Portuguese immigrant grows a Garden of Eden in a Pinellas Park industrial area

PINELLAS PARK — Serafim Da Conceicao, a serious man for serious times, talks to his tomato plants. Tomato plants are temperamental. The slightest thing — too much sun, too little sun, too dry, too wet, nematodes in the soil, aphids on the leaves — throws them off. Tomato plants, the prima donnas in any Florida garden, pitch a tantrum and wilt. He rises at dawn, drinks his coffee, shakes his head at the bad news in the paper. Then he tends his tomatoes, his cabbages, his kale, his turnips, his grove of fruit trees. As the early-morning traffic rushes past — his home lies in the middle of an industrial neighborhood — he closes in on the tomatoes. "Hello, my friends. Grow and be healthy. Listen to me, and I will give you a little more fertilizer.'' He ascends a ladder and stretches a tape measure. His best tomato plant, tied to a fence, is now 102 inches tall. "If we can avoid a freeze, I think we will get him up to 10 feet,'' he says. Food and shelter are the basics that most of us take for granted. Born in Portugal 73 winters ago, during another difficult time in world history, he learned that life is a struggle, but that if you work hard in America, hang on to your money, waste nothing and grow things, you will survive. Serafim Da Conceicao, a serious man for serious times, will not miss a meal during this economy.

Like so many immigrants, he is grateful to be here. He has a small garden of dirt beneath his nails but it belongs to him. He ambles through the yard, pointing and chatting in broken English, introducing his trees and plants as if they were his family.

"Here is my kale. Here are my turnips. Have you ever seen cabbages like this? Look at this cabbage.''

Out comes the tape measure. The cabbage head is about 20 inches in diameter. He will saute the cabbage in vinegar and oil. He will make cabbage stew and cabbage soup.

He waters. He weeds. He babies the soil. He adds a little pesticide now and again and fertilizes with fresh manure from his chickens and rabbits. He and Arminda — they have been married four decades — eat fresh eggs and fresh chicken, fried rabbit and rabbit stew.

They live in Eden. Technically, their homestead lies in an industrial section of Pinellas Park, behind a pawn shop. It is across a dirt road from a weed-strewn field once home to a mobile home court, near one of the busiest roads in the most urban county in Florida, Pinellas. The world out there is rough and will no doubt get rougher during these hard times. But they live in Eden.

He ambles among his 100 trees, oranges and grapefruit mostly, but also avocado, mango and papaya, olive and fig. He has sugar apples from the tropics, lychee, plums, peaches. By spring, his vines will be loaded with grapes.

He wonders why so few Americans grow their own food. What is the problem? Time? Inclination? Fear of sweat? Many Americans, he has noticed, pay others to care for their yards.

His is immaculately groomed. Every blade of grass knows its place. The roses perfume the air, the grotto to the Virgin Mary is weeded and painted, waiting for Arminda's rosary and bent knee. The house, her province, smells of mothballs and is as immaculately kept as her husband's yard. Every photograph, every statue and every prayer card with the Savior's likeness knows where it belongs in the world.

Canned tomatoes — tomatoes they put up last fall — wait on the kitchen counter for tonight's supper, a codfish stew.

America!

• • •

He grew up in a village that lacked electricity and running water. The world was reeling from the Depression. The world was at war. His older relatives all had green thumbs. He was sad to leave, but a young man had a hard time rising above his station in life. In America, a young man who worked could live his dreams.

In Massachusetts, he was a commercial fisherman, a carpenter, a cabbie and a gardener. In 1990, a friend from New Bedford relocated to Florida and telephoned. "You'll like the climate,'' he advised. "It's good for growing things.''

Serafim Da Conceicao moved south. He found the old dilapidated house and fixed the floor and the plumbing and the electrical system. He planted trees and established the chickens and the rabbits. He fed and clothed his three children.

He acquired his first chihuahua and now owns five, Taco, Chiquita, Nigi, Lita and Netoball. They are good company when he is in the yard talking to the plants. He can't watch those tomato plants — he has 74 this year — by himself.

• • •

His family and friends will eat well this spring. He and Arminda will peel and cook their vegetables and preserve them in glass jars. Their bounty will last through summer and fall until the next garden is ready.

The rest they will give away.

For years, he gave them to neighbors in the mobile home village. Now the mobile home village is gone. Later this spring, after harvest, he will stack produce on the side of the fence next to the pawn shop. America has been good to him and he likes to give something back to Americans who have been less lucky.

Sometimes they approach his fence, look in through the mesh and watch. He can understand some of what they say, but even after four decades, speaking the English language challenges him. So he mostly nods, waves, gets back to work and, late in the day, says good night to the garden.

He and Arminda eat a quiet meal. He watches the television news about the rich men who have stolen from other rich men and gotten the world into economic trouble. That is the extent of his interest in television.

When the sun goes down, he goes to bed and dreams of the work he must do tomorrow to feed his family and his neighbors, in America.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at klink@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8727.

Portuguese immigrant grows a Garden of Eden in a Pinellas Park industrial area 02/13/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 13, 2009 3:30am]

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