Growing Beautiful Food: A Gardener's Guide to Cultivating Extraordinary Vegetables and Fruit (2015)
DESIGNS FOR GROWING
The design of your garden or farm needs to reflect a larger set of priorities than the purely ornamental garden. This is a space where you will be growing food—beautiful, nutritious, flavorful food—and its design should have a kind of functional integrity that alludes to something bigger than beauty for its own sake. Good, strong bones; purposeful structures and buildings; practical layout; and a functional plan for support systems (watering, fertilizing, composting, harvesting, pest and disease management) are essential. Whether it’s a large space or a small garden, getting the infrastructure right—the basic, coherent layout and flow of the place—will free you up to embellish it later. But the good bones have to be there first.
Your home itself has a distinct, articulated plan with regards to flow and light and livability, and your growing space should be an extension of those orderly ideas. At Stonegate, because of its strong and ornamental Gothic bones, the farm we built has equally defined lines and a decorative formality that fits the feel of the place. It’s also on a small parcel, so attention to design and order is imperative. Stonegate came from a time when ornament still had value, before obsessions with industry and technology turned the home into a machine for living rather than an instrument for living, with a clear voice and character. There’s been a perception over the last century or more that ornament is somehow dishonest and undemocratic. That sterile, monolithic urban structures and bland suburban boxes are more virtuous and sincere. That a “tough, mechanized citizenry … commercialized by machinery,” as Frank Lloyd Wright observed, was the aspiration. Yet nature is always arguing against this idea, embellishing the planet with complex, incomparable beauty, pattern, and form.
There are wonderful agrarian places where purpose and beauty have been integrated, where agriculture seems to flow seamlessly to and from supporting structures. Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, Shelburne Farms in Vermont, and Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts come to mind, with their idealized, premodern vision. There’s a reason people are drawn to these places, not only for their value as historic artifacts but also because they are beautiful, coherent, and orderly. The integration of agriculture and architecture (food and shelter, both basic human needs) and the idea of purposeful work and community resonate with us.
NOTES FROM THE WONDERGROUND
Work Is Love Made Visible
My wife’s supercilious grandmother used to tell me I had peasant blood, which I took as a compliment. Better an honest, hardworking peasant than a soft-palmed scoundrel. Good, physical work, with something to show for it besides tight abdominals (a bountiful harvest, say), is an act of alignment and sometimes even exaltation. It ties us back to the order of the natural world. Work is what the wild things do—all day long—for food, shelter, survival, maybe even joy.
Growing food for others is a physical act. “Such hard work!” they say. Yes, but how fulfilling, how joyful. “The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it,” said the social philosopher John Ruskin.
We have become more capable, more patient, more resourceful, more humble. Work on the land develops deep connective tissue with simple, empirical purpose—something we’re in great need of in an age of texts and tweets.
I bought an old tractor for the farm this year. It’s seen plenty of hard work, like me, so we’re peers. Its throaty, cast-iron rumble is reassuring. No squeaky plastic or pot metal here. No imported parts. It was built somewhere in the Midwest, back when industry had some physical integrity and work wasn’t just virtual bustle. It rambles across the property, making a clean cut in the orchard, indifferent to the rough carpet of twigs and small stumps.
A morning spent in the studio—editing film, answering e-mails from clients, or prepping for a shoot—is usually balanced by an afternoon of real physical work, of which there’s always plenty. Without productive exertion of some kind, my time seems incomplete, unfulfilled. I need to feel used up at the end of the day.
“We don’t move anything unless it weighs a thousand pounds,” the New York Times quoted us saying in a House Proud feature on our efforts to restore Stonegate. Clearly, work has never been an obstacle. After an urban upbringing, among worlds others had created, I needed to build. I needed to move mountains. I needed to see what I could become by it.
So with a new chicken coop now completed in the orchard, my sweet Copernican universe, with the farm at the center of all things and us in perpetual orbit around it, seems momentarily balanced. I can stand back from the work on this small structure and feel its value to the farm, despite the long hours and considerable effort it took to build. “Work is love made visible,” said Kahlil Gibran, and I’m holding him to it.
The laying hens have taken to their new digs without a lot of fuss and feather. Even the prodigal pullet rejoined the flock, although at the bottom of the pecking order. They’re now ranging happily in the orchard, tilling and fertilizing the soil, devouring pests, making their most magical eggs. Working hard like the rest of us.
Setting a table in the orchard, where chickens wander underfoot, fruit is on the bough, and soft light filters through the trees. All is right with this world.
There’s much to take away from these properties, much to be inspired by. As a result of visits to Colonial Williamsburg, for example, I’m a little obsessed with outbuildings. Almost every home there has them, in all shapes and sizes, each with its own distinct profile and purpose. These small working buildings create a visual conversation on the land, where all the practical ideas of the place are put forth: greenhouse, potting shed, icehouse, smokehouse, springhouse, granary, stable, coop. All of these structures imply a kind of industry, self-reliance, and freedom from want that’s very appealing (as opposed to the prevailing consumer psychology of more and more want). Like a small boat or modest house, everything must have a place and purpose. I like that about farming on a small parcel; it forces you to stay organized within its limits and borders. Framed by fences and property lines that can be absorbed in one view, without a 3-hour tractor run, it discourages sprawl and waste. (Although Stonegate does have hidden transitional spaces where things can lie in forlorn piles and heaps, and almost every farm has a spot for materials waiting to be discarded or repurposed.)
These very efficient and beautiful historic small farms taught me to design spaces that aspire to harmony and grace, where structures are distinct but organically connected by design and utility. These places have also heightened my respect for the integrity of materials, for wood and metal and machinery that is sound and durable. If you’re going to build a coop for a small flock of chickens, for example, it’s best to draw inspiration from the rooflines and architectural patterns of your home, or from the color palette. You’re not looking to copy, only to imply a relationship. At Stonegate, our coop in the orchard not only punctuates the end of a central axis of quince and plum trees but its roofline, which is pyramidal and topped with a Gothic ball-and-point finial, also echoes the roofline and ornament of the 1850s cupola on the barn. Its color may be different, but the timber-frame construction and materials are similar, and its design is harmonious. (We use a mix of pale ocher yellow, deep historic barn red, and gray green for the 10 buildings on our property, all of which complement each other without the tedium of sameness.) The aim of visual harmony, as in music, is to create a complementary part that strengthens the experience of the whole. Often, the most successful design harmonies come from very subtle places, and their effect is almost subconscious: the segmented arch of a window repeated in the scroll of Gothic vergeboard; the post-and-rail pattern of fencing echoed in the battens and trim of outbuildings; the repeated, Euclidean symmetry of gables. Great design is the deep connective tissue that ties the small farm and its various constituent parts together.