It's a charming antique home in charming downtown Bethel. But what makes passersby turn their heads isn't the ornate woodwork, large windows or the three-story height on the house in which Steve Muffatti rents a first-floor apartment from his parents.
No, it's the scramble of canataloupe vines edging out into the driveway, the ripe tomatoes that come nose-to-nose with visitors at the front door, and the purple eggplants hoisting their fruit on what used to be lawn.
Clearly a gardener lives there. A gardener who knows enough to allow the lettuce to bolt so he can collect seeds for next year. A gardener who's seized every square inch of planting space. A gardener, it turns out, who's sophisticated enough to realize that all growth starts with the earth and who therefore added copious amounts of compost prior to planting.
And yet, this is Steve Muffatti's first season tilling the soil. A senior at Western Connecticut State University who's majoring in history, he's only recently been bitten by the gardening bug. The difficult weather that Mother Nature threw at us this year hasn't deterred him. Next spring, he plans on digging up what's left of the front lawn and devoting it to still more vegetables. Corn, watermelon and green beans. Basil, and dill for pickles. Squash and maybe potatoes, though he's not enamoured of growing "anything underground". Yet.
What drew him to the world of gardening? As a barista at Bethel's funky coffee shop, Molten Java, Steve was intrigued by a frequent customer's comments on the art and science of gardening. After many a horticultural conversation, including several concerning Eleanor Roosevelt and World War II, Byron Graham, of Warrups Farm in Redding, challenged Steve with a gift of seeds. These were planted with some of Steve's mother's backyard compost into the soil around the foundation of the house, and a gardener took root.
It wasn't all done exactly according to Hoyle. Steve used no fertilizer, and he didn't read up on how to grow vegetables. All he did to prepare the soil was to pull out some tree seedlings along the foundation, remove sod, and incorporate the compost. And with his busy schedule of work and school, his only gardening time is early morning.
Not everything was a victory, of course. There's a sad story about the first gardening crisis, in which a blight visited the cucumbers; and a tale about a critter unknown who made off with some prime tomatoes.
But success is enticing, and the vegetables keep coming. As they do, girlfriend Julia Klaucke, an art and psychology major at WestConn, cooks Steve's garden offerings. Recent dishes include fresh tomato soup, salads and sauces, stuffed cabbage, eggplant Parmesan, and sauteed kale.
Steve Muffatti plans on being an educator, eventually teaching at the college level. He's 23 now, and soon life will take over. He'll be busy with family, career, and home. But I have a hunch that he'll always find time to garden.