Articles in Gardening
A parking lot in a tiny Michigan village seems like an unlikely place to go shopping for gourmet goods, but it was harvest time and a black SUV was awaiting customers. Piled high in the trunk, gathered in bunches ready for drying and labeled with an odd assortment of names like Georgian Red Crystal, Asian Tempest and Broadleaf Czech, this was no illegal booty awaiting drive-by customers. It was a treasure trove of heirloom varieties of hard-neck garlic, delighting the lucky few who were able to procure their annual supply of handpicked bulbs.
Seed Sources and Information
Why all the hubbub? Garlic is a staple in kitchens worldwide, but it is rare to experience garlic at its peak of freshness, when heirloom varieties really show off their nuanced differences. Taste and texture are remarkably vibrant, far from the dry, dense, almost chewy structure of the commercially produced garlic found on display in large, dry bins at grocery stores.
Garlic is used as much for its ability to transform otherwise ho-hum dishes into sharply flavorful meals as for its antibiotic, antioxidant and potentially aphrodisiac qualities. With the average American consuming 2.3 pounds of the heady stuff each year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture figures that on any given day, 18% of the population is consuming garlic in some form. But the majority of that garlic is a dehydrated component in processed food from a form of softneck garlic called “common garlic.”
Sorting out heirloom garlic
The common garlic of supermarkets is typified by having small cloves, tough outer skins and being well past its “best by” date. But it is ubiquitous because it’s easy to grow, easier still to process, inexpensive to produce and mostly imported from China. It also bears no resemblance to any of the roughly 500 heirloom varieties that continue to be cherished by real garlic aficionados. And don’t mistake “elephant garlic” for one of them. This plant, belonging to the leek family, may impress the eye with oversized cloves, but its size is a trade-off for milquetoast flavor.
The other family of garlic is hardneck, with as many varieties and personality profiles as my best friend’s large extended family from Sicily. With horticultural references such as Bavarian, Rocombole, Serpent, Porcelain and Purple Stripe, hardnecks are noted for their thick center neck, with 4 to 12 large cloves of pure flavor arranged around it. Cultivars like the aptly named Music from the Porcelain family are tender and creamy white, a mixture of spice and floral fragrance. The fresh cloves yield under the slightest pressure from the knife, creating a juicy and smooth paste in one quick smear. Heirloom varieties range from bulbs that are immediately super hot and spicy like Bogatyr of the Purple Stripe family to others like Chesnok Red with a mellow sweetness that reveals itself only when roasted into caramelized nuggets and makes it a popular choice for baking.
Garlic fans lucky enough to live in areas with perfect garlic-growing conditions (any mild climate with enough cold to “set” the bulb before overwintering) can successfully harvest heirloom varieties. The best seed producers release their cloves in September, in time to plant about six weeks before the ground freezes, and it’s often a race to order the best varieties before they run out.
Best of all, growing your own or knowing a farmer who does affords an extra garlic treat. The scapes, or wildly curvaceous flowering stems that sprout in the early spring, can be harvested and used in any salad or stir-fry in May and becomes a harbinger of good things to follow in July, when the full plant bulbs are ready to pull from the ground, start enjoying or hang to dry.
Roasted Garlic Aïoli
My biggest regret about a recipe like aïoli is that the two core ingredients, extra virgin olive oil and garlic, are at their freshest at opposite ends of the calendar. But sourcing a Southern hemisphere olio nuovo in a Northern hemisphere summer can solve that problem pretty simply. Incorporating a little mashed potato into the dip adds a creamy structure. I have Deenie Yudell, design manager of the J. Paul Getty Trust, to thank for this trick she shared with me over 30 years ago.
6 cloves fresh garlic
1 Yukon gold potato
2 tablespoons good white wine vinegar
2 egg yolks
1½ – 2 cups extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper
1. Roast 5 cloves of the fresh garlic in a skillet over a low-medium flame until the paper sheathing is browned and the cloves feel soft and pliable to the touch.
2. Boil the potato in boiling salted water along with the other clove of garlic. When it is tender, drain and mash.
3. Using an open whisk, combine the mashed garlic cloves and mashed potato with the white wine vinegar until well mixed. Add the egg yolks, unbeaten, and whisk vigorously while slowly adding olive oil in a thin stream until reaching your desired consistency. Finish with salt and pepper to taste.
Top photo: Georgian Crystal garlic. Credit: Caroline J. Beck
David C. Driskell’s approach to cooking and gardening is no different from that of creating art. “Cooking and gardening are like assembling a collage. It is a conversation and a continual improvisation, never the same, always dynamic and always so very good.” An international artist, a dedicated educator and a fine scholar, Driskell’s legacy is celebrated in the form of The David C. Driskell Center for the Study of Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and African Diaspora at the University of Maryland.
Born to sharecropper parents from Georgia more than eight decades ago, Driskell embodies a life of hard work, creativity, exploration and a profound appreciation of his dynamic African and African-American cultural heritage. In the field of black American art, Driskell is a pioneer. He continues to produce paintings, prints, woodcuts and collages. Read Driskell’s biography for a summary of his numerous awards and distinctions.
What I want to focus on is his passion for gardening and cooking. David and his wife, Thelma, fell in love with Maine in his early days as a student and later as a teacher at the renowned Skowhegan painting school in Skowhegan, Maine. So much so that they bought a house and land in Falmouth, Maine, more than 30 years ago.
In the past five years, I have visited David at his summer home in Maine on several occasions. I have wandered his annual garden in full bloom (it is situated in a unique microclimate, where he is able to grow collards) and listened to his stories of growing up with sharecropping parents and how he would make brilliant purple pokeberry paint as a child. During one stroll, David pointed out the pokeberries’ young leaves that they would collect and eat (though older leaves are considered toxic), mullein used for coughs, tansy for stomach disorders, nutritious purslane and stinging nettles to reduce inflammation. All the while he revealed that much of his food and healing knowledge he learned from his mother, Mary Lou Cloud Driskell, who was of Native American and African heritage. She possessed a vast store of ethnobotanical knowledge of the Carolinas, where he grew up.
Yearly, David journeys to Falmouth in the early spring and prepares the garden and then returns for the long summer, splitting his time between Maryland and Falmouth. In Falmouth, he slips into a slower pace, an unhurried rhythm that allows him to work in his studio, cultivate his annual summer garden, cook and host family and friends. When I visited, he exhibited his local knowledge about some Maine foodways and made a visitor like me some Maine-inspired fish chowder laced with his homegrown garden herbs on a perfectly lazy and breezy July afternoon.
David Driskell’s Seafood Chowder
1 to 2 tablespoons cooking oil (olive or safflower)
½ to 1 cup chopped onion
½ to 1 cup chopped celery
¾ pounds any type of white fish (haddock, pollock or cod), cut into small chunks
2 pounds Quahog clams (optional)
6 small potatoes peeled, lightly boiled and diced. Save the potato stock to thicken the chowder later.
2 cups fish head broth with bay leaf (optional), vegetable broth or water
2 cups light cream
¼ cup of flour for thickening
Pinch of sugar
Red pepper, salt and black pepper for seasoning
A sprinkle of finely chopped fresh parsley, tarragon or thyme
1. Add oil to a pan on medium heat.
2. Sauté onions until translucent, then add chopped celery and saute for another 1-2 minutes.
3. Add fish, clams, potatoes, broth, light cream and flour. Bring to a boil and simmer for 20-30 minutes.
4. Add a pinch of sugar and then season with red pepper, salt and black pepper.
5. Plate and sprinkle freshly chopped herbs of your choice.
Top photo: Artist and scholar David Driskell in the garden at his home in Falmouth, Maine. Credit: Sarah Khan
Cloudberries are shy little plants. They grow so low to the ground you might not even notice the juicy golden fruits balanced on delicate stalks half hidden in the spagnum moss when making your way, as I did, round the edge of a peat-stained lake rimmed with feathery silver birch just below the snowline of a Norwegian fjord. And even if you know what they are and where they grow, you’d have to be there in August when they’re ripe.
So valuable is the cloudberry crop of the Scandinavian uplands that laws are in place to protect it from unlicensed gatherers. Freedom of access is usual in northern lands where the population is sparse, and while lesser berries — blueberries, raspberries, rowanberries, lingonberries, cranberries, even the exquisite little Arctic bramble — are plentiful and free, cloudberry rights are bought and sold with the land.
The berry harvests of Scandinavia were — and remain — an important resource for self-sufficient farming communities, adding variety to the diet through the nine months of the year when the ground is frozen and nothing grows. Their value and variety was noted by Ethel B. Tweedie, intrepid lady traveler in the land of the midnight sun at the end of the 19th century. “Berries are quite a speciality,” she wrote in “Through Finland in Carts” (London, 1898). “They greet the traveller daily in soup — sweet soups being very general — or they are made into delicious syrups, or are served as compote with meat, or transformed into puddings.” She counted 10 varieties of berry fruits gathered by those on whose hospitality she depended. “Of all these,” she continues, “The most esteemed is the suomuurain or cloudberry: in appearance like a yellow raspberry, it grows in the extreme north in the morasses during August. It is a most delicious fruit with a pine tree flavour.”
The italics are hers, and she’s right.
Cloudberries at first glance on a fjord
I first encountered the cloudberry in its natural habitat (rather than as an unripe berry on the moors of northern Britain) when visiting friends, smallholders on a Norwegian fjord some 200 miles inside the Arctic Circle. Their land, as with all the farms on the steep slopes of the fjords, ran vertically from the high tops to the shore. Dairy farming and fishing provided a modest source of revenue in the old days, though the family met its needs from a single cow. The upper pastures above the snowline in winter provided summer grazing while the lower slopes were cropped for hay. Ownership of the shore included the rights for inshore fishing and to set traps for lobster and prawn. Potatoes were planted in a small patch of arable land alongside the sprawling wooden farmhouse and tall barns. But it was the uplands, the moorland just below the snowline, that provided the wild gatherings that made life in these frozen uplands pleasurable as well as possible.
On the day of my visit, my hostess left a hand-drawn map on the kitchen table so I could follow the path uphill behind the house and join the family at the setor, a log cabin where, in the old days, butter and cheese were made. Sure enough the whole family — two children, parents and a pair of older cousins — were spread out across the moorland, baskets in hand. “You bring us good fortune,” called my hostess, straightening to greet me. “The cloudberries are plentiful this year. You can help us pick.”
It was hot work in the sunshine, though the berries were indeed plentiful and our baskets quickly filled. Rubus chamaemorus is, as its botanical name suggests, a member of the rose family. The blossom is white, five-petaled and rose-like. The leaves, flat and palmate, grow in pairs, making them easily visible in grass or moss. When first formed, the state it rarely moves beyond elsewhere, the cloudberry looks like a hard orange ball streaked with scarlet where the sepals have parted to expose the flesh to the sun. It becomes paler as it ripens. When perfectly ripe, the little globules that make up each berry swell with juice and turn gold. At this point, the flavor is neither sharp nor overly sweet but honeyed and a little medicinal. The juices are thick and almost jellied, a texture which lingers in the mouth and stays in the memory long after the fragrance has faded.
This recipe skips the sugar
For supper that evening, we ate small brown trout fried with chanterelles in home-churned butter and little almond-shaped potatoes cooked with dill-flowerheads. To follow, there were little birch bowls filled with the beautiful golden cloudberries folded with soured cream — thick and a little acidic and perfect with the slippery juices.
“No sugar,” said my hostess firmly. “Or the flavor will be spoiled.”
Cloudberries, she continued, are not only super-rich in vitamin C but are provided by nature with a preservative to keep them from spoiling. “My mother-in-law kept them fresh right through the winter under spring water in a big china bowl in the stabur.” This, a wooden storehouse on stilts with a turf roof, was visible through the window at some distance from the house. “As a child I hated the cold and being sent out in the snow to fetch whatever my mother needed. Which is why all the farmhouses are centrally heated and we all need fridges and freezers and keep our stores in the cellar where it’s warmer. Which is why we all put sugar in our preserves — even the cloudberries, though my mother would never approve. But I always pop some in the freezer to eat with the Christmas ham or for special days with cookies and cream. The cloudberries remind us of summer: There are times when we need to remember the sun will return.”
Cloudberry jam and liqueur
Anyone who can’t make it to Scandinavia’s Arctic uplands in August this year — maybe next? — might like to know that Ikea, the Swedish furniture-maker, stocks a cloudberry jam that has the proper jellied texture and tastes as it should. And for those who enjoy a digestif, Finland’s official distiller, Lapponia, produces a cloudberry liqueur, very sweet, in which the pine-needle flavor is still discernible. While both are no more than an echo of the real thing, you’ll get the general idea. Once tasted, never forgotten.
Top photo: Cloudberries. Credit: iStockPhoto
Some vegetable gardening books advise the reader not to bother growing potatoes because they are cheap and plentiful in the stores and use up a lot of room in the garden. Instead, they say, use your space to grow such delectable seasonal crops as tomatoes, peppers and green beans. But, I beg to differ. I am finding great joy in growing my own potatoes and have found a way to grow them in containers so that they are not garden hogs.
Several years ago I purchased soft felt-like pots that fold away over the winter and last for years. I stick them in odd sunny places around the garden and at harvest time I tip the whole pot into a wheelbarrow and — voila! — out pour 10 or more pounds of spuds. These pots would allow people without garden space to grow potatoes on back porches or decks, should they so desire.
I also plant several garden rows with Red Norlands, an early crop, because I love to reach into the soil in June to pull out small, thin-skinned potatoes without disturbing the plant, which goes on to produce large potatoes later in the season. I pop the small ones into a steamer and serve them with butter, salt and pepper. You can even leave out the butter because they are so sweet and flavorful. I feel great pleasure in this tactile search for good food available at my doorstep and am touched by the generosity of potato plants that in return for decent soil, sun and water produce an abundance of healthy food.
Yes, they’re healthy
Potatoes have taken a bum rap in the wake of the low-carb crazes that possess the country from time to time. These wonderful vegetables have been portrayed as carbohydrate menaces by people who ignore that potatoes have more potassium than bananas and plenty of vitamin C and B vitamins. Potatoes also are a good source of fiber, especially if you eat the skins. Their reputation for being unhealthy and fattening comes from the American predilection for eating French fries with abandon, which caused James Beard to lament: “The notion that these bits of potato — when limp, greasy, without flavor or texture and barely warm — should be served with every dish in the world is odious beyond belief.” But Beard did go on to say that a baked potato can be a great gastronomic experience when served hot with plenty of salt, pepper and butter.
This view is shared by Truman Capote, who once wrote a preface for a book of potato recipes, “The Potato Book” by Myrna Davis, where he describes a favorite lunch made up of a baked potato, sour cream and a heap of Beluga caviar, all accompanied by a bottle of 80-proof vodka. A catchy menu item, to be sure.
The potato, so familiar to all, has had a long and convoluted history. Native to the South American Andes where archaeologists have found evidence tracing them back to 500 B.C.E., they traveled to the Old World in Spanish ships and eventually found their way back to North America by again crossing the Atlantic. Except for Ireland where potatoes had become almost the sole source of sustenance, the rest of Europe resisted them for centuries believing them to be dangerous to humans because their lumpy appearance led to superstitions that they caused such dreaded diseases as leprosy.
It took a Frenchman, Antoine Parmentier, to overcome resistance and declare the potato edible in 1772 by hosting dinners for such dignitaries as Benjamin Franklin, and serving potatoes in every course to no ill effects. But it wasn’t until the end of that century that the vegetable was routinely eaten throughout Europe. By then, the French were coming up with such dishes as Gratin Dauphinois, scalloped with cheese; Anna, thinly-sliced and baked with plenty of butter; Croquettes, mashed and deep fried and Duchesse, mashed with egg and piped through a pastry bag. These and many more dishes from the French repertoire illustrate the versatility of potatoes.
My own favorites, though, are simple affairs — potatoes added to a stew a half-hour before serving, or cut into chunks and tossed with olive oil, salt and pepper and roasted. And let’s not forget about the simple baked potato, which becomes a meal when served topped with cottage cheese and plenty of pepper, and a low-calorie meal at that.
But my all-time favorite is a family recipe we always called Skinny Potatoes in which they are thinly sliced, piled into a pan where a coating of oil has been heating and cooked until crisp on one side, then turned to crisp up the other. Nigel Slater has a similar recipe, but grates the potatoes and tucks garlic into them as they cook.
These dishes run through my mind when I head for the garden and gaze at my potato plants which, by the way, require no work. Their vines need no support, and when I pile more soil onto the plants as they rise up in the bins, I will get more potatoes. And, when I harvest a potato, it smells of sweet earth, a fragrance not found in bags of supermarket spuds.
1 pound of all-purpose potatoes
3 tablespoons of cooking oil
Salt to taste
1. Scrub potatoes, and if the skins are thin leave them on.
2. Slice them thin, using a food processor fitted with a slicing blade or by hand on the slicing side of a box grater.
3. Heat the oil in a wide, shallow pan and add the potatoes. Sprinkle with salt. Cook over low to medium heat for about 15 minutes until the bottom is crisp and golden.
4. Slip a spatula under them and loosen them as they cook so that they don’t stick to the pan.
5. When the bottom is crisp and brown, place a large plate on top of the pan and turn out the potatoes. Then slide the potatoes back into the pan to cook the other side. Sprinkle on more salt and serve.
Photo: Potatoes are easy to grow in containers. Credit: Barbara Haber
I was prepared to be awed by Christina Kim’s exquisite clothing when I arrived at her Dosa showroom in a downtown Los Angeles penthouse loft to join, perhaps, one hundred guests attending a fundraiser for Chez Panisse Foundation’s Edible Schoolyards last Sunday. The chic crowd of stick thin Westsiders lined up, first, to have Alice Waters sign her book commemorating the 40thanniversary of her iconic Berkeley restaurant. Later they joined the queue at the cash register to buy armloads of clothing made from scraps of recycled materials priced to emphasize the high cost of piecework. $500 was not too much for this crowd to pay for a recycled fabric shawl.
Forty percent of the day’s receipts went to support school gardens. Everyone was thrilled to be there. The only thing missing was Larry David and the cast and crew from “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
Then I noticed a guy with a scraggly blond goatee, a slight paunch and dirty jeans. He was dripping water across the polished cement floors as he pulled flowers from dozens of plastic buckets and made bouquets he tied together with rubber bands. A mess of discarded stems and clippings were piling up at his feet as he worked furiously to make certain that everyone left with a free bouquet.
Meet Mud Baron. The flowers are the result of his tireless work at the Los Angeles Unified School District’s garden in San Pedro. A former policy deputy for the LAUSD, he was fired earlier this year after sounding off one too many times about the nasty food in school cafeterias. Since then he has devoted himself to raising support for school gardens. By his estimation, he’s distributed $5 million worth of seeds, seedlings and equipment to school gardens across the L.A. basin. Among the people in the know at the Edible Gardens fundraiser, Mud was every bit as big a celebrity as Alice.
“I should have been fired long ago,” he said with a big grin. He writes about school food for the blog LAist and otherwise lives to be a thorn in the side of Los Angeles County school officials who think students should be thrilled to eat whatever the district dishes up.
I went searching for some of his writing and found this description of the LAUSD’s response to the criticisms levied against the district in the Season Two Premiere of the Emmy-award winning “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.” In addition to providing a much needed grace note to the highfalutin Alice Waters event, Mud has a wicked pen. Bravo Mud!
Devon Cato, a neighborhood teen who volunteered last year at the Bronzeville Community Garden in Chicago, slowed during his early morning shortcut through the garden on his walk to classes at nearby Dyett High School.
He waved when he spotted Bernard Loyd, president of Urban Juncture Foundation and waited for Loyd to finish a conversation near the front of the garden on the corner of 51st Street and Calumet Avenue.
Loyd planned to end the mid-March garden visit by 8:30 a.m., in time for a day filled with business meetings. His to-do list included an appointment with an electrician and a quick chance to finalize plans for the initial visit of volunteers who were scheduled to fortify 12 raised garden beds with compost.
“Did you hear about the trouble last night?” Cato asked when Loyd approached him with a smile and a handshake.
There had been a shooting on this tough stretch of Calumet Avenue.
“No, I haven’t heard,” Loyd said, placing his hand on the young man’s shoulder, listening calmly to the retelling of a confrontation between two young men the night before. When Cato finished, he lowered his voice.
“That’s why we can’t have nice things around here,” he said almost in a whisper.
“That’s not correct,” Loyd answered quickly. “Events like the one you describe are exactly why we are working so hard to return nice things to this neighborhood … exactly why we have to keep working,” he said, gesturing around the corner lot.
Bronzeville neighbors help themselves
Last August, on this corner of Chicago’s historic Bronzeville neighborhood, neighbors and guests mingled over refreshments featuring recently harvested fresh vegetables and herbs. They were celebrating Chicago’s newest South Side urban garden, located on the western edge of the community where Chicago-bound African-Americans settled after leaving the South to seek a better life in northern cities during the Great Migration.
A poster reminding guests about garden rules and hours of operation (6 a.m. to 10 p.m.) included a generous invitation that summed up the spirit of the day and reflected the new garden’s mission:
All community members may help themselves to produce from designated community beds.
“We’re making the same offer this year with a few limitations,” said Loyd, walking through the garden after Cato continued on to high school classes.
Loyd is also president and founder of Urban Juncture development company, a venture in the final funding stages for a $9-million Cuisine of the Diaspora project, Bronzeville Cookin’, with plans to create 140 jobs among the four restaurants, produce market and parking facilities.
The 17,000-square-foot building and land already purchased for the project are one block east of the garden, adjacent to the nearby 51st Street elevated train (El) station, which is on the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) green line.
As funding continues for the last million dollars needed for the project, the garden is already earning recognition. Last year the garden leadership team won one of three of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s GreenWorks Community Leadership Awards for 2010.
“We’re planning to reserve a small portion of produce and herbs from this year’s harvest for cooking demonstrations and community dinners,” said Loyd, when asked about changes this year.
The former partner at McKinsey & Co., who left the consulting firm after 13 years to work in Bronzeville, said he feels a sense of urgency “but wants to get things right.” He describes the Bronzeville community as home and “a tremendous ‘city within a city’ with unique culture and commerce.”
“I felt Bronzeville had great need and opportunity and decided to focus all of my time and resources on helping develop my community,” he said.
Fresh food makes a difference
Loyd said he envisioned the garden as a platform for informing the community about crop production, food preparation and the relationship between food and health.
Immediate priorities for the garden are completing the wood-framed chef’s pavilion with counters and a cutting surface; and adding a water source in time for cooking demonstrations and nutrition classes scheduled to begin this summer.
Already in place, a massive wooden communal dining table and “life-size” chess/checker stations have survived Chicago’s tough winter in great shape.
“I’m looking forward to observing the spirited chess and checker games. It’s wonderful to experience a safe space for adults and children to interact,” said Chef Tsadakeeyah Emmanuel, a part of the GreenWorks award-winning leadership team who also plans to open his own restaurant, Majani 310, in the 17,000 square-foot building Urban Juncture has put in place.
Last year’s favorite crops? “We’re stressing simplicity and familiar, says the chef. Everybody loved the tomatoes. String beans came in a close second,” he said, adding, “Most of the children had never seen plants growing. When I encouraged them to taste the fresh beans from the vine, they were amazed. They were also fascinated by the edible marigolds,” he said. “This year we’re planting collards, eggplant, okra, cucumbers, melons, onions and string beans and a big assortment of fresh herbs,” he said.
“It’s hard to describe the joy of being here with the community in a garden,” said Chef Emmanuel.
“For me, it’s a great inspiration watching children and adults appreciate fresh, good food, and knowing this garden is going to make a difference for the rest of their lives … and mine.”
Donna Pierce is a Chicago-based food writer specializing in Southern, soul and Creole foodways. A contributing editor with Upscale magazine and a former assistant food editor and test kitchen director with the Chicago Tribune, Donna is the founder of BlackAmericaCooks.com and will soon launch SkilletDiaries.com for community cooks of all cultures and nationalities.
Photos, from top:
Bernard Loyd at the Bronzeville Community Garden.
The Bronzeville Community Garden ready for this season’s plantings.
Credits: Donna Pierce
One of the things I love most in the world is our vegetable garden. Just walking around in it makes me happy — drinking in the order and action of its raised beds with their rainbow lettuce rows, curling pea vines and kale splayed in giant topknots from knobby stems. Every morning I’m out there prowling to see what’s happened overnight, and soon I’m back, needing chard and collards for a breakfast shake. At noon, plants are stretching in the sun — can’t miss that — and by 6 or 7, it’s time to wander out and snip something for dinner.
Whatever else might be happening in my day, or in the world, the garden is always there, carrying on its unhurried, miraculous business in the bee-humming, earth-splitting Now. Being in it plugs me into that vital present, listening, smelling, belonging to it utterly, complete. So much does it move me that I’m amazed at how I ever lived without it and how utterly it has changed my world.
We made this garden four years ago, my husband and I, when our son was a high school senior, and we began to anticipate what it would mean to be alone again, the two of us. The economic recession had hit too. We saw friends losing jobs. Our own work lives were getting less predictable. We needed some all-absorbing task to perk us up, calm us down, give us a sense of our effectiveness beyond work. “Nature suffers nothing to remain in her kingdoms which cannot help itself,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote rather sharply in his famous essay, “Self Reliance,” and we took his words to heart.
Though we’d grown vegetables before — in pots by the kitchen door or mixed into garden beds — we’d never had a dedicated plot. We’d talked for years about taking over the space between our house and the garage, a concrete-paved court where our son had played basketball and skated. It also got the best sun on our city lot.
Rather than taking small steps that would allow us to measure our commitment, we had the concrete sawed up and re-laid into four permanent, raised beds, each 5 feet wide and 9 feet long, separated by gravel walks.
They looked huge in the beginning, filled with rich soil and tiny seedlings. But in a few months, we were greedy for more space. We ripped out a hedge along a nearby wall to seize more ground for tomatoes. We stopped going out to eat and rediscovered cooking, making soup stock from our greens and carrots, rémoulade with the root celery, caponata with the eggplant. Because our friends weren’t eating out much either, it seemed friendly — and easy — to invite them over to share whatever was ready in the garden. That list grew and grew, and began to include things we hadn’t known we liked: baby turnips, kohlrabi, broccoli rabe. And since “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” one winter we went with ‘Blauschokker Purple’ peas, the next with ‘Weggisser’ snaps and ‘Sugar Ann.’
Very little disappointed us, as Emerson had predicted (“With the exercise of self-trust, new powers shall appear”). We became worm farmers, making super soil with their castings and stronger, more prolific plants. We learned to pair certain bed-mates and not others (beets love cabbage, strawberries don’t).
But mostly, as we witnessed miracles of creation — feathery carrot sprouts, budding okra — we came to know that “the secret of fortune is joy in our hands.”
You plant the seed, you nurture it, it nurtures you. That’s it. That’s everything. The deepest mystery, the most irresistible thrill, just out there behind the house.
Susan Heeger, a contributing editor for Martha Stewart Living and the Los Angeles editor-at-large for Coastal Living, is the co-author, with urban farmer Jimmy Williams, of “From Seed to Skillet, A Guide to Growing, Tending, Harvesting, and Cooking Up Fresh, Healthful Food to Share With People You Love.” Just out from Chronicle Books, it’s on Amazon’s list of Best Books of 2010.
Photo: Susan Heeger’s vegetable garden. Credit: Eric Staudenmaier
Homeless people growing vegetables may seem an unlikely concept, but sometimes great notions have the most improbable beginnings. At this year’s prestigious Chelsea Flower Show, held in London in late May, the Eden Project’s large show garden was entirely designed and built, grown and planted by 500 people who are currently homeless or imprisoned.
Named “Places of Change,” the ambitious 705-square-yard show garden was the largest ever built at Chelsea, which is known for its refined, idealized plantings, sponsored by the likes of Laurent-Perrier, Chanel and even Cancer Research. Eden Project understood Chelsea’s media power — the BBC offers prime-time TV coverage daily throughout the show — and used it to bring the message home.
The Eden Project, whose work is focused on sustainability and human dependence on the natural world, is one of Britain’s most remarkable educational charities. Its headquarters are in Cornwall where, on an abandoned and barren china clay quarry, it has constructed the world’s largest biomes. These giant sustainable greenhouses recreate rainforest and Mediterranean microclimates and are surrounded by extensive outdoor gardens. In just 10 years, they have become southwest England’s biggest tourist attraction, bringing 1.2 million visitors to an area that is at risk of being marginalized.
“The Eden Project has always been committed to helping people on the fringes of society,” says Tim Smit, the project’s chief executive. “We work on programs like ‘Growing for Life,’ which enables prisoners to grow food inside jails, and ‘Great Day Out,’ which brings groups of homeless people, offenders and the marginalized young to visit the Eden Project. These are people who are normally excluded from educational or cultural activities, and our aim is to encourage them to gain self-confidence and take steps forward to change their lives. Working with plants is a very constructive way to do this.”
Building a garden, and a message
Creating a garden at the Chelsea Flower Show is a complex business. Months before construction can begin, detailed designs must be approved by the Royal Horticultural Society, which runs the show. There is no fee. The RHS prefers the money to be invested in the show gardens themselves. It is an expensive undertaking — sometimes upward of $125,000 to build a garden of these dimensions — and their lifespan will be just six days (most plants are then moved to other destinations).
Chelsea is visited by 157,000 garden enthusiasts and ranks as high as Wimbledon tennis in the hearts of the British public. Both show gardens and floral exhibits are judged by notoriously severe panels of experts: the gold medals are some of Britain’s most coveted awards. The Places of Change garden was designed by Paul Stone with the Eden Project and funded by its many sponsors and partners, in collaboration with local government and the Homes and Communities Agency.
On the last day before the official judging and opening of Chelsea, which is historically followed by a visit from the queen and the royal family, the Eden Project’s garden was abuzz with activity. Two timid men raked broken glass into a neat path through one part of the garden, while a young woman decorated with tattoos put the final touches to a disused washing machine from which vines were now happily growing.
“Places of Change is more than just a name for our garden: It graphically shows what it feels like to find yourself without a home and how, sometimes, you get the chance to restart your life,” she said. “Imagine coming in with that sharp path under your feet, past frightening thorny plants and closed doors, to reach the peaceful, more constructive parts of the garden, and of your life.” Places of Change was shaped like a large triangular fish, divided along its center by a spine of hand-carved wooden posts. Around it, five distinct zones were created by separate groups of workers, each with its own theme: food, the senses, health, industry and the environment.
Eden Project garden grown in Britain’s prisons, homeless hostels
“We are very reliant on plants for eating, health, industry and medicine, yet we are increasingly ignorant about these vital sources of human sustenance,” explained Rob Lowe, a coordinator from the Eden Project. “Growing food is a major theme as it is so accessible for everyone. However we’re living, we all have to eat, and it’s important to know where our food comes from.” In Britain every citizen has the right to an allotment, a piece of public land available for a very modest rent from the local councils, upon which to grow vegetables. The large allotment on the Eden Project garden featured neat rows of diverse vegetables that had been grown in Britain’s prisons and homeless hostels, a colorful scarecrow, a fruit orchard under-planted with wildflowers, and an inspiring greenhouse made of recycled plastic bottles.
The health sector showed medicinal plants that can heal as well as those, like tobacco, that can kill. The environmental area included bird feeders and insect-attracting plants, while the industry zone paired industrial plants with the detritus — broken machinery and abandoned microwave ovens — that now litters the earth.
The future is looking brighter for many of the Eden Project “learners,” as they like to be called. One man, a former drug abuser known as Scruffy, has become the gardening correspondent for The Big Issue, the 17-year-old U.K. magazine sold by the homeless (the vendors keep 50 percent of the cost of each magazine copy they sell). His earth-covered woodman’s shelter was based on those of the “bodgers”: men who lived in the woods of 1940s Britain, surviving by foraging and making tools. His Chelsea hut was surrounded by edible wild plants. Other learners are finding work tending public gardens and parks. As for the medal, Places of Change won a silver to the delight of participants and admirers of this exciting, thought-provoking garden.
Carla Capalbo is an award-winning food, wine and travel writer, as well as a photographer, based in Italy for more than 20 years. She writes regularly for magazines and newspapers, including Decanter, BBC Olive, The Independent, World of Fine Wine, Bon Appétit, Departures, Food & Wine. She is a long-time member of Slow Food, the Guild of Food Writers and the Circle of Wine Writers and has won Italy’s Luigi Veronelli prize for best foreign food writer. Her articles have been included in anthologies Best Food Writing 2011 and How the British Fell in Love with Food. Carla is a co-organizer of Cook it Raw, an itinerant think tank featuring top international chefs. In 2006, she and designer Robert Myers were awarded a gold medal at the London Chelsea Flower Show for the Costiera dei Fiori garden she produced for the Campania region.
Carla was born in New York City to a theatrical family and brought up in Paris and London. After getting a degree in art history, she made sculpture in London, wrote about design, and later worked in Manhattan as a food and interiors stylist for photography, for clients that included the New York Times. She moved to Italy in 1989 and worked as the Milan correspondent for Vogue Décoration before writing her first cookbooks on Italian food. Her spirit of adventure led her to undertake three personal and detailed guides to the food and wine culture of Italy. The first was The Food and Wine Lover’s Companion to Tuscany which took three years to research and write (Chronicle Books, 1998, shortlisted for Food Book of the Year by the Guild of Food Writers).
It was followed by another three-year project: The Food and Wine Guide to Naples and Campania (Pallas Athene, 2005) which was illustrated with her photos. To write it, Carla lived in fishing villages and mountain communities in diverse parts of the large region to meet and write about the many restaurants and small food artisans of Campania. Her most recent book, Collio: Fine Wines and Foods from Italy’s North-east (Pallas Athene, 2009-10) is also richly illustrated; it won the coveted André Simon Award for Best Wine Book 2009. Her other books include Cheeses of the Amalfi Coast and The Ultimate Italian Cookbook. Carla divides her time between Italy, Bordeaux, London and further afield. When she has time, she leads food and wine tours in Italy and France.
Her travelog, Assaggi, has just begun on her newly launched website: www.carlacapalbo.com.
Photo credits: Carla Capalbo