Pablo Elliot (who majored in African Studies at Vassar) walked me through the organic garden project, which was started 10 years ago to provide food for the center.
"All the veggies we grow are sissies," he declared, after confiding his plan to build 5 raised beds a day for the next week, for a total of 30. "Tomatoes have to be held up and staked, lettuce hopes for a cooler breeze -- the clay soils here can get very compact, but the raised bed aerates it. It's luxury living for vegetables."
Elliot's breezy demeanor serves him well as he imparts information to local farmers, amateurs and guests to the sustainable center interested in organic gardening. The garden supplies about 8 percent of the center's food -- he works closely with chefs to grow what they need -- and the rest they source, preferably from other local growers.
The premise of organic gardening is to create a chemical free environment that is biodiverse enough to keep pests at bay by making the soil as fertile as possible with compost, and planting crops that will complement each other, cutting down on loss. Bugs are encouraged; garden supply chains even sell them.
To that end, Elliot recommends 3' x 30' beds, small enough to walk around and commune with your plants. "The best fertilizer is the footprint of the farmer," he says. His favorite tool is the broadfork, which pushes about a foot into the soil, then lifts up without turning to aerate the bottom, while leaving the best soil on top. Compost, at a rate of a wheelbarrow full per 100 square feet of bed, is added each season.
"Nothing we do here is rocket science," says Elliot. "I am into simple methods. A farmer once told me, 'Tickle the soil and it laughs with a harvest.' It stimulates soil in a way that microbes feed the plants. Keeping the habitat diverse encourages beneficial insects and birds and pollinators. That's how organic gardening works. You feed the soil, and the soil feeds the plants."
He does test the soil about once a year; Virginia's clay soils have a low pH and often have to be amended with calcidic lime. But the end result is a thriving garden, full of lettuces, which he staggers in small plantings so the chefs have a constant supply, herbs, potatoes, tomatoes, the summer crops of eggplants, squash and melons, not to mention a fall corn maze. They have a hoop house that allows starting seeds sooner, and extends the growing season for fall greens into cold weather months.
"We try to transplant as much as possible -- they aren't as delicate as when you start from seeds. The chefs like the little greens but it is a lot of work," he says. One hurdle for organic farmers, he says is getting chefs to recognize that organic produce might have a hole here, a blemish here, that they have to make pretty on the plate."They are into the challenge."
Mesclun salad with chevre dressing
4 - 6 cups mesclun or any salad greens
any vegetables, nuts or dried fruits
1/2 cup chevre or cottage cheese
1/2 cup dill
2 T skim milk
salt and pepper to taste
Clean greens and shred into bowl. Whiz cheese and dill in small food chopper. Add milk to thin, salt and pepper to taste.