BEGINNINGS - DREAM - Growing Beautiful Food: A Gardener's Guide to Cultivating Extraordinary Vegetables and Fruit (2015)

Growing Beautiful Food: A Gardener's Guide to Cultivating Extraordinary Vegetables and Fruit (2015)



This is the most beautiful place on Earth. There are many such places. Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary.



Dreams are often most profound when they seem the most absurd, Freud said, and if you had told me almost 20 years ago that I would one day unbind my deeply urban soul and become an organic farmer, I would have thought you’d swilled a few too many. For me, farms were remote, monosyllabic places where dour resignation over the quirks of weather or crop and pest management seemed to prevail; where lives were surely lived close to nature, but also close to penury; where long, labor-burdened days distilled themselves into desolate quiet and dark.

What I didn’t know about farming, apparently, was everything. But I knew something about cities, about the seductive fabric of urbanism and how it had already begun to fray. Photographing gardens and horticulture had taken me outside of urban walls and started to reshape my values. The aesthetic landscape of cultivated ground became a preoccupation; cement and steel surrendered to the compelling magic of plants and soil and mixed perennial borders.

Dreams can linger for years, of course, as a slow, metaphysical incubation in the psyche until they’re broken open to become something lucid and inevitable. Thoreau said that our truest life is lived when we are in dreams awake, and I had finally woken up to the fact that cities like New York, for all their vitality and exuberance, were someone else’s dream.

Ironically, it was an exhibit of Hudson River school painters at the very urban Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in the late 1980s, called American Paradise, that started me imagining living fully in worlds that were outside the grid. This landscape wasn’t to be found only in the grand but distant vistas of the American West, in the monumental work of Moran or Bierstadt, but in the nearby, accessible acres of New York’s Hudson River valley; a place—judging from the sublime landscapes of Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, Frederic Church, and Jasper Cropsey—of heroic, transcendent beauty. These artists were extolling the incomparable mountains and valleys of a paradise next door; I only had to head upriver from Manhattan to find it.

When I finally left the city for a small, timeworn property in New York’s Hudson Valley, it was a terrifying, exhilarating experience. To leave a place where art and commerce pulsed for someplace pastoral and remote seemed like professional suicide. Of course, in the end, it was the transformative opposite. Freud was right: What had seemed absurd at first had become profound.



I began to imagine boldly, far beyond what I knew. Hollow and frail outbuildings would be restored, land would be cleared, gardens and farms would be built and cultivated, community would form. The beautiful and the practical, what 19th-century landscape designer and architect Andrew Jackson Downing called il buono e il bello, the two bonded elements of human experience, would become a consuming idea.

Period ornament was designed and added where it fit, drawing on 19th-century architectural pattern books for inspiration, turning ball-and-point finials on lathes and scrolling fleurde-lis vergeboard for the eaves. We followed instinct and approached the restoration of the old Carpenter Gothic property as though it were livable sculpture, building the new so that it looked like it had always been there, so that it harmonized with the disposition and character of the place. We learned from others, but mostly we listened to ourselves; to our own obsessive, creative intuition. The architect Jonathan Hale defines the best design as a deeply intuitive process. In his book The Old Way of Seeing, he refers to it as innate judgment, where you guide yourself almost unconsciously through the process. The goal, according to Hale, is ultimately to express something that is proportional and alive, that plays with pattern and form, that unites the practical and the visionary—and vision is ultimately a relationship with a place, of what it means to truly be there.

All joy and wonder of working on a small piece of earth, of how it is to really be somewhere, has meant deep personal change. I’m bound to my property in ways that are profound and unflinching. Like atoms building themselves up to become a strand of something bigger, we’re more complete by collaborating, my farm and me; more fulfilled. Years later, as Stonegate Farm has begun to feed a small community, and as interest in eating healthful, locally grown organic food has entered the mainstream, the lives of others have also been changed.

At Stonegate today, we grow organic vegetables, orchard fruit, cut flowers, and herbs, and we raise chickens for eggs and keep bees for honey. Though the farm is only 3 acres, with 1 acre in active production, it’s a model of local, community-integrated farming that is central to our philosophy and ideas about the future of food. Along with heirloom vegetables and organic cut flowers, a historic orchard provides us and CSA (community-supported agriculture) share members with heirloom apples, pears, quinces, plums, and cherries, as well as unusual bramble fruit such as black currant, gooseberry, and aronia. There are beehives, too, and a flock of deep brown-and blue-egg laying Ameraucana and Cuckoo Maran hens. Biointensive, diverse, and ambitious, Stonegate tries to cultivate not only delicious food but also ideas about the possibilities of small-scale, community-integrated farming.