Mixing it up in the backyard garden
“Our garden is an artful, bountiful, and experimental place—a laboratory of sorts,” says Michael Blakeney, as he and his husband, Brian Sisco, can fruit and bake pies in their Bedford kitchen.
Various Photos by Rana Faure
“The greatest thing about having a backyard garden is you eat what the garden tells you to eat,“ says Michael Blakeney as he spoons strawberries and rhubarb into canning jars. “The challenge of eating what’s growing is really fun. I don’t mind having a week that’s all about spinach. One year, we had a lot of leafy stuff coming in, so we invited friends over with their blenders, and we had a pesto bakeoff.”
This is Blakeney’s 28th season of backyard gardening. “My first garden—back in ’89—was all about making pickles,” recalls the owner of a sprawling 4,000-square-foot garden he shares with his husband, Brian Sisco, in Bedford.
“Many of my garden choices have been driven by me selecting plants that I know Brian likes to eat. But, overall, for both of us, the garden is really, at its core, about curiosity and experimentation.” Sisco agrees and adds, “We don’t just experiment with edible plants—we’ve also tried to grow loofah which is a visual pleasure; it has enormous leaves and climbs up onto the roof.”
Each year, the couple has a garden theme, and the parameters help guide their seed purchasing. This year, it will be “Peas & Carrots”—a riff on the old menu staple, while previous themes have included “Esoteric Italian Vegetables” and “Pasta Sauces.” Planning begins during Christmas week when Sisco creates a diagram of the beds, and Blakeney strategically fills it in.
After that, they begin seeding in the basement and by early May, half of the plants, including sweet peas and fava beans are already in the ground. “Sweet peas because they smell good and fava beans…because who doesn’t like anything that’s Italian?” Blakeney says with a laugh.
By day, Blakeney, a former art teacher who has a PhD in education administration, is the master gardener at Skye Farm in North Salem. “A lot of my gardening is actually about art,” he explains. “At home—and even at the farm, it feels like I’m composing a huge painting every year.” “He really is a visionary,” admires Sisco, who is a designer by profession and a weaver by craft.
“Since it’s the first thing seen when entering the driveway, we want it to look and smell engaging,” says Blakeney. “This is where mixing flowers with vegetables, perennials with annuals, and woody plants with leafy plants, comes into play. It might appear like chaos to some folks, but it’s an organized chaos.”
Both men are enthusiastic eaters and love to share their bounty. In the kitchen—which is the heart of their home, Blakeney cooks, and Sisco bakes. Saga and Erik, their English Golden sidekicks, can often be found under foot or under the baking table keeping a watchful eye. “All the energy and attention during our renovation went into designing this room because everyone ends up here,” Blakeney notes.
“When people come for dinner, everyone pitches in,” says Sisco, whose passion for baking was inspired by watching his mother make pies during his childhood. “It’s always experimental. We’re not afraid to eat the mistakes. The more imperfect the better.”
One culinary specialty that Blakeney is working to perfect, however, is his line of exotic applesauces, which he is developing under the brand Cisco & Blake, a label inspired by the couple’s last names. With a tag line reading “Jarringly Different Applesauce,” the collection boasts flavors like Bourbon Bing and Pineapple Mint. “I make applesauce because our friends like and appreciate it,” says Blakeney. “And when someone appreciates your work, it makes you want to do more.”
Just as they work side by side in the kitchen, the duo collaborates in the garden, as well. While Blakeney plants, Sisco builds gates, fencing, and trellises. He repurposes old wood—boards from Sunnyfield Farm, leftover trim from their home renovation, even horse bail twine from their friend Jayni Chase. Blakeney sums up their efforts: “We help each other out because ultimately, we love to eat—and gardening allows us to eat a lot!”