Garden

Tips to Plan an Heirloom Vegetable Garden

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As Mick Kopetsky digs his shovel into the mound of dirt piled up along the path to the vegetable garden, the smell of good clean dirt rises in the morning air with hot compost steam. “Secret recipe,” he smiles, picking up a handful of earthy concoction and letting it sift through his fingers, like the thin crumb of a pastry mix. He throws a shovel full between a row of crispy escarole “Cornetto di Bordeaux” and a “Regina di Maggio” salad with red fringes. “The garden just eats it.”In fact, if the abundant abundance of organic products that he harvests all year round in this two-thirds Acre pot is any indication, his recipe deserves a Michelin star.

“What do you expect from a collaboration between a garden designer and a Cordon Bleu student?”Kopetsky jokes as he takes a look at the house on a terraced slope overlooking the garden where Bieke Burwell, his eco-culinary accomplice, resides. Kopetsky, owner of MIX Garden, a landscaping company in Healdsburg, also supplies locally grown organic produce to a variety of restaurants in Sonoma County, northern California.

The roots of her collaboration with Burwell go back more than a decade when Bieke and her husband Brian bought the 28-acre property in the vineyard-rich Dry Creek Valley west of Healdsburg and were in the midst of construction. Kopetsky was working with the project’s original landscape architect, James David of Austin, Texas, at the time and came on board to oversee the Installation.

To match the clean, modern architecture of the house (designed by Richard Beard of BAR architects in San Francisco), the planting plan in Kopetsky’s hands turned into a subtle mix of drought-resistant shrubs and grasses under a canopy of native oaks and Douglas firs. Steps carved from thick slabs of Lüder lime wind through the hilltop gardens around the house, offering a creeping view of the valley of vineyards for which the Dry Creek area is known. A grove of Italian olive trees in front of the front door offers enough fruit to squeeze and bottle 10 gallons of golden green organic oil a year, and Syrah grapes from a small vineyard are ground into some of the best local red plonks in the valley.

With such a steep slope and such rocky soil, a Vegetable Garden was not even part of the original garden plan. But one afternoon, as Burwell and Kopetsky were overlooking the property from the back Terrace of the house, the conversation came about their shared passion for food. Burwell’s eyes fell on a bare patch of earth at the foot of the hill beside the stream. “I would love to grow white asparagus,” reflected The culinary expert Of Belgian origin, “and endives.”Kopetsky always wanted to try his hand at edibles, so they came up with a win-win plan. Burwell would pay for the drip irrigation system and infrastructure and harvest what she needed; Kopetsky was able to test his green thumb the way he wanted, as well as take care of the maintenance, harvesting and selling the extra vegetables. The two had no idea that a few years after, they would be the guardians of a plot so healthy and fertile that asparagus and endives — not to mention rapini flowers, bean tops and heirloom tomatoes – would be coveted by the best Restaurants in the valley.

Although the decision to plant a vegetable garden at the foot of the hill was a coincidence, it turned out to be an ideal place for the European-inspired Flowerbed that they had in mind. Enclosed in a rustic wooden fence painted to reflect the dark purple trunks of the Manzanita trees on the property, the formal geometry of the design recalls a seventeenth-century Vegetable Garden castle. Vegetables mingle with herbs and flowers cut in rows that start from a central path of pea gravel, with Italian cypress watching over the axes.

Kopetsky starts everything with seeds, most of them heirlooms and free-pollinated varieties, including 50 varieties of tomatoes, 15 different salads and eight varieties of Italian eggplants, all carefully selected for their taste and beauty. “Legacies help maintain biodiversity in the garden, and in my opinion, they just taste and look better,” says Kopetsky. In fact, garden vegetables do not make their aesthetic or gastronomic cut. The ‘Mammut Deutsches Gold’ tomatoes are striped with red stripes, the ‘delicately sweet’ watermelons open to reveal a dark orange flesh, and the ‘Quadrato d’Asti Giallo’ peppers have such crunchy and thick walls that every bite is almost thirst quenching.

Kopetsky refers to his chemical-free gardening practices as “clean,” a term sometimes used in the world of agroecology to emphasize the ecological benefits of eating locally, seasonally and sustainably grown food. He plants bean cover crops to fix nitrogen in the soil, improves organic matter every time he plants and kneels down to weed by hand, although the efficient drip irrigation system minimizes invasive aggressors.