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Seaweed and Shells Help Gardens Grow

If you’ve ever sat at the traffic light at the intersection of Saugatuck and Riverside Avenues in Westport, heading into town, and admired the Brussels sprouts growing vigorously against a backdrop of delicate asparagus fronds, then you already know about Nick Mancini’s extraordinary garden. And, given that wonderful garden, it will be no surprise to learn its master is no ordinary man.

Nick Mancini left his native Italy when he was just 15 to emigrate to the United States with his father, stepmother and brothers. They settled in Middletown, Connecticut, where relatives worked in the thriving factories making fabrics. Nick later moved to Westport where he owned and ran a beauty salon for many years. Not the type to be happy in retirement, Nic has now embarked on a new career – teaching people how to grow their own food in their own backyards.

“I started gardening when I was seven years old,” he said, “the year my grandmother died. She raised me after my mother died. I was just four years old, but I still remember her. My grandmother was a character, over 6 feet tall, and told me she only grew what she could eat.” When she died, her husband, Nick’s grandfather, started growing flowers for his wife’s grave, and Nick was put in charge of watering the plants. Then he started helping with the vegetable garden. "Every family in my town grew its own vegetables," he said. Nick still has family in the Abruzzi region, near the town of L'Aquila, devastated not long ago by a terrible earthquake. "I haven't been back since the quake," he said. "The historical district that I loved so much is down, and I really don't want to see that."

Nick Mancini has had his own food garden everywhere he has lived. The garden in Westport isn’t large, but every inch is put to good use. The south-facing wall has a tall trellis for tomatoes and vines. The edge of the garden is bordered by espalier fruit trees with apples, apricots, pears and an Asian pear. “We had so much fruit from the trees this year,” said Nick. The berry patch has raspberry canes, blueberries and gooseberries. The fig tree is getting ready for the winter – now that it’s leaves have been shed, Nick will build a structure around it with two-by-fours and Styrofoam panels to protect it from our harsh winters. “I put in pipes at the top and at the bottom for ventilation for the tree,” he added.

Nick grows his vegetables in raised beds, and the trick to getting the three crops he harvests every season is in the soil. “I never change the soil,” he explained, “I just keep improving it by adding compost, dried crushed seaweed and pulverized crab and oyster shells.” He collects seaweed and shells from Compo Beach. The seaweed goes into his rain barrel where it soaks until the water is viscose and smells nice and "seaweed-y," then he uses this natural fertilizer to water his plants. He fishes out the seaweed and lays it out on his driveway to dry, then crushes it to use as a soil additive in the fall. “I smash the crab and oyster shells with a hammer and mix that in too,” he said.

Nick teaches his low cost, all organic approach to gardening at Norwalk Community College as well as in the Fairfield and Westport Continuing Education programs. He has also just started his own school, The Organic Gardening Workship , with a schedule of classes for beginners, intermediate and advanced gardeners to be held at 484 Riverside Avenue in Westport. He is also writing a book.

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