Lou’s Garden Center draws on Italian heritage
NORTHLAKE Wednesday Aug 1 2012 Luigi Alfano shows off a ripe peach, growing at his business, Lou's Garden Center. Alfano said that it's his ability to grow unique things well and offer the public these items, that has helped his business thrive. | Michelle LaVigne~Sun-Times Media
Lou’s Garden Center
Where: 354 E. North Ave., Northlake
Hours: 8:30 a.m.-7 p.m., Monday-Sunday
Phone: (708) 562-7006
Updated: September 10, 2012 6:14AM
NORTHLAKE — The Alfano family sits at a metal table. It’s close to 90 degrees but the sun is mostly blocked by thick grape vines winding through an overhead trellis. Sunflowers and peppers grow by a nearby creek while Mrs. Alfano picks the ends off a pile of spaghetti beans.
The scene resembles an Italian farm from 100 years ago except for one thing: the sounds of traffic from North Avenue.
Luigi Alfano, owner of Lou’s Garden Center in Northlake, grew up on a small farm about 70 miles south of Naples, Italy. The family grew chestnuts, cherries, tobacco, olives, wheat, corn and other crops.
“It’s small, five or six acres of land,” Alfano said. “A piece here, a piece there in the hills.”
His family moved to the United States in 1973 and Alfano worked a variety of jobs from factories to tree cutting and trimming to landscaping. In 1984, he opened his nursery at 354 E. North Ave.
For those who haven’t visited, Lou’s Garden Center is noteworthy for a scarecrow wearing overalls and a gorilla mask that resides in front of the greenhouse during business hours.
For those who have visited, the business is noteworthy for Luigi’s knowledge of horticulture along with his naturally grown plants.
“Whatever you see here, I eat them,” Alfano said. There is a lot to choose from. An incomplete list includes perennials, lemons, limes, figs, grapes, tangerines, hibiscus, oranges, peaches, hibiscus, 18 types of tomatoes, 14 types of hot peppers — including the Melrose Pepper — and a 5-foot high Cuzzi squash.
Since the economy has gotten worse, Alfano has see his sales of vegetables increase while flowers have decreased. This year he sold more than 40,000 tomato plants.
A three-person operation, Lou’s Garden Center competes with the chain nurseries with Alfano’s expert advice, grafting (combining) his own plants and avoiding selling items such as Christmas trees and poinsettias that chains can sell more cheaply.
In earlier years customers were largely Italians in their 50s or older. The last 10 years have seen more of a mix.
“Italians for tomatoes and Melrose peppers, Polish people for cucumbers and potatoes, and Asian people who like bitter melon,” Alfano said.
In addition, younger people have been showing up as well. That’s fine with daughter Lucia Alfano-Jastrzebski who plans to take over the business in 2013, though Alfano and his wife will continue to work there.
“Our plan is to bring in the younger generation and educate them,” Alfano-Jastrzebski said. “A lot of people take home plants and think they’ve killed them. They buy cheap plants that are already suffering.”
Not so, said Alfano. “In America, they get what the pay for. Buy good plants and get results.”
Besides buying plants that are healthy, Alfano recommends getting good soil.
“Planting soil has to be lightweight,” he said. “Hold off on fertilizer until after the plants start growing or the soil becomes acid.”
During the present mild drought in the Chicago area, Alfano advises customers to water both early and late.
“The main thing is to water early in the morning and later in the evening,” Alfano said. “If they miss once, it’s done. You can’t go on vacation. And feed them fertilizer weekly at least.”