In the quaint New England town of Westwood Massachusetts lays a cozy enclave of cape cods and colonials with white picket fences and neatly trimmed shrubs. It’s the beginning of the winter season in the northeast and in most neighborhoods, once the pumpkins and scarecrows have been replaced by holly wreaths and evergreen garlands, gardens have long been put to bed. But tucked away behind one of these picturesque homes, David Pendergast’s amazing organic garden is still producing a bounty of early winter crops.
Fifteen years ago, David started like many of us do with a small garden in his backyard. As each year rolled around his garden grew in size. Three years ago, the number of raised beds had grown enough for him to approach some local eateries to inquire about selling them his organic produce and they gladly took up his offer. Since then, local area restaurants, including Chiara Bistro in Westwood and Isabella in neighboring Dedham, have welcomed Hector’s fresh organic produce. Chefs at these restaurants design special dishes around his weekly harvest all season long. At this time of year, when just-picked freshness is hard to come by, the local chefs especially prize the early winter bounty from David’s garden. Steve Lacount, chef/owner of Chiara in Westwood, smiles when he says “there’s nothing like getting produce so fresh it tastes like you just picked it from your own backyard.” Well, it’s pretty close to the truth. David’s garden is no more than a ½ mile from the restaurant.
The day after Thanksgiving, David gave me a tour of his Crockett-like garden, with its well-tended beds and tidy compost pile. Lady Gaga greeted me at the arched gate. It didn’t take me long to see that Lady Gaga, the household’s resident chicken with black and white feathers and orange face, ruled the roost. Earning her keep by producing organic eggs for the family, Lady Gaga has a habit of following David around the premises like a puppy dog. As David pointed out the layout of his forty 4×12 beds to me, Lady Gaga was right on our heels adding a cackle or two to his every sentence.
Some of the beds in David’s garden had been laid to rest for the winter, but in others, giant bunches of bright green parsley and sage stood out in stark contrast to the brown and gray surrounding them. The last of the thyme, basil, tarragon and rosemary had just been gathered, but further down the rows, carrots and celery were still waiting to be harvested.
Surprisingly, in David’s garden, there are crops that will stay in the ground all winter building strong root systems for next year’s growing season. There are scallions, shallots and chives, whose bright green sprouts peek through the frost laden soil, while their tentacle roots dig deep. The asparagus won’t be cut back until new sprouts are fully above ground. There are artichokes, garlic, horseradish, along with a bed of crocus that will give up coveted saffron from their stamens come springtime.
Keeping the garden as organic as possible is David’s main priority. Conditioning the beds comes with a seasonal doze of organic horse manure from Norfolk Hunt Club, seaweed from the shore and organic compost. During the growing season, pests and disease are rarely a problem as David rotates his crops and does companion planting to control outbreaks. If a problem arises he uses organic soaps and oil to control it. To lower his garden’s environmental impact even further, David has recycled his plastic watering cans and switched to galvanized steel. He has also made a point of not selling his produce any further than a few miles from his home as he believes local crops should be consumed, well, locally. His concern is that the gas used to ship his produce long distances would offset any positive environmental benefits of growing local.
There is not a long break for David during the winter months. In January, he will plan for next year’s crops. Come February, seeds will be planted in his basement under a grow light and in mid-April transferred to harden off in cold frames. As I gaze at the bunch of David’s parsley still sitting fresh and green on my windowsill, I can’t help but wonder when his first harvest will be. I just may have to go back to David’s garden in the spring and find out.
Can you imagine if every neighborhood had a David how healthy we all would be?