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Editor’s note: This is the second article in a series on chefs’ herb gardens.
Chef Jeffrey Beeson holds no sympathy for his colleagues who claim black thumbs. “When they tell me they could never grow anything, I tell them to find a small planter box, fill it with soil and their four favorite herbs,” he says. “Then if everything goes OK, to start their own garden.” Certainly Beeson has proven his own green thumb in a lush mountaintop herb garden 1,800 feet above the Phoenix Valley at the Pointe Hilton Tapatio Cliffs Resort, where he serves as executive chef for the Different Pointe of View restaurant.
The terraced garden, which steps up the mountainside below the restaurant, has been a collaborative effort among Beeson, his culinary staff, and the resort’s landscaping department. When Beeson first saw it four years ago, the 1,800-square-foot area was in decent shape but a far cry from the lush Eden it is today. “I’ve always had a garden at my home, so this was a comfortable thing to step into and continue,” he says.
Although the space was producing a modest number of herbs, Beeson expanded both its size and scope. “Cooks built this,” he boasts. “We excavated the mountainside, stacked the stones, poured our own cement, did our own masonry, and created the terraces. Then we brought in 4 tons of dirt and organic fertilizers to amend the soil and installed a pop-up sprinkler system, which runs three times a day for 10 minutes at a time in the summer.”
The first expansion added about 5,000 square feet and accommodated about 100 plants. “We didn’t have a definite plan, just a vision in my head,” Beeson says, “but whenever time allowed or business was slow, we’d add another terrace.” Unfortunately for the cooks-cum-laborers, the best time to work on the garden was during the resort’s slow season: the height of the Arizona summer, when temperatures hover around 105°F.
But all that sweat paid off. Within four years, the garden had grown to fifteen terraces of all shapes and sizes spread over 10,000 square feet. A cactus-lined stone pathway winds up the ridge, connecting the terraces. At the top is a paved terrace planted with citrus trees, ideal for afternoon tea and outdoor receptions.
Recently Beeson completed an 800-square-foot garden that snakes around the patio seating adjacent to the kitchen. There he grows garnishes and culinary herbs such as chervil, dill, tarragon, basil, and rosemary.
Beeson’s tips for success
No herbicides and pesticides are used in the gardens. Instead, Beeson has planted sunflowers, lantanas, marigolds, and green santolina in an effort to repel whiteflies and other insect pests or to lure them away from the crop plants. Wormwood and skullcap framing the terrace borders are intended to ward off rabbits, raccoons, and squirrels. “I’ve also released about 1,000 ladybugs and praying mantises in there,” Beeson says.
Unrelenting heat is the biggest obstacle to gardening at the resort. Drastic temperature fluctuations and highs well above the century mark for days on end make rough going for any plant. Fortunately, two 30-foot-tall mesquite trees offer an enormous summer canopy of shade, keeping all but 15 to 20 percent of the lower garden 5° to 7°F cooler than the rest of the hotel grounds. Come winter, the mesquite sheds its leaves and pealike pods, allowing sunlight to pour in, and the terraced slope has proven admirably resistant to freezing. “Cold drops straight through,” says Beeson.
“Surprisingly, everything grows great in Arizona,” he adds. “We just have to be smart about when we grow it.” Finding the right spot for each plant also plays a factor.
Each terrace is different. Some are quite rocky, favoring sturdier plants such as thyme, sage, rosemary, and parsley. Others are sandy, which also suits the rosemary, as well as society garlic, garlic chives, and walking onions. Still others are clayey, with relatively poor drainage, but chives, cilantro, chervil, dill, and parsley thrive there. Certain terraces have better drainage. That favors an herb like tarragon, which doesn’t like wet feet.
Two distinct seasons, determined by average daytime temperatures higher or lower than 82°F (approximately October through January and February through September) guide Beeson’s planting schedule. Winter crops include chervil, cilantro, and mints.
During the summer, twenty-eight varieties of chiles, including pasilla, cascabel, habanero, tepín, and yellow ají add dots of brilliance to the varied greens of lemon verbena, dill, and parsley. “I like chiles, especially the habanero family, because they offer so many flavors and come to life differently,” Beeson says. Beeson smokes his own chiles to make chipotles. “I love the yellow ají chile,” he says. “When roasted, it has a tremendous flavor, spicy but so good. And the different shapes of yellow mushroom chiles are wonderful.”
Other heat lovers in Beeson’s garden include English lavender and basil. “Basil seems to say, ‘the hotter the better,'” Beeson says. He grows cinnamon, ‘Dark Opal’ and Thai lemon basils as well as golden sage, French thyme, Mexican oregano, epazote, and garlic chives. Beeson notes that some herbs–rosemary, thyme, sage, chives, and mint (he likes to use ‘Chocolate’ mint to garnish espresso), for example–grow well regardless of conditions. “Just keep them moist and in the shade, and they make it fine,” he says.
Its influence is easy to see in the Beeson’s culinary creations. A typical menu might start with a tomato, cucumber, and fresh mozzarella salad with basil vinaigrette, followed by pork chops rubbed with chiles and brown sugar and apple-curry sauce or olive-oil-marinated chicken breast served over chipotle-oregano pasta tossed with mushrooms and tomato ragout.
Whether at work or at home in his own 700-square-foot garden, Beeson finds himself in one garden or another every day. “A restaurant tends to be controlled chaos, the kitchen hot and stressful. The garden allows me to be at peace for a few moments,” he says.
Beeson loves sharing this sanctuary with hotel guests, who are invited to a Chef’s Garden Tea on Saturday afternoons. Besides enjoying fresh herbal teas and baked goods made with ingredients from the gardens, they may tour the garden with Beeson himself. “I want to encourage people to touch, feel, and smell the garden,” he says.
Laura Daily is determined to see her favorite culinary herbs flourish this winter on a windowsill at her mountainside home in Snowmass Village, Colorado.