The era of competitive gardening, with its focus on fabulous flowers and foliage, is being supplanted by a movement to get back to edibles. We're focusing on rhubarb instead of roses now, and along the way making connections with our communities.
THE HEADY DAYS of high horticulture, when gardeners would kill for the newest and coolest perennial, are well and truly over. The resurgence of food gardening has ushered in a post-competitive era, where people share seeds and meals, and even welcome landless gardeners into their backyards for a little communal cultivation.
It doesn’t really matter whether the food-gardening renaissance is driven by do-it-yourself frugality in a time of economic uncertainties or by concern over food safety and the environment. Its joys are as tangible as the taste of a fresh-picked tomato, as sublime as popping a sun-warmed raspberry into your mouth, as viscerally satisfying as stepping out your back door to pick a dinner you grew from a couple of seed packets. Seemingly overnight, raised beds are the new water features; we’re hedging with blueberries and replacing roses with rhubarb.
Edibles are the engine propelling horticulture these days, with a younger generation of gardener in the driver’s seat. The National Gardening Association forecast that 40 percent more households would be growing their own vegetables in 2009 than in 2007. Vegetable-seed sales are up by more than 25 percent.
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How much money are all these vegetable gardeners actually saving? The gardening association figures that food gardens yield a $500 return on average, considering a typical gardener’s investment and the market price of produce. Michelle Obama harvested 740 pounds of food from the White House kitchen garden last fall, at a cost of about $180 worth of seeds and supplies.
It’s not that people hadn’t preached the gospel of front-yard food gardening long before the Obamas dug up the White House lawn. It seems almost quaint to think that landscape designer Rosalind Creasy’s 1981 homage to the front-yard vegetable garden, “The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping,” was considered revolutionary at the time. In his 2008 manifesto, “Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn,” architect/artist Fritz Haeg argues that we can transform global food production by growing our own vegetables. Food authority Michael Pollan juxtaposes his advocacy of fresh, local food with larger environmental concerns in his best-sellers, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food.” Like Obama, Pollan goes beyond theory to dig in the dirt, growing apricots, figs, persimmons, herbs and lettuces in his Berkeley, Calif., garden.
While these national models are useful and encouraging, it turns out that we here in the Pacific Northwest can find quite a lot of inspiration right here in our own backyards.
“SALAD TONIGHT, Turn Right,” directs a sign on East Harbor Road at the south end of Whidbey Island. Cars slow down, tempted by the sight of a vast and formal vegetable garden so gorgeous it takes your breath away.
Welcome to The Raven & The Spade, the brainchild of Camille LaTray, who wanted to create a kitchen garden in the manner of the classic French potager. Here, the goal is both practical and aesthetic: To produce beautiful food in a beautiful setting, one that is attuned to the rhythms and rewards of each season.
“We’ve become disconnected from the source of our food, and I hope to change that,” says LaTray of the reason she tore up pastureland and planted the garden just one year ago. To celebrate the connection between garden and kitchen, she now invites customers in to explore the garden and pick what they’d like on their dinner table.
But people visit here to do more than buy produce. While they might stop in to pick up any number of fresh, bright lettuces, they linger to talk recipes, chat with neighbors, watch their kids run through the garden with LaTray’s four children. “We have friends who camp out in the garden,” says LaTray with a laugh. “Really, they pitched their tent in the bean tunnel.”
Shoppers stroll along grassy paths, clippers in hand, in search of eggplant, squash or a head of cauliflower. It’s easy to get lost in the sensual pleasures of this 2 ½-acre potager, where fragrant flowers and herbs share space with the vegetables in 12 geometrically shaped beds. Chocolate-colored sunflowers grow up through the pumpkin vines, while zinnias, godetia, calendulas, marigolds, lavender and geraniums brighten the edges of the beds. “Next year we’ll have a cutting garden, so people can pick bouquets along with their vegetables,” enthuses the ever-energetic LaTray. She admits she works most all the daylight hours in her garden. “This job is from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day,” she says happily.
It was only last February that LaTray started digging up the part of her family’s 12-acre property adjacent to husband Brad Rice’s boatbuilding barn. “We laid out string, got a sod cutter and went to work,” explains LaTray of the backbreaking work that kept her and assistant Amy Johnson busy for months. By late spring, the outline of the potager filled the field. By summer she had organic certification and was in business (www.ravenspadefarm.com).
LaTray grows an impressive variety of edibles in soil so rich and loamy it was her inspiration for making a garden in the first place. Peppers, cantaloupe, eggplants and okra thrive in the full sun of this island valley. She grows bush beans, five kinds of pole beans, orange cauliflower and purple carrots to intrigue the kids. Johnson and LaTray recently planted blueberries and an orchard of apricot, peach, plum, cherry, apple and pear trees, which should bear fruit in a couple of years. Youngest daughter Fiona, age 10, is in on the family business, offering organic eggs for sale.
LaTray and her husband are finishing up a lofty greenhouse, constructing it from trusses left over from building their house. She envisions starting tomatoes, growing grapefruit and Meyer lemons under glass. She has plans for a chef to teach cooking classes in the new greenhouse, helping eager shoppers figure out what to do with all that beautiful produce once they get it home.
Is there a single vegetable LaTray doesn’t love? “Well, I won’t plant as many collard greens this year,” she admits. “I can get people to eat just about anything, but not collard greens.”
FOR MOST of us, feeding our own family is challenging enough. That’s why Shelley Lance’s productive little urban Eden in Seattle is so deliciously appealing. One day at a time, she’s proving you don’t need LaTray’s abundant acreage to eat well from a garden.
Lance is at ground zero of the city’s food culture. For 25 years, she’s worked for restaurant mogul Tom Douglas, first as a pastry chef and now developing recipes, menus and cookbooks. At home, she’s recently renovated her garden for a second time. This go-round, she was determined to squeeze herbs, vegetables and fruit in among the flowers and shrubbery.
When Lance and her husband, Frank Shoichet, bought their century-old home near Green Lake a decade ago, the garden was overgrown with junipers and rhododendrons. The couple hired Cameron Scott of Exteriorscapes to thin out the landscape and install some hardscape. Scott rid the garden of invasive perennials and built a supportive screen for the garden’s venerable old muscat grapevine. Scott’s work made the garden more usable and attractive, but it still lacked space and sun enough to grow vegetables, a real miss for a foodie like Lance. So she invited Scott back for a little more garden renovation.
This time, Scott and Peter Lavagnino of Exteriorscapes faced quite a daunting challenge. The Lance/Shoichet garden is long and narrow, measuring a scant 30 feet wide by 80 feet long. Lance hoped to grow rhubarb, peas, radishes, lettuce, green beans, blueberries, strawberries, lingonberries, huckleberries and a variety of herbs.
Scott and Lavagnino’s successful strategy stressed bold design and required a little compromise. Lance parted with lawn, an apple tree and even quite a bit of the lavish grapevine. In return, Scott designed an eye-catching brick circle in the middle of the garden. The handsome little terrace maintains open space and draws the eye; its aged bricks compliment the old house, too. Water bubbles up out of a rugged stone in the center of the circle. “It’s like a Starbucks for birds in the morning,” says Lance of the fountain.
To make the most of space and sun, edibles are integrated with ornamentals. Lavagnino wove lettuces, berries, herbs and fruit throughout the garden. Now a swathe of edibles runs through the garden in a seemingly random pattern, concentrated in areas where the sun shines brightest.
Lance narrowed her plant palette a bit. “I chose to grow what I most want to eat,” she says. Herbs such as oregano and mint that tend toward invasiveness are confined to pots, while more mannerly herbs are allowed to sprawl along the edges of a stone pathway. An espaliered pear tree and dwarf ‘Brown Turkey’ fig produce luscious fruit in a minimum of space. Strawberries ‘Shuksan’ and ‘Quinault’ double as ground cover, and the vivid red berries on the lingonberry bushes (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) are as ornamental as they are delicious.
Lance is happy with the casual, cottage look of her refurbished little garden. “I love really tall flowers,” she says, and around the edges of the garden Lavagnino left room for her to grow peonies, lilies, dahlias, delphinium and phlox. But because this garden belongs to a dedicated foodie, statuesque artichokes grow along with the flowers. Tomatoes, peas and beans climb the arbors, and pots are filled with herbs as well as flowers.
WHATEVER THE size, a great benefit of these new gardens lies in the relationship between food and community that LaTray talks about. Other local gardeners have found creative ways to make and celebrate that same vital connection.
Glass artist and vegetable gardener John DeWitt, for instance, adapted the book-group model to gather friends around gardening. He and a dozen or so fellow Whidbey Islanders formed a club to share seeds, food and friendship as well as knowledge.
The group includes a range of professions and gardening experience. From accountants to stone masons, from newbie gardeners to those with greenhouses, lambs and chickens, the voluble bunch gets together every six weeks to tour each other’s gardens. The talk might start with microclimate envy and rabbit-proofing, but it ends with sharing tips for drying figs and recipes for sauerkraut and salsa.
“I was naïve to think this would be about gardening,” says DeWitt. “The thing about food is that you always end up at the table, sooner or later.” Every meeting ends with a potluck dinner where each couple shares a specialty from their garden.
Kathleen Warren found a community of gardeners by a more formal route. She posted on Seattle’s Urban Garden Share Web site (www.urbangardenshare.org/), which she describes as “like a dating site, but it works a whole lot better.” Ten eager gardeners applied to share Warren’s back garden in North Seattle; she chose Alan Byars and Roy Vermillion to help kick-start her neglected garden into productivity. Both men, experienced gardeners frustrated at languishing for more than a year on the wait list for a Seattle P-Patch, jumped in to root out weeds and grass that had taken over Warren’s vegetable patch.
The program leaves it to the gardeners to work out the details, and this trio had no problem with division of labor. Vermillion installed drip irrigation, Warren pays for water, all three contributed seeds and work, and all shared the bountiful backyard harvest. Warren hopes both guys come back to garden with her this coming summer. “Sharing garden space is such an elegant and simple solution,” concludes Warren, “and a wonderful expression of community.”
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “The New Low-Maintenance Garden.” Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.