Small space, big harvest: Turners Falls couple undaunted by gardening challenges

  • Meredith Benson and Victor Signore grow a lot of food in small spaces on their Turners Falls property. PHOTO BY GILLIS MACDOUGALL

  • Their driveway receives sunshine, so Meredith Benson and Victor Signore installed grow bags that enable them to cultivate sun-loving plants at home. PHOTO BY GILLIS MACDOUGALL

  • Given that the side yard receives some of their property's scant sunshine, Meredith Benson and Victor Signore put in a 4 by 60 feet line of beds in order to grow more food at home. PHOTO BY GILLIS MACDOUGALL

  • In gardens filled with practicality, beauty also abounds at the home of Meredith Benson and Victor Signore. Benson created this whimsical “samurai jellyfish” wind chime while in art school. PHOTO BY GILLIS MACDOUGALL

  • In a spot where once stood a deck, Meredith Benson and Victor Signore created raised beds to take advantage of scant sunny areas on their Turners Falls property. PHOTO BY GILLIS MACDOUGALL

  • In a spot where a deck once stood, Meredith Benson and Victor Signore created raised beds to take advantage of scant sunny areas on their Turners Falls property. PHOTO BY GILLIS MACDOUGALL

For the Recorder
Published: 8/15/2022 1:34:17 PM

Victor Signore and Meredith Benson grow a surprising amount of food. In 2010, they purchased a bungalow in Turners Falls on one-sixteenth of an acre and transformed a backyard jungle of vines into a lovely spot with raised beds, terracing and container gardening.

Benson and Signore both draw on familial traditions. As a child, Benson gardened alongside her mom, and her grandfather owned a nursery in Litchfield, Connecticut. “I’d lie on the ground with my dog and — depending on the season — reach my hand this way or that to pick strawberries, blueberries or peas.”

Signore’s parents were born in Italy, and his mother’s family maintained a farm and orchard. “They cultivated stone fruits and figs, and grew vegetables to sell,” said Signore. “They kept chickens and milked cows for their own use.” Signore grew up in Connecticut, where his father maintained a big garden.

Signore and Benson are both artists. Signore sculpts with natural materials and has done installation work; he’s also worked in a Holyoke cabinet shop, managed Green Fields Market’s produce section and taught college-level art classes. For two years, he’s worked at Real Pickles, the award-winning local lacto-fermentation business, where he recently became a member-owner.

Benson has worked in early childhood education and is a licensed massage therapist. Her artistry is evident in lush gardens maintained with creative flair, including wind chimes shaped like “samurai jellyfish” that she made while in art school.

The productive, beautiful gardens are also hard-won. “We’re half in the shade and half on a steep hill,” said Signore. To have any hope of gardening, the couple had to eradicate masses of bittersweet when they moved into their 1926 home. “Meredith is a force to be reckoned with,” Signore added.

“We watched to see what was here,” said Benson. “We cleared out invasives and started to see lily-of-the-valley, vinca [periwinkle], false solomon’s-seal, rhododendron, mountain laurel, forsythia, ferns and a lilac tree.” Initially, the lilac was so twisted up with vines, the couple couldn’t even tell it was there.

They decided early on to get rid of the bungalow’s back deck. “We hosted a brunch in honor of my birthday, which doubled as a deck removal party,” said Signore. “When demolition started, some folks were still eating on the deck.” Signore suggested that the crew wait a few minutes. “Once we got started, it took only 20 minutes to tear the deck down.”

In its place, Signore and Benson put down layers of small stones and used cinder blocks to create raised beds. “We incorporated bricks we found on-site,” said Signore, “and brought in soil and compost.”

The backyard being so shady, the couple opted to put sun-loving plants immediately behind the house, in a narrow strip in the side yard, and along the driveway.

Plum tomatoes, eggplants, jalapeños, basil, cilantro and potatoes are grown in cinder block-bordered raised beds; one bed is 6 by 8 feet and the other is 4 by 6 feet. “The sun warms the cinder blocks, which helps support the plants,” said Signore. Sun-loving plants are also grown in “grow bags” near the driveway.

The side yard is part sun and part shade; Benson and Signore put in long, narrow beds totaling about 4 by 60 feet, sufficient to grow blueberries, strawberries, kale, collards, bok choy, rutabaga, peas, Thai basil, elderberry and garlic. They also grow culinary and medicinal herbs, including cilantro, Genovese basil, chives, parsley and calendula.

Thai basil is the star of a recipe called Drunken Noodles. “I’m crazy for it,” said Signore. “We make it with chilies and a bit of sweetener, and serve it on wide rice noodles. I seriously can’t get enough of it.”

Colors abound with nasturtiums, columbine, cosmos, bee balm, yarrow and dicentra. Plants emerge from distinctive beds, including a multi-layered spiral garden Benson designed and created as a gift for Signore: codonopsis climbs surrounded by lemon balm, Russian sage, lavender, tulsi (“holy basil”), rosemary, chives, oregano and thyme.

Another favorite is broccoli rabe, known in Italian as “rapini.” The green vegetable looks like leafy broccoli but is more closely related to the turnip.

“My Uncle Nic is 83 and eats homegrown rapini every morning,” said Signore. Norwalk, Connecticut, where Signore grew up, is home to many Italian-Americans. “Rapini is a staple. I love to eat it sauteed with olive oil, garlic, salt and crushed red pepper. It’s delicious with a hearty piece of bread, or with pecorino cheese on pizza.”

Signore’s family history is beautiful and bittersweet. “Both of my parents were born in southern Italy, in Minturno, about two hours from Rome,” said Signore. “The town was initially right on the coast, but residents moved up into the hills as a defensive strategy against seafaring people after the Roman Empire fell.”

While Signore’s maternal grandparents farmed, people in his paternal line were involved with fishing. “They knew each other, of course, being from a small town.”

During World War II, Minturno and surrounding areas were devastated. Signore’s maternal grandfather fought alongside the Allies; after the war, he wanted to leave the country but was stymied by Italian officials. “They stripped my grandfather of his pension and medals, and took his farm. The family tried to get out of Italy for 10 years,” said Signore, adding that family members who’d emigrated to the U.S. sent money. “That helped them survive, and they finally made it here in 1955, when my mom was 4 years old.”

Signore’s father emigrated in 1972 at the age of 23 to seek greater opportunities. “As a kid, my dad was pulled out of school to work as a welder,” said Signore. “He did the required two-year stint in the Italian Navy, and then got out.”

Once Signore’s dad got to the U.S., he met his bride-to-be, who later told her kids that she loved their dad’s hair and his 1971 Buick Electra. “Their first date?” said Signore. “He took her to church.”

Signore did not learn Italian as a child. “It was my parents’ secret code language,” he said. But he took conversational Italian courses at UMass.

When seeking plants to grow slicing tomatoes, Signore goes to Shoestring Farm in Colrain and purchases from longtime farmer Rich Pascale. “He’s a fellow Italian,” he said. “I’ve got to support my paisano!”

Eveline MacDougall is the author of “Fiery Hope” and an artist, musician and mom. She welcomes comments from readers at


Support Local Journalism

Subscribe to the Greenfield Recorder, keeping Franklin County informed since 1792.

Greenfield Recorder

14 Hope Street
Greenfield, MA 01302-1367
Phone: (413) 772-0261


Copyright © 2021 by Newspapers of Massachusetts, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy