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Gardening

At 15, he’s grown into the ‘Tomato Man’

Alessandro Ferzoco has won first prize in the vegetable and herb garden category in a citywide growing contest (plaque below right) the past two years. The garden at his family’s Roslindale home has already produced a ton of tomatoes. Alessandro Ferzoco has won first prize in the vegetable and herb garden category in a citywide growing contest (plaque below right) the past two years. The garden at his family’s Roslindale home has already produced a ton of tomatoes. (Photos by Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Carol Stocker
Globe Correspondent / October 6, 2011

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How do you learn to grow your own food? Like many gardeners, Alessandro Ferzoco learned from his grandfather. Now 15, Alessandro has proven a remarkable student, winning first prize in the vegetable and herb garden category of Mayor Tom Menino’s very competitive citywide garden contest for two years in a row.

Now this Roxbury Latin School sophomore is passing on his knowledge to some of the younger students, teaching them to tend herbs, lettuces, Swiss chard, and greens in a new raised bed built and designed with the help of Lucas Robertson, an eco-friendly carpenter.

“The idea is to introduce the new seventh graders to the responsibility of maintaining it. I hope growing vegetables and herbs can be worked into the environmental science curriculum so they can earn some credits for doing this,’’ said Ferzoco. “It’s a big thing now to learn to be eco-friendly.’’

“We’re very excited to have the school garden come to life,’’ said Joan Regan, recently retired assistant to the headmaster, who helped launch the project. “Alessandro is also working with the school chef in choosing herbs and vegetables for the school salad bar. He’s a remarkable young man.’’

Meanwhile, young Ferzoco is still growing fall vegetables in his own award-winning 1,500-square-foot garden at his family’s Roslindale home on Metropolitan Avenue. It has already produced an amazing 2,000 pounds of tomatoes, most of which his mother Anne made into sauce and froze. The rest were given away to neighbors, friends, and family, who have nicknamed him “Tomato Man.’’

Though backyard vegetable gardening is undergoing a renaissance, it has been a no-nonsense way of putting food on the table for generations of Bostonians. A few generations ago, chickens and even goats were also found in many Boston backyards, including that of Alessandro’s grandparents. They had a lot of mouths to feed. (A sign on the front lawn of grandmother Eleanor Ferzoco’s house further up Metropolitan Avenue proudly lists the names of 17 children, including Alessandro’s dad, Jim, who gave her the sign as a Mother’s Day gift.)

Grandfather Anthony’s vegetable gardening was a mighty engine of productivity. Each year Eleanor preserved 400 jars of tomatoes, as well as escarole, beans, and Swiss chard to provision the family from October until June. Starting when he was 4 years old, Alessandro helped his grandfather and showed a keen enthusiasm for learning how to grow as many kinds of vegetables as possible.

Anthony taught little Alessandro growing techniques his own father, also named Alessandro Ferzoco, had brought over from the town of Corfinio in the Abruzzo region of central Italy in the 19th century. One of these traditional methods is training tomatoes to a single 6-foot-tall stalk each year, pruning off suckers. The tomatoes start to ripen at the bottom of the plant.

“As the older leaves die back, I prune the lower vegetation. This causes the fruit at the bottom of the plant to ripen faster,’’ Alessandro explained. After harvesting the bottom tomatoes in August, Alessandro strips the lower leaves and plants beans underneath while tomatoes continue to ripen on the top. The beans quickly grow up the tomatoes’ stalks and staking, producing a double crop in the same space.

Alessandro has four-year-old figs trees, which he moved into a shed when Hurricane Irene approached. Now they’re back out and he is harvesting the fruit, along with cabbage, broccoli, Swiss chard, lettuce, peppers, celery, and carrots, extending the garden season as long as possible.

When his grandfather died, Alessandro still had much to learn but was determined to carry on the family’s vegetable growing legacy. “I have to pick up where he left off,’’ he said, “and find the necessary information, such as growing techniques, care, and problem identification from research.’’

Carol Stocker can be reached at carolstocker@gmail.com.