Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Growing for the Table

         I can describe my visit to Gail Witter-Laird’s garden briefly as follows:  I trailed after her while she and her son Maxwell dug potatoes, harvested onions, garlic, squash, tomatoes, lettuce, and rosemary.  We came indoors and Gail prepared a lunch from the morning’s harvest: Ratatouille, potatoes sautéed with rosemary, a green salad, cheese from a local farmer, bread from a re-located pastry chef, and two beautiful wines. 

Gail and Maxwell

Some of you may want a little more information than what we ate and drank.   This weekend home in Claverack belongs to the above Gail and her husband Joshua Laird, and their young sons Maxwell and Ethan.  Gail is a distinguished landscape architect with the New York City Parks Department, and has a number of award-winning designs under her belt. 

Harvesting Horseradish
Expecting to see the typical designer’s showplace, I was both surprised and delighted to find instead a modest farming enterprise.  That being said, it is still a strong personal statement.  “I wanted to grow fresh food.  I grew up in California with a big vegetable garden, had a small garden when I was at the American Academy in Rome, and a community garden in Riverside Park,” Gail reports. 

The vegetable garden is her answer to a formal garden, and is inspired by the Castello Plan of 1660, an early city map showing home ownership in lower Manhattan and the accompanying kitchen gardens laid out with little parterres.  “If you look carefully, every single house had a kitchen garden.”

The Lower Garden
Gail’s kitchen gardens are set on a ten-acre parcel wrapping around the original four-acre home site.  There are three gardens: a hot, lower garden protected by a hillside, in full sun, and hospitable to peppers, squash, potatoes, cucumbers and herbs, a cooler upper garden for tomatoes and lettuces, and a more distant garden, further uphill, set aside for fruits and flowers but at the moment undeveloped. 

Planting rows are hilled up about a foot above grade by an accumulation of soil.  Manure and straw are imported each year from a neighboring farm.  The manure is incorporated into the existing soil and the beds mulched with straw.  As the straw turns brown and decomposes it is incorporated into the soil and fresh straw is laid.
Freshly Hilled-up Planting Row
Support for Runner Beans
Gail’s crops are 100% non-toxic.  She orders only organic material from Territorial Seeds in Oregon, and is extremely careful about pest control, using Neem oil to protect squash from fungus and copper sulphate for tomato blight.  Crops are rotated, and success varies from year to year.  “This year is really good for tomatoes,” says nine-year old Maxwell, lugging a basket of cherry tomatoes and squash.

The Upper Garden

Gail gardens only on weekends.  She rises at 5:30 in the morning and gets four hours in before the family stirs.  She adds a few hours in the afternoon, averaging a total of about six hours a day.  The 8,000 square feet of planted garden is Gail’s baby, and everyone eats very well as a result of it.  The family makes reasonable contributions to the effort:  Maxwell is the chief helper, Ethan, age eight, handles parsley, chervil and scallions, while Joshua is the principal shredder as the leaf blower seems to be his purview alone. 

A few useful tips from Gail:
Use only straw for mulching, never hay as the hay seeds will wind up producing a meadow instead of vegetables.

Never plant Ipomoea.  While morning glories are indeed glorious for a season, they keep returning relentlessly, winding themselves around any hapless vegetable they can find. 

Keep a garden notebook and enter dates and depth for rainfall, first and last frosts, time to bearing, etc. 

Use the children’s small rubber snakes in the garden.  They keep the crows away.  Blank CDs also work.
Site for the Future Flower and Fruit Garden

1 comment:

  1. Ellen Brown in ProvidenceSeptember 15, 2011 at 4:46 PM

    Hi fellow devoted readers of The Sunday Gardener,
    I write a weekly column for "The Providence Journal," and I've developed a few recipes recently that are perfect for this time of year. Here are links to my Oven-Roasted Ratatouille and also a wonderful version of Panzanella salad: