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Cooks' gardens

(post, Caroline Lewis)

p(blue). Editor’s note: We welcome Caroline Lewis to the blog. Caroline is a trained chef and a passionate gardener who has combined her pastimes to form a new business: Verdura Culinary Gardens, based in Portland. 

My husband, Larry, and I both spent years in the high-tech world. For years we each juggled families, commutes, and stress. When we met three years ago, we were both recently divorced and, truth be told, burned out in our respective corporate jobs. 

I have always been a cook. My father, who lived and studied in France, taught me the French language and cuisine at a very young age. At the time I graduated from college, being a chef wasn’t the high-profile career it is now, and I’m afraid it never occurred to me to pursue cooking professionally. However, I cooked with a passion. I did it to relax and to learn. I read cookbooks for fun. Any time I had a moment to spare, I was either cooking or growing vegetables to experiment with in the kitchen. 

Larry finally got tired of hearing me say that I should have been a chef, and he urged me to just do it. So I quit my job and went back to school full time, earning a culinary degree from the Robert Reynolds Chef Studio in Portland. 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Garden boxes, full of potential."]

Then we did something a little crazy: Larry quit his job too, we got married, and we decided to take a year off. Call it a honeymoon or a sabbatical; it ended up being a little of both. We agreed that by the end of the year, we’d have a plan in place for what to do next.

During our travels — to the Bahamas, Honduras, Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Mexico, Alaska, and numerous other western U.S. states — we did a lot of reading, talking, and soul-searching. We studied with some wonderful chefs, and we learned much about life outside of the U.S. We knew we wanted to work together in the culinary world when we finally got back to work. 

However, neither of us is young enough or crazy enough to open a restaurant, and we weren’t sure what other options we would have for making a living. For a while, we were stuck. 

We read Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Then we read The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan. These books cemented an already growing awareness that we need to be more in control of what we eat. When we returned home from Central America, we stepped up our spring and summer garden production in our four raised beds. And, gradually, we both started feeling healthier than we ever had.

Then we designed and built a fifth raised bed — a four-foot-square tiered patio container — and we came to realize that that little container is productive. Because it’s intensively and continuously planted, we manage to harvest a lot of produce from just that one container. On our small city lot, we grow nearly all our own vegetables year-round in a total of five small raised beds. 

So we thought, why not tie together our love of great food and our gardening experience? Why not help other people grow their own organic vegetables, even those who don’t have a lot of space? 

And so, we started Verdura Culinary Gardens. We design, install, and maintain raised-bed culinary gardens for people who’d like to be working with (and eating) the freshest possible seasonal produce. That said, the people we work with are generally cooks and not necessarily gardeners. Sometimes they’re both, but more often they’re just people who are tired of driving to the store to pay increasingly high prices for produce from distant lands. They’re concerned about food contamination and pesticide use. They’re ready to eat healthier food and to become more self-reliant. They want to become better cooks and use better ingredients.

I’m going to be blogging here about the garden-kitchen connection. Please, feel free to ask questions!

reference-image, l