As far as he knows, John Pincelli’s ancestors have planted a vegetable garden every Good Friday, traceable to about the time Michelangelo was commissioned to paint the Sistine Chapel. This weaves a tight family bond for John and his family to the Pincellis of Italy past. Every Good Friday before Easter, John’s historically Catholic family plants a garden. And it is not just John who participates in this. Everyone in his extended family — and you can imagine the size of it, with his 11 aunts and uncles — sows seeds annually, rain or shine, in sickness and in health. In fact, John says, one year he was just a couple of weeks out of a major surgery when his wife Ann looked out of the window into the backyard to find him in the garden, tilling the ground. “It’s kind of like a multi-century chain-letter,” smiles John, “and I’m certainly not going to be the one to break it.”
While the planting tradition is rooted in practicality, there is a spiritual aspect for the Pincellis as well, sort of a spiritual mirror of the gardener’s experience. “What goes in the ground on Good Friday comes up,” John says, as he explains that Easter is the most-celebrated holiday in the Roman Catholic tradition. It is more than just gardening to the Pincelli family; it is more like a tangible way of staying in touch with their history, family and faith. John says that Good Friday is an excellent time for reflection from a faith perspective. “When you are out there in the plot, you are not at work, you are not at a football game, you are not in a hurry. What you are is at peace. You are just there.”
A measuring cup and wooden cutting board given to John Pincelli by his mother are cherished heirlooms, in addition to family recipes he keeps in a binder.
The Good Friday Pincelli practice is a part of John’s fabric, passed down now to his children who are happy to continue to form a tapestry of tradition. His daughter, Sara, says, “It is really important to me, because it is something my Dad likes to do, and we can do it together.”
On the practical side of things, John shares some of his centuries of gardening knowledge. This includes tips from Aunt Rose. As both an aunt and gardening mentor, she developed many tried-and-true ways to make a garden successful, before the days of Miracle-Gro. In fact, John says that it’s all they had, speaking of the fact that Rose and others of her time depended on a fruitful harvest, as they did not have supermarkets on every corner like today.
One piece of advice from Aunt Rose is re-purposing ashes from the fireplace. Spreading ashes at the base of tomato plants results in a more vibrant red fruit. Aunt Rose also purported the use of fish heads as a fertilizer. So, once a year, the Pincellis visit their favorite local seafood shop and gather leftover fish parts for the garden. Then, after the harvest, John and his family share the bounty with their friends back at the fish market.
Another important tip from Aunt Rose regards a moisture-barrier layer, which allows John to water on rare occasions. Yes, you heard that right. When asked, John will tell you, “God does all the watering we really need.” The trick is to prepare the soil before planting so that the moisture escapes less readily during the hot months.
To create a moisture-barrier for your seedlings, first till the ground. Then place a layer of old newspapers over the tilled soil. Take grass clippings (no pine straw) and make a final layer, then with a shovel or a knife, cut small holes into the paper layer. Place the seeds into the holes, directly into the tilled dirt, and let the rain come when it will.
John has always included his two children in the whole process. “There is nothing better than observing a young child watch a seed sprout out of the ground.” He encourages families to allow each child to pick a special thing to plant, which can be different every year. His daughter, Sara, and son, Luke, still do just that, even at 21 and 18 years old. Sara’s favorites include all types and sizes of Zinnias, and she prefers mixing the seeds in a small container before spreading, creating a more colorful display. Luke’s favorites are blue flowers, like ornamental Salvia, and anything big, like pumpkins.
Sara continues to be passionate about the Good Friday tradition, as well as simply spending time with her family doing things together. She says, “The Good Friday planting custom is something to count on, look forward to and to look back on. We think about it all year, about what we will plant.” Sara attributes family activities, like these, to being what glues her family together.
Luke, Ann, Sara and John Pincelli
The Pincellis are a close family, in part because of their traditions and what they participate in together, outside of watching television, sitting at the computer and running from activity to activity. The Sunday dinners that they cook together and the family Jeopardy nights are things they can regularly do together, but the Annual Pincelli Good Friday planting tradition is something to anticipate. Perhaps a family that works and plays and plants together is a family with such strong roots, it cannot help but to stay grounded in one place together.
John Pincelli offers a generous list of tips for Midlands residents who want to improve their gardening game:
• Don’t use pesticides or fertilizers.
• Water only infrequently.
• Treat gardening as a mini-job, spending just 30 to 60 minutes per day at it to keep it enjoyable. Go out after dinner, when the day is cooler, and let taking care of the garden be a relaxing experience.
• Plant multi-colored peppers — they are tasty and sweet, but also expensive to buy, so this will save money.
• Plant marigolds around the edge of the garden. They smell bad and keep bugs away.
• Practice simple composting. John has a pile in the yard where he puts eggshells, banana peels and the like. He lets it decompose and then spreads it over the garden.
• Plant big things, like trees, between Halloween and Valentine’s Day. This will give them the opportunity to grow deep roots before summer, and they will have a better chance when the weather gets famously hot.
• Find gardening resources you trust. John recommends Southern Living Gardening Series and the Columbia Garden Club. “But don’t be afraid to just ask someone who appears more experienced,” he adds, “I have asked hundreds of questions over the years, just while standing in line or shopping at the garden center.”
Pincelli Planting Calendar
January: prune grapevines
February: on Valentine’s Day, trim roses and Crepe Myrtle
March: trim green bushes
April: prepare ground; sow seeds on Good Friday
May: watch and maintain
June: continue watching and maintaining; the first fruit usually emerges by the end of June
July through November: harvest time; can harvest as late as Thanksgiving, weather-dependent