Saturday, May 29, 2010

Time to Smell the Roses



Took a tour last week of Filoli, the beautiful estate and gardens in Woodside, California, with my friend Jan Stewart, who is a Filoli docent and avid gardener. The afternoon began with tea in the proper British manner and ended with a private interpretative meander of the gardens between seasons. The riot of daffodils and tulips has faded away, and an army of gardeners planted bedding flowers that will bloom all summer – snapdragons, salvia, delphinium.

On our walk, Jan pointed out the olive grove, fruit trees and other food plantings that are integrated into the overall garden design. Since I spend a lot of time on farms and write about food production, it was interesting to see how agriculture has informed even this most stylized environment. http://www.filoli.org/

Then I read an essay in a produce trade publication that suggested partnerships with botanical gardens are a great way for farmers and produce sellers to build their brands and let people know how they’re local companies help keep food on our tables. Chuck Robinson, an editor at The Packer, talked about an interview he’d heard on NPR with Adam Nicolson, who has written a book on his efforts to restore a working farm to his family home, Sissinghurst, in Kent, England.

Nicolson’s grandmother was the poet and garden designer Vita Sackwille-West, a contemporary of Virginia Wolff and the Bloomsbury Set. Today the garden is part of Britain’s National Trust. Nicolson suggested people are looking for what they consider “authentic” places that are true to their nature. There’s something comforting and primal in the ancient practice of farming food. Robinson’s essay struck a chord with me because of my work and belief in the spiritual and aesthetic value of gardens.

And, it seems we’re reinventing how we see and use botanical gardens. Once the preserve of the elderly and eggheaded, today botanical gardens are classrooms, rallying points and, in a growing number of cases, a source of food. There are plans for a produce stall at Sissinghurst. The Chicago Botanic Garden educates consumers about food and gets them interested in more produce. There’s a vegetable garden at the White House, a people’s garden outside the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s offices in Washington, D.C.

On Saturday, June 5 from 2:00 to 400 p.m. Heyday Books, the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society, and Audubon California invite you to celebrate the work of Bay Area naturalist and illustrator John "Jack" Muir Laws at the garden in Golden Gate Park. He's pictured, left, at Desolation Wilderness in the Sierra Nevada. He has published some great new pocket guides to California’s natural world. The free event at the San Francisco Arboretum is open to the public and is perfect for families. For more information, go to http://www.heydaybooks.com/natureftw.html

It’s an invitation to fall in love with nature again and celebrate the beauty of the San Francisco Bay Area. From creeks and fields to beaches and forests, the Bay Area is a bona fide smorgasbord of natural wonders and the city's botanical garden is a collection of the best, most fascinating specimens from the area and fron around the world. The goal of the "nature fan project" is to invite folks to the botanical garden and help them reconnect with the natural world. And, although, it’s not a stated goal of the project, I believe reconnecting with nature also reconnects us with the land and the way we grow and appreciate food.

There are hundreds of botanical gardens in the United States that are including education about growing fruits and vegetables as part of their missions. Some people think farmers and produce sellers should be there helping them. In his essay, Robinson said, “While I see a great opportunity for regional suppliers across the country to support this effort, I also visualize the possibility of a nationwide campaign by some of the industry’s bigger players.”

He also quoted Ed Beckman, president of California Tomato Farmers, a cooperative based in Fresno, about a consumer trend he’s seeing, a back-to-basics movement that plays right into marketing tomatoes and presumably other produce items. If the tomato industry puts a face on the farmers, it will reach into urban centers that don’t identify with agriculture, Beckman said.

“Shame on us if we haven’t been out there communicating the values that we adhere to, to the consumers and to the customers,” Beckman said. “If we don’t communicate, retailers will look at tomatoes as another faceless commodity.”

Public gardens offer a great resource for helping people make the connection with flowers and food, Robinson contends. He suggests doing yourself a favor in the next couple of months and going to a botanical garden near you to consider the potential, while stopping to smell the roses.


Olive Grove at Filoli

Rose Garden at Filoli