Jun 7, 2014

To Love, To Eat, To Garden

One highlight of 2013 was a visit to North Hill Gardens in Vermont. The garden is a work of art, love and labor spanning decades of collaboration between Joe Eck and his late partner, Wayne Winterrowd. On that day of my visit with Jeffrey Farrell and my then thirteen-year old son, Julian, it was overcast and leaves were still a bit droopy from earlier showers. Apart from the two shaggy dogs that greeted us at the entrance, we were the only ones in the garden. We were delighted with lush hills and valleys of large and small beds divided by winding paths and steps. We trekked over a small stream and under rustic pergolas. Elegant stewartia flowers littered the ground as we descended one path. We could not walk past the masses of peach, coral and orange primula without being stunned at the unreal blend of colors. Julian befriended a frog sitting among the juncus grass in the rain garden. It sat perfectly still while we goofed around with our hands within and inch of its face and only moved when I tried to grab it for a kiss. Goldfish swam in a barrel near potted plants in the little greenhouse supported on one side by a low stone wall that doubled as a rock garden. Potted agapanthus and blue geraniums bordered a garden room as we circled back to the main residence. Very lovely.

A beautifully laid out vegetable garden sat next to a coop of chickens happily scratching away. I made a note of the tall bamboo trellis as I thought of making similar structures in my own vegetable gardens. I informed Joe Eck of my intention to replicate his trellises just moments into my delight and surprise at finding him at home; a home surrounded by the beautiful gardens.

Joe and Wayne lectured on gardening and landscape design and co-authored several books and publications including "Our Lives in Gardens" and "To Eat". Both books are chronicles of the couple's adventures in gardening with experiments and experiences growing various vegetables, fruits, flowers and shrubs in the often harsh Vermont climate, leaning on each other as they learned and grew together. Their books are filled with lessons on cultivation and preparation of individual vegetables and plants while coated with a bit of history and humor, revealing quirky plant habits. Each food or plant become a star that I have now have a greater understanding of and appreciation for. Joe and Wayne were also great examples in subsistence living, producing their own food from the land, even raising cattle and pigs. Theirs was a partnership of hard work and good living and their personal stories make the books a joy to read. How fortunate to have or to have had a partner to share a passion for gardening, teaching, design, good food, travel and a passion for each other. I see other partnerships, like Jeffrey Farrell and Bruno, Leslie Land and Bill and I imagine that one day I too will find a life partner who shares and bolsters my passions and I his.

The visit to North Hill coincided with the design and installation of my very first edible garden. As a child I weeded and harvested pigeon peas, sorrel (Hibiscus sabradiffa) and passion fruits in gardens round my parents' home. The yard was always full of peppers, limes, Spanish thyme and shadow beni (Eryngium foetidum); lots of root crops like dasheen (root of an edible velvet-leafed alocasia, whose leaves are super delicious and rich in iron), casssava (yucca ) and yams. There were almost always avocado and pawpaw trees and bunches of green bananas waiting to be picked one 'hand' at a time, boiled and eaten like potatoes in soups or with salted codfish. Petite bananaquit birds loved pecking before the 'figs' (as we Trinbagonians call bananas) turned yellow. Over the past twenty years I have worked alongside Jeffrey Farrel in his gardens and other vegetable gardens in Massachusetts. Jeff and Bruno, have spoiled me with their simple meals made with vegetables and herbs, often pulled from their garden minutes before reaching the table. So good!

                                             Rhubarb in Jeff's and Bruno's vegetable garden

Yet, growing food from seed and creating a vegetable garden from scratch was truly new territory. With a limited budget and no professional crew to construct and layout the beds, I became a contractor. I instructed three (often reluctant) teens to help with the construction of twenty raised cedar beds for a vegetable garden at P. S. 329 in Coney Island. Leveling the ground and lining up all the beds required patience and lots of elbow grease. Several pairs of hands were needed to haul twenty-six yards of soil from the sidewalk, over the fence and into the planting area to be later added to the beds. It was a tremendous and arduous task and I think my body is still recovering from the rigor of it all.

A clearly delineated lawn area was created between a long shade border against the school building and the vegetable beds. I imagine one day the lawn will be laid out with cloth-covered tables and dozens of children will be serving each other and enjoying their harvest. That border was filled with shrubs and perennials to be used as teaching aids and to add winter interest.  Many of those shrubs, hostas, ferns and Ajuga reptans were schlepped  from the garden near my home in Harlem. Dozens of earthworms were also dug up and relocated on the two-hour trip by train to Coney Island. They were a welcome addition since salt water from Hurricane Sandy wiped out the earthworm population. The kids added them to the soil one at a time, squealing all the while. Garden beds closest to the sidewalk contained native and pollinator-attracting plants like agastache, salvia, rudbeckia, liatris, zinnia, marigolds and nasturtiums and others to be used in basic plant science and Botanical Latin lessons. The plan was to inspire kids to love words along with gardening with plant names like Pulmonaria saccharata, Hydrangea macrophylla and Gleditsia triacanthos (two mature trees grow on each end of the long garden space). Another area was reserved for a three-bin compost, to be built later and surrounded by bark mulch that was to also line the paths between the beds.

                                                                    Pizza-shaped Herb beds

Planting started late, about a month later than I would have liked but it was imperative to have the permanent structures laid out well, an often overlooked or trivial element in many school and community gardens.

                                                        Joe Eck-inspired trellis in far end

It is very gratifying to grow food that can be eaten raw or cooked within minutes after picking; food grown from carefully selected seeds or plugs and in soil that it tilled and modified by your own hand. It is also very rewarding to feed the ones you love using fresh, wholesome ingredients, knowing that you are present and monitoring their growth from seed to the table. I must admit that I become very excited about observing the various stages from seed to fruiting, sniffing, pinching and tasting along the way. As quickly as bean vines scrambled up the bamboo tee pees it became clear why children flourish from observing and participating in growing food. A seed, some soil and sunlight and what unfolds into tasty good things to eat is science and magic. Birds loved the baby spinach, mesclun mixes and munched on the leaves of radishes, Brussels sprouts and beets. Strawberries and blueberries were devoured by wildlife and although I never saw them, I was told that raccoons visited regularly after sunset. It was all alright. There was food for everyone. Just as the lawn seeds began to sprout, pretty yellow flowers covered the zucchini and squash, tomatoes started blushing and eggplants grew long and glossy, I left that garden to start another at a school just a few blocks away.

I recently attended classes in teaching gardening and cooking at the Edible Schoolyard. The programs are models and great examples of what can be achieved when staff and administration work together to improve the quality of education and overall health of children through interaction with nature. There you will find a dedicated group of garden and cooking instructors working in an awesome garden and state-of the-art kitchen. I am a novice and I gather knowledge from the professionals at the Edible Schoolyard to master the art of educating children at P.S.188. Under a couple of four-foot grow lights we started from seed various types of tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, squash, zucchini, beets, corn, cucumbers and okra. Oregano, bunching onions and basil were started under lights in my bedroom. We also sowed seeds of hyacinth beans, Mina lobata, marigolds, lots of nasturtiums and the very sensitive sensitive plant. Can't wait to taste our heirloom tomatoes and have kids create salads that include nasturtium and marigold flowers.

             Tomatoes, Corn, Peppers, Okra and Oregano started from seeds under grow lights

                                                                      Jeff in the garden

I am constantly gobbling up information from vegetable garden books, catalogs and vegetable garden bloggers. With zany, brainy children I am planting up a storm, gaining experience as a vegetable gardener and enjoying teaching. Whoohoo! Soon I will plant my very own vegetable garden, one in which I will even tackle growing asparagus and artichokes. I also continue to rely heavily on words of wisdom from garden experts like Jeffrey Farrell, Wayne Winterrowd and Joe Eck. They have given me much to emulate and much to admire. I owe them gratitude and many, many thanks.
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