Plot to Plate
Add a little salt from your own brow, and everything tastes better.
More rustic than the Bennetts’ property in West Cornwall, this vegetable garden is both sumptuous and attractive.
Photo by Don Fink
Bruce and Debby Bennett are well-versed in plots overflowing with ingredients for the table. Bruce Bennett pretty much cut his teeth on greens when his father suddenly realized that a farm was the secret formula for raising a big family cost-effectively. “In addition to eight kids, we had three hired hands, two grandparents, and my parents at the table,” Bruce recalls. Debby’s upbringing wasn’t quite so well-populated, but she was definitely into the back-to-the-land movement.
When the two discovered chemistry (of the romantic kind) back in college, they also found that food was on their mutual menu. They wanted to go organic, and that option wasn’t readily available in regional supermarkets. They threw up some hoop houses, started their own seedlings, and figured they would be eating happily ever after. Even back then, they knew that they would be romping around in raised beds together for a lifetime.
Fast forward to now—the couple owns Kent Greenhouse & Gardens—following the Bennetts’ purchase of a 70-acre West Cornwall property in 2000. Fifty acres are in conservation easement, seven acres are cleared, and half an acre is devoted to sustenance. We’re talking all the fixings from appetizers (fresh from the asparagus patch) to dessert (thanks to Debby’s addiction to berry sherbets). They have an orchard, a vineyard, kiwi vines, berry patches, plus a prodigious vegetable plot. Their freezer is overflowing, they eat their own produce from the first arugula of the season up until the last acorn and butternut squash of winter. “Everybody must have a vegetable garden” is Bruce Bennett’s line.
On their own land, the Bennetts are deep into crops that can make the leap into the freezer—including asparagus, peas, and broccoli. A variety of lettuces are a must for salads as well as Swiss chard, kale, and potatoes, in addition to more arcane menu-boosters such as Chinese cabbage, kohlrabi, and bok choy. Tomatoes are indispensable. But rather than living in constant fear of late blight, Debby has turned to disease-resistant varieties such as ‘Defiant’, ‘Iron Lady’, ‘Mountain Merit’, and ‘Mountain Magic’. For extending the spinach season, she opts for downy mildew resistant spinach ‘Corvair’.
To keep the plots pumping out produce, these organic gardeners compost their own horse manure. Composting is just one part of a “closed system” policy that the couple developed to prevent weed seeds from infiltrating their noxious-weed-free zone. In addition, they start 90 percent of their own seedlings to eliminate potential disease importation onto the land.
What are some suggestions for success with regional vegetable gardens? Siting the garden in sun is a must. Although some vegetables (lettuce comes to mind) can tolerate partial shade, the bounty of veggies prefer a generous daily dosage of sunbeams in New England. A nearby water source will lead to fewer hassles and backaches. Once an appropriate location has been selected, Bruce suggests a 20 foot-by-20 foot configuration composed of raised beds with at least three feet between beds. A four-foot corridor down the middle of the configuration is invaluable for wheelbarrow manipulation.
A fence is essential. Four-feet-high is what Bruce recommends for a small area. “Deer won’t jump into a small space,” he claims. “A post-and-wire fence is not necessarily the most attractive option, but it is the most practical.” Wire lets in abundant light, and it does the job. Given a good-looking gate and kept tidy, a well-designed vegetable garden is the new boasting point for real estate.
With the hardscape in place, you can move on to the tasty part. What you grow should be dictated by meal preferences rather than what looks great in the garden. Rather than planting a checkerboard of varying lettuce hues, for example, plant rows and gobble them up without worrying about the design.
Bennett also recommends bird houses. “If you’re having trouble with bugs, hire a sparrow,” he suggests. No matter what the food preferences of the various local populations might be, put in a vegetable garden and everyone in the region will eat better. So dig in. Dining out just gained a whole new meaning.
KEEP IT COMING: Some vegetables mature over the long haul. Cabbages, Brussels sprouts, and tomatoes take months to reach prime. Bush beans, lettuce, and summer squash can be harvested in 30 to 50 days. Plant rows every few weeks so the salads and casseroles don’t skip a beat.