Life Lessons from a Mediterranean Home Garden In The Bronx
When building a home garden, start with what you know. Grow what you eat, grow regionally, a quick google search helps and according to Albana Zefi, “if you don’t have sun, don’t even try it.”
Albana is a Bronx mother of two, Albanian immigrant who lives with her husband and kids off Pelham Parkway in the North Bronx. Her garden is not extraordinary in size, nor is her story particularly unique. But, what makes Albana’s garden special is the love she has for its bounty and tradition.
“Four or five years ago no one was interested in food,” she says, talking about nutritious farm fresh foods. Economic and cultural factors in a fast-paced city have typically made mystery meat hot dogs more accessible than healthier veggie-filled alternatives. Back in Albania, the farms surround the city, and farmers travel daily into the market. “I would go there every day, buy everything I want and bring it home fresh,” she says, “Where can I find this? Here? Not really.”
Here in the Bronx, Albana decided to take action when her family bought a house with a perfect 15 x 20 feet plot of land in the back. “I enjoy it so much,” she shares. Her garden is entirely organic. “I never put pesticides,” she says. Instead, Albana sprays her plants with a solution of neem oil, organic soap, and water.” She experiments and plants different varieties that her family eats every day, inspired by Mediterranean cuisine.
Vines overflow with heirloom tomatoes, like the big and meaty Cow’s Heart, a common variety. Low bushes hide small lean eggplants behind giant leaves. Varieties of red, yellow and green peppers are sprinkled throughout. For the first time this season, she planted okra, not knowing her seedlings would grow over eight feet tall!
The fragrant herb garden is a frequent stop for the neighborhood butterflies. Sage, rosemary, and more medicinal lavender and Saint John’s Wort - which she transplanted from a patch on the side of the road - all work together to produce a more bountiful harvest. “If the bees and butterflies don’t come you don’t get fruits and veggies,” Albana informs. “They have to come.”
Sometimes, her crops don’t grow as planned. For instance, last spring she planted pumpkin seeds and all she could harvest were the blossoms, no fruit. However, nothing is a failure. The garden is a place of personal growth.
“I love it,” she repeats, almost daydreaming. Albana says if she had more land, she would definitely grow more produce. Maybe even sell in a farmer’s market. But for now she and her husband are strategizing their winter crops. “We are planning to put some leeks. They are healthy and you can do a lot of things with them.” But, she admits, she still has a lot to learn. “We did not know you have to plant cabbages a little bit early [in the season] …so maybe we’ll do it next year.”
Albana’s approach to gardening is as organic as her crops. Shaded by the giant okra stalks, she shares a simple lesson she wants others to learn, “whatever very small piece you have, you can put something on it and you can enjoy it.”