Mary Menniti's Italian Garden Project seeks to document and celebrate a horticultural tradition 

"These guys are so old-school they're cutting-edge."

Severio Strati's 300-by-30-foot garden boasts grids of peppers, garlic and eggplant, with 130 tomato plants. There's a grape arbor, peach trees and a few figs that survived winter. "I cover good. That's why I didn't lose them," he says.

For 60 years, the Hazelwood resident — who spent most of his working life in J&L Steel's warehouse division — has gardened beneath a power line, alongside what's now the huge empty site of the former LTV Coke Works. Strati, 84, grew up in Reggia-Calabria during World War II — when "if you don't grow something, you don't eat" — and came to the U.S. in 1954.

His story is part of The Italian Garden Project, launched five years ago by New Castle native Mary Menniti to document and celebrate a horticultural tradition. Menniti gardened with her immigrant grandfather. So far, in photos and videos, the former psychotherapist has documented two dozen gardeners in Pittsburgh (including Italian-American neighbors of hers in Sewickley), and more in Boston and New York City. Garden Project events, many at Pittsburgh Public Market, have included dinners, demonstrations and lectures.

Strati saves seeds, cans tomatoes, hand-weeds, fertilizes with horse manure and extends the growing season with successive plantings. "These guys are so old-school they're cutting-edge. They're living the lifestyle we're trying to get back to," says Menniti. "My urgency is to capture their knowledge before it's lost."

The Project's next event is June 26's FigFest, at Wigle Whiskey Garden. Learn more (and see videos) at www.theitaliangardenproject.com.



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