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Ten Minutes With Joe Keller

The Garden of Ideas maven



Joe Keller and his wife Ilsa Svendsen run Garden of Ideas, which recently became a non-profit organization with a mission to restore the connection to the outdoor world. I sat down with Joe in the charming cottage on the garden grounds, which have been in his family for over thirty years, to hear more about what’s sprouting there this spring and his favorite local splurge. 

What is the Garden of Ideas?  It’s many things—a non-profit venture, an outdoor classroom, and garden sanctuary full of sculpture and poetry. My own tag line is that it’s an analog antidote to a demented digital world. This is a place that helps you unplug and discover what’s around you in the natural world.

What do visitors see there?  We have cultivated gardens and wild landscapes. It has a marsh with a boardwalk that leads to a path on the other side of the marsh and gives a great platform for wildlife viewing including snapping turtles, great blue heron, other birds, and bullfrogs. There’s a vegetable garden and a chicken coop. We’re open 365 days a year.  

How long have you lived here?  My family moved to the property in 1973, when I was entered fourth grade at Scotland School. My mother grew our food and was head of Ballard Greenhouse and started Bronx Green Up, a community garden program, affiliated with the New York Botanical Garden. 

Did you garden as a child? I started liking it some time in high school. I always liked being outside and working with my hands. Gardening is very creative. 

What are some of your programs? We have a lot of new programs for spring and summer, including once-a-month cooking demonstrations and bird walks. This summer, we’ll have two two-week kids programs. Our 4H Club is hugely popular. We meet weekly in season to learn about chicken tending, vegetable growing, and exploring nature. 

Has people’s interest in local, organic, farm to table affected what you’re doing? People are so much more educated about real food now and want to eat what’s healthy, which is why a lot of people become members in our Community Sustained Agriculture. We offer spring, summer, and fall CSA shares, where people can get an assortment of vegetables each week. A lot of people join because they want to make the commitment to use good, fresh ingredients to force them to eat better. We give them recipes to try. I like to keep it simple with sautéed olive oil, garlic, and fresh greens.  

What are some of the unusual vegetables CSA shareholders might see this year? Ethiopian kale, a cross between kale and mustard, with a wonderful spicy flavor. The Indigo series of tomatoes with high levels of anthocyanin, which gives some fruits and vegetables their dark color, blueberries and grapes, and is believed to fight cancer and reduce inflammation. How about that on top of your pasta!

What’s your favorite local treats? Black raspberry ice cream from Ferris Acres Creamery in Newtown. 

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