Longwood Gardens, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania
Pierre DuPont was a remarkable person. He not only became president of the DuPont Company but also became president of General Motors—and he was an investor in the Empire State Building. His passion was gardening, and when he learned that a nursery with some fine tree specimens was in danger of being sold for development, he stepped in and purchased the property to preserve it and to create one of the world's most ambitious pleasure gardens: Longwood Gardens.
Covering more than 1,000 acres, the cultivated area includes a number of ornamental-themed gardens and 4 acres of gardens under glass. A vast vegetable garden with an adjacent fruit orchard and herb garden is a big attraction, demonstrating how many vining vegetables can be grown vertically to save space.
The varieties are constantly changing, but an emphasis is always a diverse collection of tomatoes and winter squash. On a recent visit I was impressed by the yield of a German variety, 'Big Rainbow,' which has large yellow fruit with red stripes. Tomatoes are grown up several kinds of support, including tomato towers, which are wire cylinders that allow a plant placed in the middle to push its side branches through the mesh to become self-supporting.
The Rodale Institute, Pennsylvania
The Rodale Institute is an educational institution founded in 1947 by Organic Gardening publisher J. I. Rodale to study the link between healthy soil, healthy food, and healthy people. After J.I. Rodale's death in 1971, his son Robert established a 333-acre farm near Kutztown, Pennsylvania, as an official research facility. I was a good friend of Robert Rodale's, and it was while I was executive director of All-America Selections, the national seed trials, that he accepted my invitation to become an all-America judge for judging vegetables. Initially, he grew them in his private garden in Emmaus.
Twice each spring I visit the farm to purchase organically grown vegetable transplants for my own garden, first to acquire cool-season crops like lettuce, parsley, and cabbage and a few weeks later to obtain warm-season crops like tomatoes, peppers, and melons.
Early in its existence, the Rodale organic farm revealed how profitable tilapia could be in fish farming, as well as the nutritional benefits of an almost-forgotten Asian food staple, amaranth. The plant produces a large head of grain that today is processed into flakes as a nutritional substitute for corn flakes. Many seed catalogs now offer giant amaranth in a mixture of colors, including red, pink, green, and bronze, under its botanical name Amaranthus hypocondiacus.
The farm has also conducted tests on growing potatoes, including the heirloom 'All Blue' potato and French fingerling potatoes that many gourmet chefs prefer for making potato salad.
The Cloisters, Manhattan, New York
A branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cloisters is a museum located in Fort Tryon Park, New York, on a hill overlooking the Hudson River. Resembling a Medieval monastery and opened in 1938 on a 4½ acre site, it contains exhibits of art, architecture, and artifacts from Medieval Europe and has a group of enclosed gardens largely devoted to culinary and medicinal herbs. The main building itself is a representation of various secular sites in Europe, including the cloisters of Saint Michel de Cuxa, Saint Guilhem-le-Desert, Trie-sur-Baise, Froville, and Bonnefont-en-Comminges. Three of these reconstructed cloisters feature gardens in what is known as a "quadrant design," wherein each space represents a square.
In addition to traditional herbs such as lavender, parsley, and basil, special features of the gardens include quince trees pruned of their lower side branches to create a sculptural, see-through quality and Brown Turkey figs and pomegranates in pots.
ECHO Experimental Farm, Fort Myers, Florida
ECHO is an organization that seeks to improve the welfare of impoverished communities, mostly in Africa, by teaching them to grow their own food.
The Fort Myers area is subtropical, so the farm is able to grow many exotic fruits such as citrus, mango, muscadine grapes, papaya, banana, avocado, macadamia nuts, and a vigorous edible vining gourd called chayote (pictured above). Chayote has a flavor like Chinese chestnuts when cooked. An experimental farm near ECHO's plant nursery is open for tours.
The nursery itself offers plants of these fruit trees, especially fruiting bananas like the tall Indonesian variety Mahwha, in addition to a large collection of bamboo species.
One of the most interesting experiments recently conducted by ECHO involved using cowpeas as a ground cover crop under sweet corn to gain two crops from the same space. Cowpeas are a greatly underused crop, valuable because they tolerate heat and drought. A bushy, spreading plant, the pods turn green or purple when mature, depending on variety. A favorite is the green-podded 'California Black-eye.' A good heirloom corn to grow with cowpeas is 'Golden Bantam,' an open-pollinated yellow.
Earthbound Farms, Carmel Valley, California
The demand for organic foods, especially fresh vegetables, inspired the establishment of Earthbound Farms so that today a consortium of farmers in locations other than the main farm in Carmel Valley work to supply a vast array of vegetables, including many kinds of lettuce, beets, carrots, peas, beans, peppers, and tomatoes. Earthbound's story began 30 years ago in Carmel Valley, California, when Drew and Myra Goodman moved to a 2½-acre farm to grow organic crops, first offering raspberries at a roadside stand. The vastly expanded property today features production fields for prewashed baby mixed greens and other vegetables and a large display garden.
This is conveniently located next to a country store where fresh produce can be purchased such as heirloom tomatoes, especially 'Lemon Boy,' 'Black Krim,' 'Moskvitch,' and 'Cherokee Purple,' all of which which are used to make tomato sauce sold in jars. Today, Earthbound Farms are the largest growers of organic produce, their vegetables shipped to supermarket grocery shelves worldwide.
The display garden features "A Kid's Garden," brimming with touchable foliage, including a large perennial colony of cardoon (pictured above), which has silvery, velvety leaves and edible stalks that can be blanched when young to produce a tasty, sweet vegetable side dish similar to celery.
Green Gulch Farm, Muir's Beach, California
The coastal road north from San Francisco passes through Mill Valley and Muir's Beach, where forests of giant redwoods grow on the hillsides. As the road descends to the crescent of sandy shoreline at Muir's Beach a cleared area on both sides of a gully is the location of Green Gulch Farm, a Zen center in the Japanese tradition that offers Zen training and spiritual work, including a farm and garden program. Garden apprentices study nature by cultivating the soil and growing a vast array of organic vegetables that are then sold at area markets, including the Ferry Plaza farmers market on Saturdays. Also, the produce is available at the Farm on Sundays.
Among the many heirlooms popular with visitors is 'French Breakfast' radish, a quick-maturing variety (25 days) that produces am elongated, cylindrical root that's red at the top and white at the tip. Watered by frequent coastal mists as well as irrigation, these radishes are crisp and delicious to eat raw as a snack or sliced into salads.
A delicious heirloom melon grown at the farm is 'Haogen,' which originated in Hungary and came to the U.S. via Israel. A single-serving melon that looks like a 'Charentais' melon on the outside, 'Haogen' has honey-sweet green flesh instead of orange.
Mr. Cason's Remarkable Vegetable Garden
Callaway Gardens, in Pine Mountain, Georgia is a landscape of gardens and vistas in a setting of beautiful woodland walks, biking trails, and lakes. Established by the late Cason J. Callaway and his wife, Virginia, the creation of a vegetable garden covering 7½ acres was one of Mr. Callaway's last projects. It's maintained in picture-perfect condition and fertilized mostly by compost.
The area also includes flowers for cutting, herbs, fruit trees and berry bushes—especially varieties suitable for Southern gardens such as the indigenous muscadine grape, which tolerates high heat and thrives from zone 6 to 10. The variety 'Scuppanong' is an heirloom that produces extremely sweet green grapes, although bronze, white, and black varieties are also grown.
Other attractions at Callaway Gardens are a butterfly house and a conservatory, a world-famous azalea collection that reaches peak bloom in March, two golf courses, and luxury accommodations serving food fresh from the garden.
La Prieuré Notre Dame d’Orsan, Loire Valley, France
A former monastery in the scenic Loire Valley, south of Paris, France, the Prieuré d’Orsan (Orsan Priory) was established in 1107. Today, the property is a luxury hotel and restaurant with one of the finest organic potager gardens in all of Europe. Inspired by medieval tapestries depicting raised rectangular plots, the 15 hectares of vegetable, fruit, and herb gardens are the work of two architects, Sonja Lesot and Patrick Taravella, who have combined imaginative landscape design with organic gardening methods.
The plots are mostly raised above the ground using long, pliable, willow branches to hold in the soil, which is topped up with compost at the beginning of each planting season. Hornbeam hedges provide shelter from winds and divide the garden into rooms. Specialties are heirloom vegetables and heirloom fruits, notably tomatoes, broad beans, pumpkins, and berry fruits.
Two particularly beautiful heirloom vegetables that impressed me were the purple-podded pea, which yields tasty green peas; and the 'Charentais' melon, a small single-serving size melon that is best picked when the skin turns yellow but the ribs remain green. The interior flesh is orange, sweet, and delicious, and the entire fruit is delightfully perfumed. A favorite way of serving it at the restaurant is with slices of prosciutto ham.
The French are famous for their carrots, and the one grown for the restaurant is 'Scarlet Nantes' prized for its deep orange-red color and rounded tips. The restaurant is open for dinner from March 29 to November 2, serving the fresh garden produce enhanced by locally produced meats, breads, cheeses, and wines.
Chateau Villandry's Paraterre Vegetable Garden, Loire Valley, France
The Chateau Villandry is famous for its elaborate parterre gardens that use vegetables for decorative effect rather than flowering annuals. The owners recently made the decision to become completely organic, using beneficial insects and other ecologically safe methods to control pests and weeds.
The property was an ancient fortress once owned by the brother of Napoleon. In 1906, Joachin Cavallo, a Spaniard, purchased the property, and his descendents have turned it into one of the most popular tourist destinations in France.
The gardens are laid out in a vast formal pattern of low boxwood hedges, using the colors and textures of vegetables for decoration. Favorite heirloom varieties include the red-leaf heirloom head lettuce 'Merveille de Quartre Saisons' (Marvel of Four Seasons), the scarlet-red Cinderella pumpkin 'Rouge Vig d'Etampes,' the beige cheese pumpkin, 'Musquée de Provence' (pictured below), and the crimson-stalked 'Ruby' chard.
Note: All the varieties mentioned are available from U.S. websites by simply typing in the variety name as a search. More information about each destination can be obtained by searching the name of the name of the garden on the Internet.
Derek Fell is the author of Vertical Gardening. He is also editor of the online full-color monthly newsletter The Avant Gardener. He lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, at historic Cedaridge Farm, and also owns a property on frost-free Sanibel island, Florida, which he uses to trial tropical plants.