The Expanding Kitchen Garden:
Fresh Food and Community
You know the difference!
The difference between a tomato that was harvested green, shrink-wrapped, and shipped across the country and one that’s fully ripened, hand picked, and sliced fresh into your salad.
Or the difference between a store-bought strawberry and one left on the vine until it’s a sweet, deep, juicy red, then picked and plopped on a freshly baked bit of shortcake topped with fluffy, whipped cream.
It’s a difference of color, flavor, texture—and nutrition!
That’s one reason Beacon Hill at Eastgate has its own kitchen garden, now in its ninth year of operation. Over half an acre is dedicated to delicious fresh fruits, vegetables, greens, and herbs that make their way directly into Beacon Hill meals throughout the summer and fall months. Cucumbers and peppers, blueberries and strawberries, grapes and apples, cabbage and kale, chives and sorrel, and much more!
Cooking by the Calendar
“We plan our menus based on harvest seasons,” says Maggie Thiel, Beacon Hill’s former Sous Chef and newly appointed Manager of the Garden Café. “Right now, it’s all herbs and lettuce. One to two weeks from now, we’ll start having strawberries. The first set of the forty blueberry bushes will begin yielding in July, with three other varieties ripening later and producing until fall frosts. Early, mid, and late cabbages begin ripening in August and last through September. Two varieties of cucumber ripen at different times, too.”
And that’s just for starters! Maggie reports that last year’s yield included:
- 96 Cabbages (early and late harvest green and red cabbage)
- 30 bushels of slicing tomatoes
- 90+ quarts of heirloom cherry tomatoes
- 18 bushels of apples
- 48 gallons of Concord grape juice
- 64 gallons of Niagara grape juice
- 40 quarts of strawberries (we are expecting many more this year)
- 45 gallons of house made pickles
- 25 quarts of pesto from our basil was frozen, plus what was used daily
- 5-6 bushels of kale
- 10-12 bushels of Swiss chard
- 3 bushels of tomatillos
- Nearly 2 bushels of hot peppers
- 25 pounds of rhubarb (expecting more this year)
- Radishes, carrots and beets (yields vary)
- The majority of our fresh herbs, from late May through the first frost
- An estimated 1500 stems of cut flowers for dining room tables across campus and for flower arrangements for events
In her new role, Maggie is responsible for the Garden Café, for the garden itself (which supplies all of the restaurants at Beacon Hill), and for the food at public events held at Beacon Hill. When she and Executive Chef Caitlin Becker sat down to plot out this year’s plantings, they changed some of the species, replacing ones that didn’t work well last year (choosing heartier, more water-resistant varieties of tomatoes, for example).
Food is Medicine
“Food is medicine,” says Maggie, “our first medicine. So, we look to include the rainbow of food colors that represent the spectrum of vitamins and minerals in the foods.” Letting foods ripen to their peak enhances their nutritional value.
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” ― Hippocrates
The kitchen garden has cost benefits, too. “We can grow things that might not be in our budget to order,” says Maggie. “Specialty herbs like chocolate mint are easy to grow, but can cost $27 to buy just four ounces! Plus, we can grow unusual or heirloom breeds, bred for flavor profiles and textures, not for shelf life. Yellow tomatoes are light and sweet, with low acid, for example. Purple tomatoes have a deeper taste, and are a little floral.”
A side effect of Beacon Hill growing much of its own food is that “staff is respectful of food that they’ve coaxed from seedling to harvest. For example, instead of leaving a half inch end-slice of a tomato, for example,” Maggie explains, “they core it and dice it and use it in a soup. Or they make sure to use all of the edible portion of a pepper. Any waste goes back into composting. They work the whole cycle. They respect it and don’t like seeing anything go to waste.”
Food is Community
People often talk about eating as a social event, an expression of community. But growing food can be communal, too. “This is a community effort,” says Maggie. “Culinary staff is involved with the garden at every step, from helping select crop varieties to tilling the ground, from planting to weeding, from harvesting to composting.”
The community effect extends beyond Beacon Hill residents and staff. “It carries over to the whole community and neighborhood,” Maggie continues. “I really enjoy seeing neighborhood families walking through the garden just because it’s pretty. Or staff taking a break in the sun, getting some decompression time for stress. It gives them the chance to shift gears, and to interact with neighbors and residents on a different level than we normally would.”
“Food is not just fuel. Food is about family, food is about community, food is about identity. And we nourish all those things when we eat well.” – Michael Pollan
The garden is only part of the farm-to-fork sourcing at Beacon Hill. “Bounty surrounds us in Kent County,” says Maggie. “We’re minutes away from working farms. We can pick up items from some farms at the Fulton Street Market and they’ll bill us later.” Not only does Beacon Hill benefit from access to fresh, local produce, the local community and economy benefit from Beacon Hill.
The kitchen garden has been so beneficial that four large new plots totaling a quarter acre, just to the south and west of the original garden, were added to the previous quarter acre this year. (A third quarter acre consists of plots planted, maintained, and harvested by residents and nearby neighbors.)
“Our entire team effort is to create the best and most interesting dining experience overall,” Maggie says. “I’m so excited about my new position. It feels amazing to me because these farm-to-fork principles are some of the absolute favorite parts of what I have focused on before in my career, and now I actually help build them. This is a time of growth for staff and for the potential of our restaurants. We’re looking at it through a new set of eyes. We’re all excited about the future and what’s to come!”