An Old World Garden in New World Clothes
by Mary Jasch
Pamela Page, gardener, gourmet, film maker, shapes her garden with symmetry, dresses it in colorful vegetables, and bejewels it with flowers.
“It’s for looking at and living in – a pleasure garden,” says Page of her garden on Ho-Hum-Hollow Farm in Bethel Connecticut. “I would only grow beautiful vegetables in a beautiful way. Form didn’t follow function. I wanted to know what it is like to live from the land.”
The romance began ten years ago when Page had a trench dug 30 inches deep, 55 feet wide and 90 feet long. “My husband asked ‘Are you out of your mind?’ I said, 'No, I want to grow my own food.'” She also wanted physical exercise that would substitute for the monotony of a gym.
She had fences built to keep out critters and geometric beds dug and edged in cedar from her land. She and husband Igor Jozsa built a pergola and fence (almost causing divorce) and, later, trellises and other accoutrements.
For inspiration on style, Page looked to the Renaissance, to monastic gardens and those of the early Egyptians, then set to work.
The garden is an Old World design dressed up in New World clothes, she says. “With the idea that traditional American vegetable garden design constitutes row upon row rather than the European-style plots, I thought it would be interesting to repeat the design in America.
“The gardens of the Middle Ages back to the Egyptians had the concept of gardens as not only productive and not only for looking at, they were for living in. They were called Pleasure Gardens where people would court, sing, read poetry… “I wanted to entertain in my garden, have lunches, read.” But she admits she just hasn’t had the time, although her guests do.
Having enjoyed varied, indigenous cuisines (at college in the south of France and Italy and owning a restaurant with Jozsa in New Orleans) she wanted a selection of unusual fruits and vegetables. “We are both very experienced when it comes to food. I wanted produce you can’t buy in America.” In fact, she grows a bounty of peppers and blueberries as the major ingredients of Jozsa’s hand made Igor’s Excellent Pepper Jelly and Igor’s Excellent Blueberry Cognac Preserve.
Veggies include Falstaff Purple Brussels Sprouts, Redbor kale, colorful carrots, Arugula sylvetica (a wild perennial from an island south of Sicily), Savoy and Ruby Perfection cabbages that rate heat and drought tolerant, golden and albino beets, eggplant from Cambodia, Taiwan, India and Italy, and a yummy and fun Chinese watermelon radish She is most proud of her rare melons from Japan, Italy and France.
“Now, from a box of seeds I conquer the world. It means sometimes I’m not successful because things aren’t adapted to this climate, but you have to have fun with this.”
Page doesn’t save seed from year to year. Instead, she tries new plants. “I’m really committed to protecting the biodiversity of our planet.” It also guarantees that her crops are rotated and helps keep seed catalog companies in business. (What would they do if everyone really saved their seeds?)
“The thing I’m most proud of,” she says, “is I’ve grown almost 200 varieties of fruits and vegetables. I’m always trying new things because every year I find there are so many things I want to grow.”
Only edible flowers or those that attract pollinators grow in the garden: sedum, zinnias, sunflowers, anise, meadow rue, fennel, sea lavender, Indian Summer Rudbeckia and a hedge of Frances Palmer dahlias. There are solid beds of iris and the exquisitely fragrant mock orange in two corners. Both beckon her to come out in the chill of spring. Frilly flowers that pollinators love decorate the garden:
Page once grew all her own transplants from seed herself in her laundry room in February. But this year she has enjoyed the help and camaraderie of Abbaya Kaufman, veteran CSA gardener.
Page relies on her for four things: 1) 90 percent of the seedlings after Page’s first round in early spring; 2) a “lovely collaboration. She introduced me to varieties I might never have grown. It’s really been fun to have somebody to say ‘Hey, have you ever grown that?’”; 3) her keen aesthetic sense that contributes to the design with good combinations, such as beets with pole beans on an iron tutuer or collard greens with sweet potatoes for a Southern spread; 4) help with dealing with inherent fungus and mildew problems of a tough summer. Kaufman understood effective ways to deal with the problems.
At season’s end, Page and Jozsa are busy canning or preserving the bounty and donating produce to local food banks.
And like all dedicated seed growers should, Page donates her excesses seedlings to organizations like The Edible Schoolyard and other children’s gardens. (Do you really need 48 heads of lettuce all at once?)
“It’s great, especially now. There are so many organizations doing this and they don’t have a lot of money. They don’t have people growing vegetables for them, so they love it when someone donates plants,” she says.
In her other life, Page is a documentary film maker of personal biographies and films for nonprofits, for instance for Breast Cancer Research Foundation and Estee Lauder Breast Cancer Awareness Campaign.
Page’s passion for all things beautiful, great and small, doesn’t stop with cuisine, produce and film, but extends to architecture and interior design. She is also her husband’s business partner, handling project management for Jozsa Page/ Design Associates, LLC and occasionally collaborating on interior design aspects.
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published September 12, 2012