A Cook's Garden
Once you drive the winding roads to Marta Teegen’s house in Mount Washington, it’s easy to shake the city off. Inhale the steamy, earthy garden smell, then gaze upon the abundance of her front yard. In place of the usual grassy lawn, 16 types of tomatoes grow, along with five kinds of green beans, four different basils, rainbow chard, carrots, beets, onions, chives, purple and white figs, nectarines, deep-purple plums and calendula blossoms to keep the bugs away. All of these plants seem to cry out: Seize the means of production! Never again pay 10 bucks for a wilted sprig of dill at Bristol Farms.
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Garden of Eatin': Marta Teegen at home
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Artichokes in the wild
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Teegen, who owns a company called Homegrown Los Angeles, is basically in the business of panicking your neighbors by showing you how to turn your front lawn into a vegetable garden. She also teaches things like how to make a salad with lettuce, herbs and edible flowers slicked with a simple dressing of lemon, olive oil and sea salt. Or that soaking freshly torn lettuce in cool water for five minutes plumps it right up. Things so basic you want to bonk yourself on the head for not already knowing them.
Though the hardcore rose-and-rhododendron contingent will probably see it differently, the best way to do up a garden is to plant with a menu in mind. What do you want to eat? Maybe perfectly braised greens in the winter. Maybe pasta and grilled meats slathered in sauces in the summer. This yumminess, to me, outweighs the mildly discomfiting possibility of crossing paths with a squirmy worm busily plowing through the dirt, aerating it and making it nutritious.
The people who normally employ Teegen are used to paying other people to do stuff for them around the house, like the rich couple who requested a garden on their sprawling, flat piece of land in Hancock Park, next to a large outdoor dinner table where guests eat straight off the vegetable beds like a pictorial out of Martha Stewart Living.
But Teegen’s also gardened with people who just want their kids to grow up knowing where their food comes from, like the family with the tiny duplex garden in Silver Lake. The husband carved out three terraces à la miniature Machu Picchu. Once, Teegen did a garden for a single dad on the Westside. “Take it all out,” he said of his ex-wife’s roses. But Teegen talked him down. They preserved some of the more beautiful specimens — then in came the beans.
The day I drive up to Teegen’s house, she’s wearing tiny gold earrings in the shape of thorns. She looks like Audrey Hepburn recast as the goddess Pomona. We duck beneath trees that have grown into a kind of arbor, their branches rowdy with fragrant orange blossoms and jasmine. A vine is getting ready to bear the year’s crop of green table grapes. A family of raccoons has a standing reservation — party of three — for alfresco dining on the awning overhanging the swimming pool patio. Teegen grows far more grapes than she can eat, so she’s happy to share with the raccoons, who peer down at her dinner guests through little black masks, placidly munching.
Nearby are shallow, sofa-pillow-sized flats containing tiny tufts of plants, each in its own plastic cubicle, mere gestures of plants, really, filled with the promise of basil for a caprese salad or rosemary for roast chicken. There are red and green oak-leaf lettuces, blushing sunset lettuce, two kinds of radicchio and fuzzy Amish deer tongue, which indeed look like the earth is sticking its tongue out at you.
Teegen lovingly cups a frilly wisp of green that will ripen into slender young carrots in the next few months.
“Mmm-hmm!” she says, quite predatorily. Her eyes widen.
She follows the French bio-intensive method of gardening, which means that the model is nature — nothing is in tidy rows, and plants compete with each other in very tight spaces. This produces big yields in small areas with minimum water. Gardening is done in raised beds, never in the existing, clay-dense Los Angeles soil — you could, she says, but it would give the slow-food movement a whole new meaning, and everything is “companion planted.” Brussels sprouts, for instance, help cilantro to grow.
“Am I going to be able to get food out of this?” city people ask her, skeptically eyeing their front lawns.
Teegen grew up on a farm, so she knows from vegetables. Before they moved to the Caribbean to convert the jungle into food, her dad’s family grew tomatoes for Campbell’s soup.
And now, with tomato mania beginning in earnest, Teegen is running a course exclusively on that alpha cheerleader of fruits. “It’s tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes,” she chants. “Nothing compares to a homegrown tomato.”
The sugary Sungold is a good entry-level tomato, Teegen says. They come out early, are prolific, hearty and disease resistant, and they produce, as she puts it, “fruit, fruit, fruit.”
Teegen plops a half-basketball-sized terra cotta pot onto the table in front of me. It contains five different kinds of lettuce, chives and nasturtiums. In a “garden” of that magnitude, you won’t have weed or moisture problems. You won’t need chemical fertilizers, just rich, nutrient-heavy compost. If it is possible for plants to be happy, these guys looked so ecstatic and well-adjusted it made you want to grab some vinaigrette and dribble it straight into the pot and graze.
We chew on spicy, sinus-clearing arugula still warm from the afternoon sun — the jagged leaves may look like sidewalk weeds to some, but these actually came from seeds from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello garden. Tasting something that once garnished the plate of the president who wrote the Declaration of Independence is, well, just a little bit awesome. Beside the arugula is a gargantuan, spiky baseball mitt of an artichoke plant, with petals hefty as a giant’s fingers. And beside that are Teegen’s favorite Chanterais melons, a pale, fine celadon green on the outside and creamy apricot on the inside.
Aghast at the dubious neohippie aesthetic of eggplants in the front yard and worried about their own property values, Teegen’s neighbors freaked out at first when she took out the grass. But then they started hanging out with her after work, peering in like curious rabbits. And then they started eating out of the garden.
“You know,” her neighbors then warned, “everybody’s going to steal your food.” But no turnip thieves yet.
There are, of course, wildlife issues. Hawks and coyotes keep rabbits at bay. Rats will nibble a bit from each plant, but won’t dig. Skunks — Mount Washington is relatively skunk-free, but Silver Lake is rife with them — dig for grubs but just move the plants around.
For clients uninterested in insect husbandry, Teegen offers a garden-maintenance service. She herself is a purist.
“I have my mantid egg sac ready to go,” she says. Her brigade of praying mantises eats aphids. The bigger they get, the bigger prey the mantises can chomp. She expects they will be eating the feral cats by the end of summer.
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