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Plotting The Perfect Garden

A master gardener applies the principles of parterre design to the amazing array of heirloom vegetables at his Pennsylvania retreat. He shares his know-how, and five recipes.

I currently grow about 100 varieties of unusual and heirloom vegetables in the kitchen gardens of Hortulus Farm, the 100-acre homestead my partner and I own in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. That may sound obsessive for someone who doesn't sell produce for a living. But believe me, I wasn't always so ambitious. Twenty years ago, when we first moved to the farm, I was like most hobbyist gardeners: I'd head to the local nursery and pick up six-packs of whatever bean, squash or tomato plant was available. Invariably, these were varieties chosen by large seed companies for their familiarity and ease of mass production: Premium Crop broccoli; Early Girl or Big Boy tomatoes; Blue Lake beans. And I dutifully planted them in long, neat rows as if they were toy soldiers.

Before long, however, I wanted to grow the new lettuces, baby vegetables and Asian greens I was finding in markets and at restaurants. So, rather than buying plants, I started ordering seeds from catalogs, especially varieties that were noted for their taste. Over time, exotic and heirloom vegetables have become my passion.

Two years ago, I reconceived my vegetable patch using the principles of formal garden design. I wanted my kitchen garden not only to satisfy my needs as a cook, but also to look as beautiful as the 15 other formal gardens on the farm. On the pages that follow, I'll explain some of what I've learned, from how I reconfigured the layout and how to apply the same principles to other gardens to my favorite plant varieties--plus recipes for how to cook them. These wonderful vegetables, I hope you'll agree, can enliven both the kitchen and the garden.

The following recipes call for unusual vegetable varieties, including some from seeds sold by Cook's Garden (800-457-9703) and Seed Savers Exchange (319-382-5990). But more common vegetables can always be substituted.

Jack Staub's gardens at Hortulus Farm are open to groups by appointment, and the nursery is open year-round (215-598-0550). Staub is currently writing a book about Bucks County.

Published August 2001
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