Killer kitchen gardens

| 29 Aug 2014 | 12:14

We asked for your favorite gardens, and you delivered

But what to say about these gardens?

In July, I spent four days driving around New York and New Jersey with a spreadsheet on one leg and my GPS on the other, looking at 20 kitchen gardens. Riding shotgun for this adventure was the judge: for the New York gardens, the judge was Dina Falconi, a forager from New Paltz; for the New Jersey gardens, it was Robin Rose Bennett, a green witch from West Milford. These two women are hard-core earthy (both found the GPS to be an odd, alien presence). They are accustomed to withstanding the elements, which was fortunate because the days were blistering and my car’s AC had crapped out.

Each garden had been nominated, either by its owner or an admiring neighbor, for Dirt’s first Kitchen Garden Competition. We’ll be honest: the number of nominations we got shocked us. Expecting just a handful – this was our first year doing this and all – we’d “seeded” the applicant pool with my own garden (in my daughter’s name). We quickly realized we had more than enough gardens and withdrew mine, which was a mercy. These gardens made mine look like a bedraggled jungle.

Not that these gardens were so unusual. It became apparent by the end of the first day that the bar was uniformly high. It was no big deal to see cucumbers dripping off vines and a row of tasseled corn along the fence, radishes and onions the size of baseballs popping out of the ground. Ordinary working people had mini or not-so-mini farms in their yards, which not only fed their families but sometimes produced such excess that they brought it to work or to the food pantry or to the nuns in town. People out here know how to coax food from the dirt. Some do it to save money; all do it to relax and connect, like city slickers do yoga.

From garden to garden I went, scribbling notes as the judges made observations, becoming less and less sure of myself after each 15-minute visit. Each of these gardeners could be the subject of a feature story – Greg Lwowski with his volunteer bee swarms that have different personalities; Jennifer Overeem who talks to her pumpkins; Marion Wright who, at 90, with a mending hip, had already made four loaves of zucchini bread.

We were tearing along on a crazy schedule (one night, the judge and I got home at 10pm), and I couldn’t spend enough time at any one garden to do it justice. At the end of the four days, with 20 gardens behind me, I felt overwhelmed. Most of the gardens produced a ton of food. All were tended by folks you’d want to read about. And so I did nothing. I fretted that the details would fade into the oblivion of lost memory if I waited, and yet my deadline came and went, and my notes remained in my notebook, the two pages of the magazine where the garden feature was supposed to be, blank.

A strange thing happened. The memories didn’t fade. Maybe because I’d taken photos, the gardeners all remained clear in my memory, and they kept surfacing in my thoughts at unexpected moments, like friends. By thinking of the gardener, I found I was able to conjure up the little details of the garden, too – the envelope in which a couple saves bok choy seeds, the sliced cucumber in the glass of ice water offered to hot visitors, the potato tower with the removable lower boards for ease of harvesting. It turns out that much as dogs resemble their owners, gardens resemble their gardeners.

I’m not about to pick my favorites. I can’t. I’ll just write about the ones that pop to mind right now.

The kitchen garden for the soul

Dave Wardell touches up his lawn with a pair of scissors. If that’s not love, what is?

The Wardells’ yard was the only one we saw that didn’t actually produce much food – which at the time seemed a serious sticking point, since this was a kitchen garden competition. But the fact that it produced even a little food was in itself notable, since his yard is a shady lot, just a fraction of an acre, on a densely residential dead-end street in Middletown. In a photo the Wardells took when they moved in 10 years ago, the porch gives way to a patch of dirt and grass, emphasis on the former.

Today, the yard boasts a koi pond, patio, gazebo and outdoor eating area, a lush little lawn, a variety of pollinator plants and that staple of every family hangout: a skateboard ramp. On the flat part of the ramp (the deck, I believe it’s called) live some potted gourds and pumpkins, one of which has reached the chain link fence separating the Wardells’ property from the neighbor’s, and the vine looks like it’s about to enter the open mouth of one of the tiki statues adorning the fence.

“I like things that climb and grab,” said Yardell. He picks up interesting plants from 4H shows and master gardeners sale. He’s been coaxing his neighbor’s wisteria down to his own fence line, which seems like a mutually beneficial arrangement. He also likes “anything old and rusty. I’m constantly lugging stuff home,” like the mismatched cans that he drilled holes in and strung together to make a string of lanterns around the yard.

With the thoughtful placement of brightly colored bottle caps, speed limit signs and beer signs, a Thrasher banner and a red fire hydrant, he has turned a barren lot into a quirky little haven for his family of four. “We live in Middletown, but you’d never know it,” said Dave’s wife, Donna – until they walk out the front door and say, “Oh, right.”

An ivy-clad archway leads to an alleyway behind the house, which gets ‘til about 3pm. This is the sunniest area, and so it’s where the Wardells grow their food, rotating plants to see what can deal with a dearth of sun. This year they’ve got a couple tomato plants, one large and one cherry, some lima beans, corn, a pot of strawberries and a rain barrel beneath a roof spout.

Skateboarding has obviously played a major part in Wardell’s life, but he’s looking forward – the ramp takes up a big chunk of their small yard, and he doesn’t have much time to ride these days. “I’m going to take it apart and make it into planter boxes,” he said.

The big old estate garden

An expansive estate garden turns out not to have an expansive staff

Bell’s Mansion was the second-to-last of the 20 gardens that we toured over the course of four hot days. The light was fading, and so were we. When we pulled up, I saw immediately that the place had no chance of winning or even placing in this competition. It also became clear that no one was expecting our visit. So after we’d waited in the restaurant’s foyer for a bit, next to a platter of tomatoes and cucumbers just harvested from the garden, and the owner, Maria Kaczynski, appeared, I told her that she was welcome to show us around if she wanted, but that she was ineligible to win, so if she didn’t have time, that was okay too. This competition was for people who tended their gardens themselves, I explained. It wasn’t fair to measure them against gardens tended by a staff.

I could not have come up with a better pitch if I’d tried. Maria had just gotten home from grocery shopping for her daughter’s upcoming wedding and was tired and looked unconvinced about these two women who’d showed up unannounced, but the thought of disqualification got her juices going.

This garden was tended solely by herself and her husband, Jack, she said. They lived here, at this restored 1800s mansion, and this was their kitchen garden – it just happened that their home was also a restaurant.

She led us outside, along a brick walkway, past an orchard of 77 fruit trees, their trunks painted white; a vineyard of 100 grape vines from which they make wine; beets, which they use on salad and preserve in vinegar; arugula and Swiss chard; past benches and raspberry and blackberry and gooseberry bushes and cabbages and strawberries and 400 tomato plants and celery and leeks – it was an astounding amount of food, but it didn’t feel like a farm. A farm is all about functionality. This place, where perennials and annuals grew side by side, felt like a place for meandering, for falling asleep under a tree, for getting married.

Kaczynski sat on a bench in front of a bed terraced into the sloping yard with a stone retaining wall. Behind her was a rare section of bare soil, where it looked like a crop had just been harvested. The freshly hoed soil stood in furrows.

She pointed out the antique wheel hoe that still stood against a boulder, which Jack had used for the job.

“My husband makes fun of me, that he is my horse,” she said.

Maria comes out to the garden with her small dog every morning. “Every single day, there is a small surprise,” she said. She stood still and silent.

“Can you smell the garden?” she asked. “Maybe not now,” she said, but early in the morning, she swears she can smell the garden growing.

The kids’ garden

A 15, 13 and 10-year old grow food to eat through the winter

“Really, it’s theirs,” Rita Yanoff said, when I continued to direct questions her way. Each kid has his or her own section, and a neighboring kid also has his own section, in which they’re allowed to plant whatever they want, she explained.

It was hard to believe that Rita’s kids could be the manpower behind this well designed, productive but unfussy garden. In my experience of kids’ gardens, the kids tend their section for about two weeks, then either the weeds or the parents take over.

Sure, there were weeds in the raised beds, only you’d never know it, because these weeds were not the common suspects – nettles or garlic mustard or pokeweed – but cleomes, which are tall lavender flowers that grow as tall as the corn and apparently re-seed like crazy. It seems that if the Yanoffs were to do nothing, their garden would turn into a sea of cleomes, which might not be a bad thing at all.

But they do quite a bit. While we’re out there, 13-year-old Zenya quietly harvests four cucumbers, two zucchinis and two carrots from Zenya’s Zone, and places them wordlessly on a wooden bench. Seeing is believing; I get it now. This is the kids’ garden.

Questions are now directed toward Zenya, 13, since Logan, 10, is busy eating a popsicle that’s turning his lips blue. In addition to the aforementioned crops, Zenya grows beans, cauliflower, kale, potatoes, and “I had spinach here but it’s done so I planted flowers.”

“We’ve done it a long time,” said Zenya.

“They were crawling out here,” said Rita.

They’re still doing some crawling in Logan’s Mystery Zone. Logan likes pumpkins, which the family decorates for Halloween. His philosophy is “just plant everywhere, randomly,” Rita explained. A few years back, they added cow manure to the soil – and now Logan leads a visitor on a bushwhack through his section, a vine jungle on its way to becoming a very impressive patch of some kind, probably pumpkin and/or watermelon.

Alex, 15, is the corn guy. He’s got a few mature heads of broccoli in his section and a couple watermelon plants spilling over onto the pebble pathways, but mostly a lot of tall, happy looking corn. Fast-growing crops are a good choice for Alex, who enjoys planting and watering, and particularly spraying everyone with the hose, but doesn’t believe in weeding.

“Every year it gets really overgrown,” said Rita. “Come fall we find all this stuff hidden. Last year we found all these carrots, we ate them all winter.”