Gardening Articles: Health :: Cooking

A Chef's Garden (page 2 of 4)

by Scott Millard

Small Beginnings

Razz's 4,000 square feet of gourmet chef's paradise didn't happen overnight or even develop from a master plan. The original chef's garden began with a 3- by 5-foot raised bed, located a stone's throw from the restaurant kitchen door. This little plot produced precious fresh herbs and vegetables, but demand soon surpassed what the garden could provide. It whetted Razz's appetite for more; more varieties, more volume and a more dependable source of fresh, quality vegetabl herbs and fruits.

A 1992 visit to Fetzer Vineyards in northern California's wine country provided further incentive. While at the vineyards, Razz spent time with John Ash, Fetzer's chef and culinary director, touring (and falling in love with) the chef's four-acre organic garden, laden with more than 1,000 kinds of vegetables, herbs and edible flowers.

Inspired, Razz returned to Phoenix and, using funds saved from his cooking classes, began constructing the garden. He selected a site located smack-dab in the middle of a steep, narrow canyon just down the hill from the restaurant. With help from two of his prep cooks, he built a series of terraces and raised beds from the multitude of rocks in the poor canyon soil. The soil mixtures vary for the numerous planting beds, depending on what's being grown. Some planting beds are left natural to grow native herbs such as the Mexican tarragon, tansy and epazote. In others, the soil is amended with silt, sand and compost to improve the growth of garden vegetables and flowers.

Three years later, the garden is a beauty. Bright sunshine filters through the lacy leaves of mesquite and palo verde that arch out protectively over the garden. Naturally rugged hills and boulders of the Tapatio Cliffs serve as a dramatic backdrop, while the native desert plants that surround the garden offer their own unique colors and textures. Razz envisions a time when the garden gradually blends into the desert, the herbs and flowers reseeding, the berries and vines rambling to escape the confines of the garden. Or perhaps it will be the desert plants that find homes in the terraced beds.

The garden thrives from early spring (February in Phoenix's low desert climate) until late fall (October). The majority of the garden remains fallow November through January, something Razz hopes to modify to increase productivity. However, this downtime gives the garden a chance to "rest", and Razz and his crew get caught up on chores such as collecting and drying the woody stems of herbs for use in the restaurant smoker.

Winter is also the time to collect seeds. Some are spread into the surrounding desert to naturalize, some go into new planting beds and others are stored in envelopes to be planted later on. The soil in the annual planting beds is turned over and amendments are added for drainage and nutrients. By the time February rolls around, it's planting season again. Many vegetable and herb seeds go directly in the ground, with seedlings set out for a staggered harvest. Additional seedlings and new crops are planted each month through the summer to ensure a steady stream of varied produce to the kitchen.

Razz is well on his way to developing his own version of Fetzer's gardens. Currently, he grows more than 125 varieties of fresh herbs, vegetables, edible flowers, berries, fruit trees and native plants. But plans are in the making to expand the garden to include some 250 plant varieties. And then there's the co-op garden he's planning with area chefs that will become a dependable source of quality vegetables, herbs and fruits.

All of Razz's crops are grown organically. He believes "Nature takes its own course" and does not want to interfere with the garden's natural balance by using chemicals. To combat whiteflies, he plants broccoli raab as a host plant on the perimeter of his garden. "The whiteflies love it and congregate there, leaving most of my other garden plants alone." Ladybugs are also released to combat aphids. Other than that, the garden practically runs on its own, and from the look of things, that's how it should be. Plants are often left to reseed, and volunteers are allowed to grow to see what they will become.

Late this spring, two years after seed was sown directly into one of the planting beds, lavender and cilantro seedlings appeared, much to Razz's delight. "I keep a map of the garden, but sometimes I forget what I've planted. I have to l the plants grow for a while before I decide if it's a weed or a crop! I think we're crazy, sometimes, the things we try. But that's what makes it so much fun--and the fact that everybody told us we couldn't do it."

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