Plant (and tools) That Matter
Ernest Pomatto is standing near the doorway of Penn Hills Lawn and Garden wearing a yellow T-shirt emblazoned with “Life
is nothing without garlic.” With both hands he’s holding something covered with crinkled newspaper.
“I want to show you this tool my father brought from Italy in 1903,” he says with a smile. He gently unwraps the paper to reveal a formidable blade that actually looks more like a short cavalry sword than something for the garden. Pomatto was there to attend a seminar about growing garlic but knew I would love to see the heirloom garden tool. Even though this series is called Plants That Matter, tools count, too.
Three weeks later, we’re sitting together with his wife, Joan, in the kitchen of their Apollo home talking about the family heirloom. When he originally told her he was bringing the sharp tool to the event, she was mortified.
“You’re not taking that to a seminar,” she told him. He figured it wouldn’t be a problem, though, when wrapped in paper.
Pomatto watched his father use it in the garden, cutting down corn stalks and other garden debris. Over the years it was passed down from sibling to sibling; he took ownership a year ago.
“I’m the last one to have this. I had six brothers and they’re all gone,” he says. “I don’t know who to pass it on to.”
He hopes his son-in-law will be interested, as he gardens and has a passion for collecting things. Pomatto, 86, has fond childhood memories of watching his father, Giacomo (James), with the tool.
“He would just sit there on his stool and sharpen that thing up,” Pomatto says. “Then he’d go out there, whack a corn stalk and say, ‘It’s ready to go.’ ”
Pomatto uses the same technique his father did to keep the blade in good shape. He slowly runs a sharpening stone over the business end of the steel until it’s ready for the garden. This season, he used it to harvest the stalks of popcorn.
The steel is stamped with the maker’s name, G. Bonetto, and also the region it was made, Rivarolo. Giacomo came from Torino, Italy, which is in the same region. Remarkably, it still has its original handle.
“It must have been a real special tool to his father to bring that,” Joan says of carrying it on the long ocean voyage to the United States. “It’s not just a tool, it’s a part of the family, it’s something his father handled.”
Looking down at the cutting tool, Pomatto reflects on why it means so much to him. “The love of my father, my brothers and the tool,” he says.
A lost friend
After reading the last installment of Plants That Matter, Nancy Martin of West View was inspired to write about a special childhood friend.
“My outdoor home was where I hung my heart, especially in my maple tree,” she wrote in a moving email.
We sat together at the Pennsylvania Resources Council’s offices on the South Side where she works as an environmental educator to talk about the tree. For as long as she can remember, the tree was like another family member to her. There’s a photo of her in a crib as a baby under the shade of the tree.
“I think I always knew that tree was special,” she says. It was the place for her swing set, and her father put up a bushel basket as a makeshift basketball hoop. She spent countless hours on a tire swing that hung from one of the thick branches. Years later, her children played on another swing set in the same spot.
“I loved that tree with all my heart,” she wrote in the email. Thinking about the maple, she remembers there was only one way to actually get up into the canopy. “By locking fingers around a branch, walking up the trunk, winging your leg over and pulling yourself up to this branch — you could just reach it,” she says with a laugh.
Then in 1980, she returned to West View from living in Washington to shocking news.
“My heart was broken beyond repair when my mother boldly announced at the dinner table that she had had the tree cut down,” she wrote. “It was akin to hearing that a dear friend had been killed, our relationship cut short.”
She still wonders why her mother would remove the tree. “She just didn’t get it,” Martin says.
All these years later, she is still mourning her beloved tree. “I was in shock and still carry that sadness with me. I think of her often. Forever in love with my maple and so grateful to have known her. After all, I hung my heart in her sweet branches.”
Jerry Andres, 56, of Findlay takes his well-known shortcut through the forest of the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden where he volunteers. He spends countless hours here, has a love of the outdoors and nature in general. Andres was even secretly filling the bird feeders here well before the garden officially opened.
He arrives at a group of oak trees, each one surrounded by deer netting. One is 8 feet tall; the others vary in size. Andres moved the trees here from his boyhood home in Venango County. His father, Henry, died at 94 and Andres wanted a way to remember the time they spent together in the forest.
“The last day I could be in the property, I dug up some hemlock trees and some oak trees from his woods,” he says.
Andres needed a permanent home for a little piece of his dad to grow. He thought about planting them at his own home but wondered what would happen to them decades down the road.
“Just knowing that properties get sold, people are prone to remove trees and shrubs,” he says. “I wanted them to be in a place where they would be protected, where future generations of our family could come and visit trees that came from some old property we once owned.”
They’ve been in the garden for a few years, but have been moved three times to find just the right spot. This is their final planting along a trail in the Children’s Garden.
When he offered past President Greg Nace a donation of the oaks to the garden, he was more than willing to oblige.
“This happened to be the place because I love the organization,” he said. It just kind of took me back to walks in the woods with my dad.”
Standing in the shadow of the family oaks, Andres talks of time together with his father in their forest.
“It was just a pure enjoyment of the trees,” he says. “What I clearly remember is after school, especially in the winter, time with him in the woods. I don’t even remember what we talked about, but it was just being with him.”
When the snow falls now at the garden, Andres visits the trees with his memories.
“It’s special to me because my dad’s property is 100 miles away, and these were saplings when my dad was still alive.”
Doug Oster is the Tribune-Review home and garden editor. Reach him at 412-965-3278 or email@example.com. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at www.everybodygardens.com, including Nancy Martin’s own words about her maple tree. That’s also a place to post your favorite stories from your own garden.
Oster has a special blog post this week about time spent with Ernest and Joan Pomatto and the “Italian Breakfast” they served him.