Growing fruits and vegetables at home

Rocco Pacecca, left, points out growing peppers as his wife, Julia, pulls a weed in their garden on Mercer Island, Aug. 4. - Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter
Rocco Pacecca, left, points out growing peppers as his wife, Julia, pulls a weed in their garden on Mercer Island, Aug. 4.
— image credit: Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter

Many people think of vegetables and fruits as something that comes from the store, but for avid gardeners, the food that graces their tables comes from their own backyard or one of the many pea-patches that exist here on Mercer Island. Years of experience are not necessary to provide some of the easier things to grow, but for the ability to grow enough produce for a large family, it pays to consult an expert.

Tomatoes bursting with flavor; lettuce picked minutes ago, ready to be made into salads; fresh fava beans waiting to be dipped in salt and eaten raw — all grow in the lush garden of Julia and Rocco Pacecca, feeding not only themselves but lucky neighbors, family and friends. The Island couple’s beautifully laid out garden provides them with year ’round bounty, and they grow most of their own fruits and vegetables. “You gotta eat” is Rocco’s motto, “and the best is what you grow yourself!”

The Paceccas moved to the Island in 1968. By 1969 they had planted their first garden. The gentle slope is carefully terraced and the beds slightly raised, providing flat growing surfaces. At first they used large amounts of chicken manure to improve the soil, carefully tilling it in and letting it decompose before planting. “It is great fertilizer, but you have a hard time finding it anymore,” said Rocco. Now they garden mostly organically, growing potatoes, peas, corn, fava beans, tomatoes, lettuces, squashes (including creamy zucchini), onions and garlic as well as many other vegetables. They also raise most of their own herbs with large bushes of rosemary; flourishing bunches of basil; and their prized Bay tree.

After the garden was begun, they continued making their corner produce even more. Fruit trees were planted, many of them hand-grafted by Rocco to produce more than one variety on the same tree. Most of their apple and pear trees give them a choice, early ripening or late, sweet or tart, saving room but giving great variety in taste and extending the fresh season. They also have Italian plums and two kinds of figs joining the other fruit trees that ring their sunny garden, plus a strawberry patch and a row of raspberries. Careful hand-weeding and hand-watering showcase careful husbandry.

Flowers were not forgotten — rhododendrons, roses, iris, wall flowers, calla lilies, and other bulbs and perennials, as well as cut flowers, provide gentle fragrances for their table. Attractive pots are filled with annuals and strategically placed around the garden, adding beauty and color. Factor in an immaculate lawn, and you can truly appreciate the love that this dedicated couple puts into their land.

When asked how they preserve their bounty, the immediate answer was, “We dry it.” Indeed, pods and bunches can be seen hanging to dry or spread out under their covered patio where they enjoy outdoor dinners during the warmer months of summer. Most of the time, though, they walk through the garden to provide the fruits or vegetables of the day. Their many jars of dried food sustain them through the winter.

To experience some of the joy of fruits or vegetables you grow yourself, start with the sunniest part of your yard, improve the soil and add seeds. Or start with a large pot of good compost and soil placed in the sun. Nature will help you along. Watch the weeds and keep them under control, and water regularly as you watch your plants grow. Then, like the Paceccas, enjoy great meals from the rewards of your own garden.

Linda Stephens-Urbaniak can be reached at

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