Archives for posts with tag: elegance

It turns out that when I was describing the benefits of crop rotation two weeks ago (see May 4, 2014), I was only half right. The process can be much more complicated—and substantially more advantageous—than merely planting different families of plants in different plots each season. The key is choosing what to plant and the order in which to plant it.

A good example of a more scientific approach to crop rotation is described in an Op-Ed piece by Dan Barber, chef of the restaurants Blue Hill (in New York City) and Blue Hill at Stone Barns (in Pocantico Hills, New York), that appears in today’s New York Times (see “What Farm-to-Table Got Wrong”).

Chef Barber buys his wheat from a farmer in upstate New York. On a visit to the farm, he learned that the wheat is only planted at the end of a four-year cycle of carefully selected crops, each of which performs a specific task for conditioning the soil. The procession follows a basic order which can be modified as soil response and weather patterns dictate.

First up is a cover crop such as mustard, which cleanses the soil and adds nutrients. Next is a legume to fix Nitrogen. Rye follows which, apparently, crowds out weeds (and also “builds soil structure”, although no explanation is given as to what exactly this means). Last to be planted is the wheat, the crop that outsiders (and until recently, Chef Barber) would think of as the whole point of this enterprise.

What is lamentable in the wheat farmer’s case is that the market for what those outsiders might call the off-season crops—the mustard, peas and rye—is scarce. While the wheat commands high, New York City prices, the other vegetables and grains go unwanted and often end up as feed for animals raised as food. Such use is not considered by most experts to be a very efficient use of resources.

Chef’s response to this situation was to develop menu items at his restaurants that incorporate the lesser crops and thereby elevate their stature and, presumably, their price (I hope that he pays his farmer as much for the mustard, peas and rye as he does for the wheat). It’s an elegant solution—a no-brainer, in retrospect—and also a win-win. Really, it’s a win-win-win because not only do the farmer and the chef benefit but the patrons of Blue Hill get tasty meals out of it, too.

So, how might this concept apply to the backyard gardener? Well, I’m not sure about growing an entire planter full of rye or mustard but half of a planter mixed with other like vegetables or grains might work (especially if Chef shares his recipes). And I never feel like we have enough Sugar Snap peas so the year of legumes would not be a problem. The primary issue is space, something we never seem to have enough of.

Maybe the question for me is, where can I put two more planters?


Last Saturday, Rachel and I made an early spring visit to Stonecrop Gardens (see March 22, 2014). The Open House being celebrated that day focused on their indoor collection, which is extensive, if not encyclopedic; much more than can be described in the average 500-word blog post. In fact, at the end of the last account, having finished our snack (cookies and cocoa) we realized that we were only about halfway through the list of plants on display.

What remained to view (not counting the outdoor areas still covered by snow and ice) were the Alpine House, the End House and the Pit House. Of these, my favorite is the Pit House, and not just for the flowering bulbs and succulents that inhabit it. Architecturally, it is unlike any other greenhouse I have seen.

A long, narrow building, its floor is set into the ground by about two feet; stone steps at each end lead down to its central aisle. The tops of the planting beds along either side are at grade level so all of the soil is essentially subterranean. The gabled glass roof springs from short masonry walls that extend about two feet above grade.

The peak of the roof—this is my favorite detail—is supported by two parallel lines of steel wide flange beams that are aligned with the fronts of the planters, thereby maximizing headroom over the aisle. Structurally, the Pit House is quite elegant (and that’s the nicest thing that I, as a structural engineer, can say about it).

Despite its partial embedment in the earth and glazed roof, the Pit House is not particularly warm inside. Nonetheless, it is cozy, mainly due to its diminutive scale. It feels not unlike a child’s playhouse although clearly, serious work is going on in there.

The beds are literally overflowing with a densely-planted collection of ranunculus, fritillaria, narcissus, primula, cyclamen and helleborus, to name just a few. Although only about a third of the area of the Conservatory, the Pit House contains two-thirds the number of different plants.

We strolled leisurely from one end to the other, enjoying the colorful blossoms that sprang from the garden beds at waist level or trailed along the steel beams over our heads. We left with an infusion of spring spirit and a renewed enthusiasm to get to work in our own garden.