by AMY STEWART
ONE OF THE GREAT JOYS OF HAVING A GARDEN IS getting away from it once in a while. My own garden is insanely dull right now: already pruned, already mulched, too early for planting and too muddy for pulling weeds. Every now and then a calla lily blooms or an asparagus stalk rises from the ground prematurely, and I dutifully chop them down and bring them indoors. But other than that, there's just not much to do in winter. I was curious to know how other people kept a garden going this time of year, so I wrangled an invitation to the Carter House's garden [photo below ] in Eureka. Sure enough, staff gardener Francine Slaughter had more going on in January than I do at the height of summer.
"The trick is to start planning in November," she said. "I add a layer of compost to the vegetable beds and start thinking about what the kitchen will need after the new year."
Because the garden supplies food to the Carter House's Restaurant 301, Francine has to think big. "In the winter, I take one big bucket of salad greens over to the chefs every week. In the summer, I might deliver three or four times that much. Still, that's only about a quarter of the salad greens that the kitchen uses. This year I hope to start supplying half the greens the chefs need."
To boost the productivity of the garden, she plants leeks and green onions among the lettuce, sets out artichokes among the perennial herbs, and encourages volunteer strawberries to come up anywhere they can find room.
"The birds get some of these strawberries," she said, pointing to a long, narrow bed that runs the length of the greenhouse, "but I don't mind. They're probably the ones spreading strawberry seed all over the garden. So there's enough for everybody."
The Carter House opened in 1982; the kitchen garden was established shortly thereafter to provide produce and inspiration to the chefs. It's a somewhat formal garden, with brick walkways and geometrical planting beds. Small statues perch in the round beds where paths meet, and a jasmine-covered arbor at one end nearly conceals a bench flanked by stone flowerpots.
"They get to try out things that aren't available commercially," said Francine. "When the roses are finished blooming in the fall, I bring them rose hips, which are very high in vitamin C, and they try them out in sauces. Or I'll bring them edible flowers like borage, or scented herbs like this peppermint-scented geranium. The flowers and herbs might end up in a dessert or a salad or a garnish." This is Francine's third year as the staff gardener; she said it has taken this long to establish a rhythm of planting cycles that will keep the garden producing year-round.
Even fava beans do double-duty, serving as a cover crop in winter to hold soil in place, fix nitrogen below-ground, and crowd out weeds. Once spring comes, the kitchen staff will welcome the tender young beans, and even the leaves will get used. "They've got a nutty taste, kind of like arugula," she said. "I cut some for the salad mix."
Francine is realistic about what she can and can't supply to the kitchen. "It would be fun to do more root crops, like potatoes," she said, "but that's something that's pretty affordable for the restaurant to buy. So I just focus on the high-end stuff: herbs, edible flowers, small fruit, and greens." Although the fruit trees are dormant now, I look around the garden and see the bare branches of plum and cherry trees, fig and apple trees, and even a kiwi vine growing over an arbor. There are also blueberries and some small citrus trees in pots. The more I walk around the garden, the more I realize how densely planted it is.
"It's not all about function, though," Francine said. "A garden has to have a visual appeal, and lots of great scents. There's a row of lilac in front of the greenhouse, and pink jasmine on either end of the garden. In summer, you can smell it as soon as you walk in the gate."
This emphasis on form and aesthetic appeal explains the presence of several enormous stands of rosemary. There's far more rosemary than the kitchen can use, but it's an evergreen, sculptural herb that has a traditional place in ornamental herb gardens. Some non-culinary herbs, such as French lavender, line the brick walkways.
"They can't use the French variety in the kitchen, although we do use it as a cut flower in little bud vases. But it's in keeping with the romantic character of the garden," Francine explained. She also plants annual flowers like primroses that bloom brightly on overcast winter days.
"I also tend the beds around the hotel and the bed-and-breakfast," she added. "There's more lavender there, and also some bronze fennel and borage. Basically I try to use every piece of land available to me, because I'm not just growing vegetables for the kitchen, I'm also growing cut flowers for the lobby and the restaurant."
The greenhouse serves as a kind of waiting room for orchids not yet in bloom; she brings them to the hotel when they flower and takes them away when they go dormant again. Incredibly, she accomplishes all of this as a half-time job, and uses only organic methods.
"It's no problem to hand-pick snails," she said. "I trap them in overturned clay pots, and if I have to, I use this pet-safe, iron phosphate snail bait called Sluggo. I can usually spray off aphids and whitefly with the hose, or I might use a little insecticidal soap. I bring in compost and some organic amendments to fertilize the vegetable beds, and that's really all the garden needs."
For a list of suggestions to keep your garden going year-round, see the "February Garden Checklist" box. Meanwhile, the Carter House kitchen garden is available for tours by appointment, or stop in at the hotel and ask about the self-guided tour. Francine is usually in the garden on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays from 11-3. Call 444-8062 for more information.
E-mail garden-related announcements and news to Amy Stewart.
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