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Diamantino Sforza - Gentleman Farmer of Prince George's County
by Elizabeth M. Jarrell
Greenbelt MD (SPX) Mar 02, 2015

Diamantino Sforza. Image courtesy NASA/W. Hrybyk.

Diamantino Sforza is a gentleman farmer in the Italian tradition, competing with his 85-year-old father for the first tomato, the first cucumber and the first pepper of the season. His father's family had great prominence during the Italian Renaissance, he said.

They were known as the Sforza Court in Milano, he said, and they were generous patrons of Leonard da Vinci, as well as the originators of the illuminated book "Sforza Hours," a classic piece studied in art history classes to this day. But for Diamantino Sforza, it's all about gardening.

"I guess the Italians have always been big gardeners," said Sforza. "My father grows food more as a celebration. Whoever gets the first tomato wins bragging rights."

Sforza, who is a mechanical engineer and deputy program manager with Bastion Technologies at Goddard, cultivates a 15-by-75-foot garden in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. He finds the gentle rhythms of gardening a relaxing counterpoint to the demands of his job.

He plants onions and garlic in the fall. Around mid-April after the threat of frost is gone, he plants tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, cucumber, lettuce and spices such as basil, rosemary and thyme.

He focuses on the tomatoes, a mainstay in Italian cuisine. He selects six or seven strains, including heritage varieties.

"Those big, ugly, purple tomatoes are like honey pots, they're just so sweet and thinner-skinned," said Sforza. "Tomatoes are the grapes of vegetables in that there are so many different flavors and they seem to pick up properties of the soil."

He also plants 10 to 12 hybrid peppers, both sweet and hot and in different colors. He adds garden-variety hybrid zucchini and cucumber, about two plants each because they get so big. He then puts in three rows of different varieties of lettuce. He also grows general table spices including six varieties of basil and one bush each of thyme and rosemary.

The harvest begins in late May with the zucchini closely followed by the lettuce and cucumber. Spices come up in late May as well. Tomatoes are ripe from July through September. The peppers arrive in late July.

Sforza waters as needed depending on the rainfall. One of his tricks to conserving water is spreading a layer of straw around the entire garden which keeps the weeds down, conserves the rain and causes the water to percolate down and not puddle and adds nutritional value.

Another of his gardening tricks are his international heritage chickens, which he got in 2013 after a year of preparation. He has two French DeBresses, three German Beilifelders, two English Orpingtons and one black Jersey Giant.

"The only one I named was the German rooster, Otto," Sforza said. "He has the most personality and he is a big, beautiful rooster. He's stoic."

"The chickens are part of it because in their own way, they also garden and keep their own schedule," he said. "They keep the soil loose by scratching, they eat insects of every kind, and they give back to Mother Earth, plus they produce delicious eggs." The birds also provide manure for fertilizer.

Sforza keeps the chickens in a big pen with walls eight feet high and a screen over the top. The French chickens came first, so they have their own hen house and the rest are together in a second one.

Adult chickens often try to kill chicks, especially of a different strain. Each hen house group has a separate section of the garden where they spend the day. When it gets dark, the chickens on their own return to their respective houses and settle down for the night. To protect from predators, Sforza closes the doors. Most of their predators, such as fox and raccoons, are night-time operators.

"Anyone who has chickens has experienced a loss from a predator," said Sforza. "It's like keeping fish, some just aren't going to make it."

He feeds the chickens soy-free, organic feed supplemented with calcium. He also tosses scratch grains like corn and other seeds onto the dirt so they can peck. He gets about four eggs a week from each chicken. Recently he discovered two small brown eggs, but has yet to identify the producer.

"Some people really treat their chickens like pets, but they can carry lice and have other issues," Sforza said. "I'm not super-attached although feel badly if they suffer in any way. I'm half-way between farmer and pet-owner. I eat their eggs, but not the chickens. I will let my old chickens just hang out after they no longer produce eggs."

There most certainly is a pecking order among the birds. The head rooster is the first one to call out the flock in the morning and brings them inside in the evening. He seems to be the head watchman for the flock. Among the hens, there is also a pecking order in terms of who gets priority over food and sitting spots. "The chickens largely ignore me but do acknowledge me, especially if I have something for them to eat," Sforza said. "I love getting a bird's-eye view of their world."

Sforza shares his garden's produce with his friends and neighbors. He likes to eat the fruits of his labor and, much like a chef, likes to eat his creations.

"The beauty of fresh vegetables is that it's not cooking, it's just eating - almost like cheating," said Sforza. "You just chop, put on vinegar and oil and then eat."

Fresh eggs have a firmer yolk and thicker white, with a richer taste than store-bought eggs, he said.

"You can't just put an egg in the pan and walk away," he said. "You have to vary the heat and the duration. The beauty of an omelet is that anything can go into it. It's like a solid soup and it's always different. I use cream. It's important to use the right non-stick pan. I start off with a high heat, then back it down, let the ingredients cook a little, and then flip the omelet, completing it with a layer of grated cheese."

Sforza, who occasionally makes his own pasta, almost always makes tomato sauce using his harvest. He purees the tomatoes, straining out the seeds and then sets them aside. In a separate pot, he adds a little olive oil and some crushed garlic which he simmers about 15 minutes until the garlic starts turning brown. Then he adds the pureed, strained tomatoes. He next adds different seasonings including pepper, oregano and a little salt.

He'll toss in some vegetables, cut peppers of all varieties. He'll also add either pork or beef sausage both crumbled and as meatballs. He cooks the sauce on a low heat for several hours, covers and stirs once in a while. Lastly he lets the sauce reduce to get it to think a bit. He generally puts the sauce over spaghetti and tops with aged, grated Italian parmesan.

"It is pleasurable watching things grow. Gardening connects me with the environment, the seasons and my heritage. When you garden, it is a very slow process. When you're out there, you have time to think. Everything seems to happen faster including the elapse of time but nature has kept its own deliberate schedule. It's a form of relaxation in the middle of greenery, and at the end you get a delicious reward," said Sforza.

Read more Conversations With Goddard

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