Photos by Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star
By Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley
At the Farmer’s Table restaurant in Boca Raton, you’ll see a small patch of land between the parking lot and the restaurant building that’s now a kitchen garden.
Here, cedar boxes filled with rich dirt support stems of fragrant rosemary, rattlesnake pole beans grow toward the sky and the frilly tops of fennel bulbs blow in the breeze.
This isn’t just the handiwork but the mission of Jason McCobb (also known as Farmer Jay), who is out to fill any empty space he can with a vegetable patch.
“The food system begins in your back yard. A vegetable patch should be as common at restaurants and homes as bathrooms,” he said.
It doesn’t matter whether you plant a fruit tree out front, a tomato patch in a corner of the yard or a full kitchen garden instead of a lawn, as long as you participate.
“Everybody can do their part and grow something,” he said.
And that’s why since about 2010 McCobb has worked with restaurants, schools and homeowners to create and plant box gardens. You can see his handiwork at Tanzy in Mizner Park as well as the Farmer’s Table, where we talked to him.
He builds the cedar boxes in a wood shop on his 2 ½-acre farm in Lake Worth. He fills them with his own mixture of soil and fertilizes them with his private recipe of chicken manure, worm castings, volcanic rock dust and coral calcium. Then he installs an irrigation system that uses micro-sprayer heads.
Of course, this 1,200-square-foot garden with its 17 boxes can’t supply all the produce for the Farmer’s Table. “I could plant the whole thing in romaine and it still wouldn’t be enough,” he said.
Instead, he views his restaurant garden patches as an opportunity to educate the public about what can be achieved in small spaces and how food looks in the field.
And it gives the chef a chance to try new things. For example, this garden contains such uncommon offerings as moluccan spinach, Japanese parsley and Italian red-stemmed dandelions.
Also, the chef can harvest the produce when he needs it to assure freshness, and he can select the vegetables at the maturity he desires. For example, the turnips growing here can be taken when they are young or as they grow larger. And the chef not only gets the turnip itself but also the greens.
“Nothing goes to waste here,” Farmer Jay said, even if some of the spent plants he pulled out today are fed to the chickens on his farm.
As the seasons turn and the crops are used up, new ones must be planted. Farmer Jay works with the chef to decide what to grow. During the growing season from September to May, you might find frisee, romaine, mizuna, onions, oregano, thyme and mint.
He also likes to grow edible flowers such as pansies, marigolds and nasturtiums, not only to eat but to add color and attract pollinators.
In the heat of the summer, he grows native Everglades tomatoes the size of marbles, some varieties of romaine lettuce, amaranth greens and okra, among other things.
On this day, he did maintenance at the garden, a service he offers only to restaurants. He cleared out beds of marigolds that had gone to seed as well as Japanese parsley and heirloom broccoli to be replaced by rows of mint and basil.
As he worked, a couple leaving the restaurant stopped to admire his handiwork.
“I love this,” said Angela Vernon, who with her husband, Tim, was visiting her mother-in-law in Boca Raton. “My dad was a real gardener and we were just talking about getting started growing vegetables this summer at our house.”
Little did Farmer Jay know that the seed of an idea he sowed here will bloom halfway across the country when this couple returns home and plants their garden in Chicago.
Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley is a certified master gardener who can be reached at email@example.com when she’s not digging in her garden.