Ready, Set, Grow: How to Plant a Restaurant-Caliber Garden in Your Backyard
"If I'm not in the middle of a vegetable bed every day, I can start to feel disconnected from the source of my food," says Julia Sullivan, owner of Nashville's Henrietta Red and 2018 F&W Best New Chef, reflecting on her first year of tending a home garden.
It is hard to believe a chef of Sullivan's caliber, one who trained at the Culinary Institute of America and with acclaimed, agriculturally focused chefs Dan Barber and Thomas Keller, could ever feel alienated from the farmers and purveyors whose ingredients populate her menus. But the breakneck pace of running her restaurant kitchen made it hard to pause and make that connection, she explains. "There have been years, like when we first opened Henrietta Red, that we were so busy, an entire summer passed and I realized that I hadn't stopped to eat a whole, ripe tomato." A desire to close that distance ultimately drove Sullivan to seek out Sara Gasbarra of Verdura Design, which specializes in installing culinary gardens for restaurants, to help her plan a garden for her Nashville home.
Intentions set, Gasbarra and Sullivan hatched a plan inspired by gardens in France and California, featuring raised beds and trellises for climbing plants like tomatoes and peas. They selected a space at the back of her property—an open, flat, grassy area with just enough shade to protect the vegetables from the intense Southern summer sun. They sourced cedar boards from a local mill for the beds and had an irrigation line installed to provide water to the garden. Sullivan made a wish list of heirloom vegetables from a stack of seed catalogs.
Then, in early March 2020, when they'd hoped to start planting, a tornado tore through the neighborhood, tossing trees and roofs in every direction. Cleanup was still underway when the COVID-19 pandemic reached Tennessee. Progress on the garden stalled as Sullivan and Gasbarra struggled to keep their businesses afloat.
It was late spring when they were finally able to turn back to Sullivan's garden. They installed the beds and transplanted their first seedlings. By midsummer, the trellises hung heavy with Black Cherry tomatoes, pepper bushes were brimming with shishitos, and Centercut squash vines had sneaked through the fence and made a home in her neighbor's yard. Sullivan found herself heading to the garden every morning, a new rhythm of life taking hold. "If we hadn't been in the middle of the pandemic, if I hadn't had the ability to be so attentive, I don't know that I would have realized I needed to treat gardening like a discipline, to be present and take the time," she says. The world had slowed down and, with it, Sullivan.
As she did in her restaurant kitchen, she had to think on her feet, as the garden threw challenges her way. "All of a sudden the weather heated up, and my lettuce bolted," she recalls. "It was leggy, fibrous, and bitter, like chicory, with a core as thick as salsify root." Her solution? Pull up the entire head and grill it until it was charred in spots, mellowing the bitter core and turning it juicy and tender. Sauced with her Caesar dressing, the bolted lettuce—in any other garden bound for the compost heap—became a go-to base for grilled chicken. In answer to bumper crops, she infused Chardonnay with tomatoes and basil for vinegar, cooked cherry tomatoes with garlic and greens for a polenta ragout, and blended bunches of herbs into a verdant simple syrup. (If nothing else, Sullivan exhorts curious gardeners to plant herbs: "When you grow your own herbs, it improves your cooking immediately.")
Thinking back on her first year with the garden, from its imperfect beginnings through its first summer, Sullivan is philosophical. "At first, I wanted to set up the garden quickly and perfectly, but it has to be a process," she notes. "I think learning to garden is kind of like holding a baby for the first time; you're just so afraid you're going to hurt it. I've learned so much from Sara. Watching how fearlessly she plants, tends, harvests, and deals with issues like pests, I think now I feel much less pressure to be perfect. It became less about having it always be super beautiful and more about making sure that nothing grown was wasted."
As for what's next? Sullivan and Gasbarra are already thinking ahead to next season. "I love opening my mailbox in January, when it is bursting with seed catalogs," Gasbarra exclaims. "It is the best feeling because it brings this sense of hope. Now it's time to plan again!"
Culinary Gardening 101
Prep the Plot
Through her company, Verdura Design, Sara Gasbarra provides chefs with unique and delicious varieties of vegetables and herbs—the kinds of things you can rarely source from farmers markets. Here, she shares her tips for planning a new garden.
1. Select a site: Choose a sunny, flat area—like a lawn or patio—or one that can be terraced.
2. Size it up: Determine the size of garden you want to tend. Consider how much space and time you can devote, how many people you want to feed, and what kinds of vegetables you'd like to grow.
3. Build it out: Raised beds and planters allow for good drainage and minimal weeds. Beds can be constructed from untreated wood, galvanized steel, or stacked stone. Halved whiskey barrels, terra-cotta pots, and elevated wooden planters are also great options, depending on the size and location of the garden.
4. Reach for the sun: Permanent wooden trellises can be built right into the frame of raised beds. For more flexibility, use individual bean poles and stackable Texas Tomato Cages to suit seasonal needs. ($145 for 4, tomatocage.com)
5. Create super soil: Sourcing great soil is the most important factor of any garden. Gasbarra advises getting a blend formulated specifically for vegetable production from a local nursery; it will have the right pH and nutrient balance for a culinary garden. For smaller pots and planters, buy bags of best-quality compost and potting soil, which will allow for good drainage, from a garden center.
6. Let it rain: Consider how you'll water the garden: For potted plants, try a watering can with a long, narrow spout, like one from Blomus ($54, food52.com/shop) to prevent soil splash. For raised beds, DripWorks makes easy-to-assemble irrigation kits for any size garden, and a Bluetooth-enabled timer gives you control from a smartphone (from $70, dripworks.com).
Sow the Seeds
Gasbarra likes to start some plants from seed and source others from nurseries. Check your climate zone at plants.usda.gov/hardiness.html to determine what varieties will do well in your area.
7. Direct sow: Some vegetables and herbs thrive when sown directly in sun-warmed garden beds. Radishes, carrots, beans, peas, cilantro, and leafy greens like arugula and loose-leaf lettuce do best when directly sown outdoors in early spring.
8. Transplant: For plants with longer growing seasons, like hardy herbs, tomatoes, and peppers, transplant garden-ready vegetable seedlings from local nurseries or farmers markets, or start your own seeds. When purchasing young plants, look for vibrant, sturdy stems and healthy leaves free of wilt or discoloration. Start plants from seed indoors near a sunny window or under grow lights up to 8 weeks before the last frost. For effortless seed starting, use a self-watering tray with a wicking system, which only needs to be refilled once or twice a week. For low-light areas, use a grow light to help seeds sprout. Gasbarra uses the Gardener's Supply stackable Bamboo LED Grow Light Garden, which gives her peace of mind that the plants will be healthy and strong (from $159, gardeners.com).
Grow the Garden
A joyful routine, tending a garden keeps you grounded in the seasons and offers the chance to get to know your food intimately. Keep plants healthy with great nutrients and the right tools and techniques.
9. Find a balance: Once the garden is established, keep it healthy with the right mix of nutrients. Test the soil once a month to check for macronutrients and a neutral pH. Use an at-home kit for instant results (NPK Test Kit, $20, gardeners.com).
10. Feed the soil: Feed regularly to correct nutrient imbalances with Neptune's Harvest Fish-Seaweed Fertilizer (from $34, neptunesharvest.com). "I have been using this for years; it is my go-to fertilizer for when plants need a pick-me-up," Gasbarra says.
11. Tools of the trade: You only need a few tools, so invest in good ones. Every gardener needs a hori hori, which is a type of digging knife, and a trowel, like the hand-forged ones from Red Pig Garden Tools (from $35, redpigtools.com).
Cook the Harvest
Creamy Polenta with Burst Cherry Tomato–and–Red Wine Ragout
Laced with ribbons of hearty greens, Julia Sullivan's savory garden tomato ragout pops with bright flavor, the perfect accompaniment to a canvas of creamy polenta. The polenta is cooked with milk for a comforting vegetarian main. Garlic and basil punch up this modern classic; it's an easy addition to your weeknight rotation.
Any-Season Caesar Salad
A robust, creamy dressing and a few minutes on the grill help to tame chicories or sturdy lettuces in this bright salad. Swapping mayonnaise for raw egg means this dressing stays fresh in the fridge all week.
Tomato-Chardonnay Vinegar & Peach-Rosé Vinegar
With bright sweetness from tomatoes and a savory, robust finish from garlic, this mild, lightly acidic vinegar is ideal for finishing dishes. Drizzle over vegetables, soups, or fish.
Aromatic, refreshing lemon verbena and mild fruitiness from peach-infused rosé shine in this versatile vinegar ideal for shrubs and cocktails.
Herb Simple Syrup
Blanching tender herbs before blending them in this versatile syrup preserves their delicate, fresh flavors. Use this refreshing syrup in cocktails or mocktails, or drizzle it over fruity desserts.