She may be 81 years old — with a good excuse for sitting around and not doing much — but Gina di Nino never stops working, and even makes her own pasta by hand from semolina flour. "I have arthritis, and every morning I get up with pains," she confides. "But I go into my garden, start working and forget what's hurting. Later on, I pay the price by feeling more pain. But it's still worth it!"
Di Nino is from the Abruzzo region of central Italy. She married an Italian-American GI she met there during World War II and moved with him to the San Fernando Valley in 1947.
An exclamation of "Aha!" escapes from your lips the moment you step into her backyard. This may be Canoga Park, but you could just as easily be in a kitchen garden in Abruzzo with its Roma tomatoes, zucchini, and rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), an herb that grows wild along the Adriatic coast.
In di Nino's garden, there seem to be poles everywhere for the benefit of her squashes, tomatoes, string beans and cantaloupes, which are just as happy to climb skyward as to trail along the ground.
Cantaloupes? At a height of 6 feet, I see a large cantaloupe ripening. It is not surprising that cantaloupes should be prominently displayed in an Italian garden. Their seeds were first brought to Europe from Armenia nearly 300 years ago and were planted in a villa outside Rome by the name of Cantalupo, from which the name of the fruit is derived. It makes sense that someone with arthritis would have most of her produce growing up in the air, where the burden of bending down is eliminated.
When it comes to strawberries, contact with the ground quickly contaminates the fruit, and di Nino has solved this problem by growing dozens of strawberry plants in containers.
IT'S ALWAYS FOUR O'CLOCK: Denise Hill, who lives in Santa Clarita, has a patio garden so full of plants that you need a guided tour in order not to miss any one of them. I was pleased to discover a scented four o'clock (Mirabilis jalapa) variety with white flowers. Four o'clocks are heavy-blooming perennials that do not stop flowering from spring until fall. They grow from tubers and do not require pruning, since they are cut down to the ground after blooming subsides. It is wise to grow them in containers, since in the garden, they may become invasive. The four o'clocks' flared, tubular flowers are usually encountered in magenta, yellow or peach, with bicolor types occasionally seen.
Hill takes special pride in her collection of Japanese maples. I was surprised by the new flushes of growth her trees were showing in late August since, in our climate, Japanese maple foliage tends to start crisping around the edges in early summer. It must be that her plants are getting the precise combination of sun and shade they require. Japanese maples are often overly protected with too much shade, which makes it impossible for them to put out new growth once their first batch of leaves is burnt in June or July.