Gardens of Plenty

By staff March 1, 2004

Culinary gardens are sprouting up all over the country, as gardeners rediscover the great pleasure of stepping out their back door to snip fresh herbs, harvest a few sun-ripened tomatoes or pluck a crisp cucumber to embellish home-cooked meals.

Nowhere is this trend more evident than in the upscale restaurant scene. From Patrick O'Connell at The Inn at Little Washington in Virginia, to Hubert Keller at The French Laundry in California, chefs are rolling up their sleeves and digging into the earth to connect with the food they prepare and boost their cuisine with the flavors of fresh-from-the-garden produce.

Locally, Roger Hopkins, the executive chef of The Colony Restaurant at The Colony Beach and Tennis Resort on Longboat Key, reaps the rewards from the raised beds and containers of his three-year-old kitchen garden, or potager.

"The potager is only a hop, skip and a jump from the restaurant," says chef Hopkins. "The raised beds are used for both aesthetic and practical purposes. They look good and allow us to provide the plants with additional nutrient-rich soil. Growing invasive herbs such as mints in window boxes keeps them from sprawling and taking over."

Chef Hopkins creates special dishes with the season's harvest, from tomatoes to eggplant, in mind. "Herbs, such as tarragon, sages, parsley and basil tend to do better in the cooler weather while vegetables thrive in hot summer months," he says.

For insect control, Hopkins planted marigolds, a natural bug repellent, and uses Safers insecticidal soap, an organic pesticide. Once a week, Rhonda Hall, the garden and grounds manager, feeds the 5- by10-foot plot with a balanced fertilizer.

Just as in cooking, the recipe for creating a kitchen garden calls for specific ingredients. Space permitting, it is easy to get carried away, but to truly enjoy the process, try to resist biting off more than you can chew. Exact dimensions, materials and layout are all matters of expediency, budget and personal taste. Fencing off the culinary garden not only aesthetically defines the area in the landscape but also helps keep out pesky varmints. A daily dose of sunshine is a must, preferably eight hours but a minimum of six. Vegetables like the hotter summer months, so spring, around Good Friday, is the best time to plant your vegetable garden. Herbs, on the other hand, do best in spring and fall.

The next step is to make sure the soil is adequate. Successful gardening starts with the dirt, and poor soil can only produce poor results. Test your soil with a do-it-yourself kit or take a sample to your county agricultural extension service for a more complete analysis. The results of these tests will dictate what needs to be done to get the soil in shape, whether it is adding more humus, supplying missing nutrients or assuring proper drainage.

Lastly, focus your efforts on growing those things you will enjoy eating and you soon will reap the fruit of your labor.

Herbs, for example, connect the garden to the kitchen beyond the basics of potatoes and beans. They also provide delectable blossoms to enhance both recipes and garnishes. Variety is important, so experiment with several types of thyme, rosemary and sage such as caraway thyme, Tuscan blue rosemary, and Cleveland sage. Add a small patch of Asian herbs like sawtooth, red shiso, Thai basil and Vietnamese coriander, or a tea garden that includes many types of mint, which are also great for cake decorating and garnishes, as well as lemon verbena and chamomile to use in herbal infusions.

Flowers, a frequently overlooked feature of the kitchen garden, are not only edible but also help turn a potentially prosaic and practical horticultural space into a potager of notable beauty. Blossoms of borage, chrysanthemum, cornflower and dianthus can float in a bowl of soup or punch. Violet, miniature rose, lavender and honeysuckle blooms add a sweet flavor to salads and desserts. Daylilies and squash blossoms can be stir-fried, or batter dipped and deep fried. Nasturtiums and mustard flowers lend a spicy flavor to casseroles. Bright yellow calendula petals are an economical substitute for saffron.

Each trip to the kitchen garden will not only bring the comfort of fruit and flavors for the meal, but a cheerful bouquet for the table as well.

Save fresh herbs while they're abundant.

* When choosing fresh herbs, pick those with a clean, fresh fragrance and a bright color without any sign of wilting or browning.

*First dip bunches in boiling water to retain peak flavor. Divide herbs into smaller portions and freeze in airtight bags. Or place chopped, fresh herbs into ice cube trays and cover with an equal amount of water before freezing. Once cubes are frozen, place in sealed bags to maintain freshness.

* Fresh herbs can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 10 days.

* Rinse fresh herbs in cool water and place them on a paper towel. Gently roll them in the paper towel and moisten it with a fine mist until lightly damp.

* Place wrapped herbs in an airtight container and refrigerate. Each time you remove some for cooking, replace the remainder in a new damp paper towel and refrigerate.

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