Green Matters: Real Food Renaissance

Carla Hall

GARDENING GODDESS — What do area gardeners do in the bleakest months of the year? We hunker inside with our plant catalogs and seed-starting trays. We also do emerge from our cocoons to gather for many local garden events and conferences. From garden club meetings to seed exchanges, this is the time of year to brush up on our gardening knowledge. One of the most popular of these is Green Matters conference at the end of February each year hosted by Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, MD.

Past Green Matters have centered on stormwater management, native plants, and trees. This year’s was the second in a three-year cycle on edible gardening. The 2011 conference was planned by Mark Richardson and he gave an opening talk on the increasing trends of using edibles in public gardens. Those ahead of the curve include the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the Chicago Botanic Gardens. Both have integrated edibles into their public displays and education programs. Chicago has an outdoor kitchen with weekly chef demonstrations throughout the growing season. While Brooklyn has the oldest running children’s garden program which includes after-school groups as well as plots set aside for local families to tend together.

The conference was a great networking event for professional horticulturalists as well as amateur home gardeners. Though the program was packed with interesting information, a few speakers stood out from the pack for me: Phil Normandy, Brookside Gardens staff; Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland; and, Carla Hall of Top Chef fame.

Brookside’s own plant collection manager Phil Normandy gave a short report on the first year of growing edibles at Brookside. Because most visitors to public gardens expect ornamentals with something always in bloom, growing edibles presents a problem as they are usually not very attractive plants themselves. Phil said they were able to incorporate beds of edibles and still look presentable to the public. One way they solved the problem was working in lots of companion flower and herb plantings with the vegetables. Purple basil and marigolds stay low and full while lending lots of color. Sweet potato vines spilled over the edges of the raised beds and covered a multitude of sins. Still, Phil said, there were inevitable periods of “negative space” as one crop ended and another was seeded.

What do area gardeners do in the bleakest months of the year? We hunker inside with our plant catalogs and seed-starting trays. We also do emerge from our cocoons to gather for many local garden events and conferences. From garden club meetings to seed exchanges, this is the time of year to brush up on our gardening knowledge. One of the most popular of these is Green Matters conference at the end of February each year hosted by Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, MD.

Past Green Matters have centered on stormwater management, native plants, and trees. This year’s was the second in a three-year cycle on edible gardening. The 2011 conference was planned by Mark Richardson and he gave an opening talk on the increasing trends of using edibles in public gardens. Those ahead of the curve include the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the Chicago Botanic Gardens. Both have integrated edibles into their public displays and education programs. Chicago has an outdoor kitchen with weekly chef demonstrations throughout the growing season. While Brooklyn has the oldest running children’s garden program which includes after-school groups as well as plots set aside for local families to tend together.

The conference was a great networking event for professional horticulturalists as well as amateur home gardeners. Though the program was packed with interesting information, a few speakers stood out from the pack for me: Phil Normandy, Brookside Gardens staff; Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland; and, Carla Hall of Top Chef fame.

Brookside’s own plant collection manager Phil Normandy gave a short report on the first year of growing edibles at Brookside. Because most visitors to public gardens expect ornamentals with something always in bloom, growing edibles presents a problem as they are usually not very attractive plants themselves. Phil said they were able to incorporate beds of edibles and still look presentable to the public. One way they solved the problem was working in lots of companion flower and herb plantings with the vegetables. Purple basil and marigolds stay low and full while lending lots of color. Sweet potato vines spilled over the edges of the raised beds and covered a multitude of sins. Still, Phil said, there were inevitable periods of “negative space” as one crop ended and another was seeded.

What grew best for the edible garden beds at Brookside? Okra! Phil reported a bumper crop of ‘Little Lucy’ red dwarf okra. Another monster in the garden was Hyacinth Bean,  which quickly took over the arbor built for it to share with other vines. Other successes included cardoon, swiss chard, bok choy, and ‘Ruby Perfection’ cabbage.

Less than stellar results grew from eggplant, calendula, rape seed, and hanging planters of tomatoes. Most succumbed to insect pests and the unusually hot summer of 2010. Phil reports the gardeners tried to maintain the plants without pesticide use, but in certain cases, there would have been zero plant material had they not judiciously sprayed certain edibles.

Jonathan Bloom had the unenviable mission of speaking just before lunch. He held the attendees attention though by sharing research from his new book, American Wasteland. The book is all about the food not eaten in the United States. Food waste statistics are appalling and frankly disgusting. Much of our food waste happens before we even purchase it due to stores wanting to display perfect, unblemished fruit and to arbitrary “sell by” dates that have no legal basis. He ended by urging attendees to buy 25% less food each week since a quarter of our food goes to waste. He reasoned we can purchase and prepare meals more thoughtfully and still eat just as well.

Carla Hall, local caterer turned Top Chef superstar, also spoke on careful food preparation. Her mantra is “cooking from the heart.” Carla believes that layering of flavors and deliberate, mindful cooking are the keys to enjoying eating and preparing meals. She urged folks not to cook with one eye on the television and the other planning tomorrow’s work schedule. Carla dropped some advice gems such as dropping an herbal tea bag in the boiling water when preparing rice or other grains. Her energy was infectious and the audience left in high spirits, ready to use her cooking tips in their own home recipes..

About the Author

Kathy Jentz
Kathy Jentz is editor of Washington Gardener magazine and is a long-time DC area gardening enthusiast. Washington Gardener is all about gardening where you live. She can be reached at @WDCgardener on Twitter and welcomes your local DMV gardening questions.