James Schend knows food. He works in the Southern Living Test Kitchens, is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, and has experience with cuisine from New York to Napa Valley to Southern climes. After landing in Birmingham and becoming a first-time homeowner, he finally had the opportunity to garden--a longtime aspiration.
When James asked me for advice, he had already decided to plant an all-edible landscape. A top priority was to grow ingredients reminiscent of his time in California. We put our heads together and came up with a plan--lettuces, tomatoes, rosemary, basils, figs, and blueberries would be easy. Other choices, such as lavender and grapes, would be an experiment.
James started with the soil, working composted cow manure and soil conditioner into the existing heavy clay using a tiller.
Some crops required support, and James decided all trellises and structures would be made from bamboo. He designed and built the arbor in a weekend, then covered a metal trash can with bamboo fencing to house one of the tomato selections. Three tall poles tied at the top became a tepee for the robust 'Red Pear' tomato plants. An expandable bamboo trellis stretched across a bed to hold the remaining tomato selections.
When he started planting, the rain also began--Birmingham experienced a record-breaking exceedingly wet summer. The lavender border surrounding the garden promptly rotted, and the squash decided to chase down the rosemary for space.
The grapes, a 'Niagara' and a 'Fredonia,' took the slow road up the arbor. But impatience took hold, and James planted Malabar spinach--a climbing green--as a companion to the grapes. It took off running, covered the arbor, and headed into the neighboring bay tree hedge.
When the rains finally stopped, the garden kicked into high gear. Harvesting became a daily task, with vegetables and herbs ripening with reckless abandon. James clipped enough languishing lavender for one recipe before pulling it out of the ground.
Amazing successes and interesting failures are part of any garden. But even with the rain and other challenges, there was always plenty to harvest. Read on to see what James did with his first year's bounty.
"A Chef's Garden" is from the Southern Living 2004 issue of the Spring Gardening Guide.