Coast of Texas, the most common crops for a spring/summer vegetable garden include tomatoes, potatoes, cucumber, okra, green beans, various melons and peppers. Tomatoes, leaf lettuces, carrots, and onions are successful crops in a Texas Gulf Coast autumn garden. Almost all fruit trees can grow in Texas, including pear, peach, plum, and apple. However, on the Gulf Coast there are not many chill hours (hours below a certain degree when a plant stores up it's energy in order to produce a fruit), so only certain varieties are successful in Texas.

Typical residential garden in Italy

Tomatoes in my garden in Texas

In Texas, the size of a vegetable garden depends on the size of the lot and the amount of time the owner has. Ten by twelve feet is about average for a residential garden. Planting in raised beds, also called square foot gardening, can range from a four by four bed to larger. Raised beds allow the gardener to bring in soils and compost, rather than planting in the existing soil. This is done in areas of Texas where the soil contains too much clay. 

Artichokes bloom in Italy

In Tuscany, residential vegetable gardens are much larger and commonly include a large variety of crops such as tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, eggplants, cabbage, zucchini, artichokes, fennel, mushrooms, celery, asparagus, broccoli, spinach, cauliflower and lettuce. Fruits include berries, citrus fruits such as oranges, blood oranges, citrons and lemons, figs, pears, cherries, apples, and plums. Beans are also very popular, especially in Tuscany. Common legumes include chickpeas, green beans, and lentils.

Potatoes grow in feed sacks in my Texas garden
Peach tree in my yard in Texas

Attitudes among Texas gardeners regarding fertilizers have changed dramatically in the last several years. Compost, a natural option, is brought in to increase soil fertility. Local Texas stores such as Home Depot and Lowes now carry compost as many gardeners are becoming more informed about the fertilizers and soils that they use. I have gathered from my tours that the same is true of Italy. There is a progressive movement towards all-natural agriculture here. One farm that we visited went above and beyond the organic standards to ensure production of high quality produce, completely free of harmful chemicals and fertilizers. One practice, for example, is to leave weeds and bugs undisrupted in the vineyard. These types of organisms exist in nature for a reason and it is unnecessary to eliminate them with chemicals.

Example of progressive agricultural practices in Italy

Vineyards, both large and small, characterize the Italian countryside. It is not uncommon for homeowners in Italy to grow grapes in their home gardens. While wine is part of the lifestyle in Italy, we also enjoy wine in Texas! Grapes can also grow in Texas, and vineyards are rare but do exist.

Tomatoes in my garden in Texas

My time in class and spent touring through Italian gardens has changed my perspective on gardens throughout the globe. While I now realize that significant differences exist between Texan and Italian gardens, there are also fundamental similarities between the two. As the saying goes, some say tomāto, some say tomăto, Italians say pomodoro! (Too cheesy?)

Until next time, Ciao from Italia!


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