“Take a bite and tell me what you taste,” invited Ben, bending down and picking a leaf from a plant I did not recognize.
“Wow, that taste takes me to places I have never been” I said.
A slow smile spread over Ben’s face as if he had opened a new world to me, and he had.
I was visiting Fiddlehead Nursery, Edible Landscaping, just south of Kimberly, Ontario, and this was no ordinary garden business. Ben Caesar, Kelly Hopkins and their daughter Harriet live in a traditional red frame farmhouse in the Beaver Valley, and run Fiddlehead Nursery on their property which is set against a stunning backdrop of escarpment cliffs.
Ben was inspired by the British technique of forest gardening, a method of designing edible landscapes that mimic the structure and diversity of natural ecosystems. The magic of Ben’s nursery is that it has been created in harmony with the environment. Growing land is carved out of the rocky landscape in this area. This growing method promotes the belief that edible landscapes can be grown anywhere. And Ben is here to prove that it can be done.
When I first stepped into the garden I saw a circular tangle of plants. The garden seemed to grow in front of my eyes, as we tasted leaves and flowers while Ben told me the origins and history of each plant. He grows plants from all parts of the world, as well as those indigenous to the area.
I began to see the unique shapes and textures of the leaves, the flowers that were in bloom, and the individual tastes and smells of the leaves. The garden became like a painting and although Ben would give all the credit to nature, he was the artist that had planted the seeds, blended the colours and created a masterpiece from what was once a patch of dirt.
As a blogger about food history, I asked Ben about the historic “roots” of his plants. He was very knowledgeable about the use of the plants he grows, both in Canadian and international food history. Some of the greens Ben grows can be traced back to being used for making salads and other foods as far back as the time of Pompeii.
As we wandered through Ben’s garden he pointed out plants that were foraged and eaten by our early First Nation’s community. Ben harvests from his plants with the same respect our First Nations peoples have always used to collect plants. He harvests only enough from the plant to allow it to thrive in the future.
EATING THE PLANTS GROWN IN FIDDLEHEAD NURSERY.
THE CHINESE ARTICHOKE produces many edible tubers underneath each plant. Originating in China, they were exported to France in the 1800’s to the village of Crosne which translated means Chinese Artichoke. This recipe for preparing Chinese Artichokes is included on the website http://www.fondation-louisbonduelle.org
INGREDIENTS (SERVES 4)
- 1 kg Chinese artichokes
- 40 g butter
- ½ clove garlic
- Coarse salt and pepper
- Put a handful of coarse salt on a tea towel and rub the Chinese artichokes to remove the dry skin. Wash thoroughly under the tap.
- Heat some salted water in a large saucepan and add the Chinese artichokes as soon as the water boils. Leave to cook for 15 minutes.
- Like potatoes, Chinese artichokes should not be crunchy. As soon as they have finished cooking, cool them with cold water and dry them.
- Then brown them in a frying pan with the butter. Season with salt and pepper.
- Wash the parsley, peel the garlic and chop them finely together.
- Sprinkle over the sautéed Chinese artichokes just before serving.
There are numerous plants grown at Fiddlehead that provide leaves or flowers that produce excellent salad ingredients. Pansy flowers and leaves are edible, as are bellflower and daylily flowers. The leaves of columbine, bronze fennel, sorrel, sedum, musk mallow, chocolate mint, sweet cicely, anise hyslop, and scozonera are all edible and make for an interesting salad with a richer taste than the iceberg lettuce we often resign ourselves to buying at the grocery store. Historic records show that green salads were eaten by early European settlers to Canada. For example, greens and flowers were grow for medicinal and culinary use at Fortress Louisbourg by the French in the 1700’s.
- 10 sorrel leaves * 10 musk mallow leaves15 leaves of sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ * 25 chocolate mint leaves
- 10 musk mallow flowers * small handful of sweet cicely leaves
- 10 pansy flowers * 20 anise hyssop leaves
- 3 daylily flowers * 10 scorzonera leaves
- 8 peach-leaved bellflower flowers
- 1/4 cup olive oil
3 tbsp red wine vinegar (or other vinegar), salt and pepper to taste.
LOVAGE is a perennial celery that originated in Eastern Europe and is used widely as a soup base.
There is record of Mark Twain’s friend suggesting ingredients for a Lovage Soup using veal shank, tomatoes, carrots, onions, potatoes and six stalks of lovage.
Fiddlehead Nursery also grows berry and fruit trees and many are propagated from cuttings.
CHOKEBERRY is a berry bush that grows berries that were used by our First Peoples to make pemmican. The Metis were particularly known for their pemmican, a food that was eaten by those working in the fur trade. Buffalo meat was cut in strips and hung to air dry or over fires, then pounded into a powder. The powder was put in a skin bag and buffalo fat and at times various berries were added to give extra flavour. Chokeberries can also be used to make delicious jams.
SASKATOON BERRY is a berry that is indigenous to Canada and grows across the country. It was used as a food by our First Peoples and is beginning to regain popularity. The red berries are tasty from the bush and also make excellent jams.
Ben is knowledgable about the history and uses of the plants he grows and sells at his nursery. He is also an excellent cook and makes use of the plants he grows when making meals.
Keen to share his knowledge with aspiring gardeners, Ben offers a series of workshops once a month during growing months. Designing an Edible Landscape teaches participants how to incorporate a wide variety of fruit and nut trees, berry bushes, perennial vegetables, salad greens and edible flowers into a beautiful, low maintenance, organic garden. Plant Propagation for the Hungry Gardener is a workshop that teaches participants how to start edible perennials from seeds and plant and root division. Each person takes home a plant that they have learned to divide.
Also popular are garden tasting tours that give visitors ideas of which plants they might like to purchase from the nursery and include in their own landscapes.
Ben has created a number of edible landscapes on private properties and has planted one at the Beaver Valley Cidery, a business in the same area as Fiddlehead Nursery. He offers consultations to those wanting to begin edible landscaping on their property.
Fiddlehead Nursery is introducing a way of gardening, that allows us to use the land we have, to grow organic foods that do not appear on the grocery store shelves. Many of these foods have been eaten for centuries by people all over the world.
For more information about Fiddlehead Nursery – www.fiddleheadnursery.ca