Life Lessons in Gardening

Life Lessons in Gardening

Brent Ridge discusses gentleman farming at Beekman 1802

A couple of years ago Dr. Brent Ridge (pictured on the left) and his partner, Josh Kilmer-Purcell, bought an old estate in upstate New York and started turning it into Beekman 1802, a local foods/sustainable living project and website. Since then, Ridge has left his position as vice president of healthy living for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia to be on the farm full time. He’s been just as busy in his new role: Soon Beekman 1802 will start selling the first cheese from the farm and will hold a festival to celebrate area food producers. CHOW spoke to Ridge about becoming a self-proclaimed gentleman farmer, working sunup to sundown growing 150 varieties of heirloom vegetables, and what it’s like to leave life in New York City behind. Roxanne Webber

How did you start the Beekman 1802 project?

We [both] grew up in rural parts of the country with backyard gardens, but we had been living in the city for a decade. We frequented the farmers’ market, and one summer about five years ago, we were craving heirloom tomatoes. They finally showed up [at the market], and we were so excited; we filled up a flat and it ended up costing $80. The next summer we grew tomatoes on the rooftop in the city, and it was very successful. Then we started looking for a country place upstate. We found the property, and it just so happened that our next-door neighbors were Landreth Seeds, the oldest seed company in America.

The idea of leaving the city to start a farm seems to be more and more romanticized lately. What is the reality of it?

Right now, [Josh] is still living and working in the city while I’m up here full time trying to get this running. It’s very expensive to start a farm; there are lots of regulations to go through. You can make a living off it, but you need to adjust what you think a living is. You may not be able to take time away from the farm, or have the money to go on vacation.

Are you happier with this lifestyle?

I would say that I feel more energized. With my careers practicing medicine and working in media there was always something driving me, a purpose. But I’ve never felt as energized as I do now. My day starts at 5:30 a.m. with feeding the pigs, and I literally work from sunup to sundown, and by 9 p.m. I’m in bed. I wake up every morning and even though I know I’ll be working all day, there is not an ounce of dread.

Have you sacrificed anything from your old lifestyle?

The one thing I’ve sacrificed the most is my grooming habits. I’m not nearly as polished as when I was working in media. We always take our shoes off before we come in the house, and the other day I happened to look down at the bottom of my feet and they were just black from working in the garden all day. Even if I have people coming over … I don’t have time to worry about how great I look.

How has the garden been this year?

In the Northeast, it’s been a terrible gardening season because we’ve had so much rain and only recently had some heat, so the garden is really delayed. That’s part of the joy of gardening and the learning experience. Our philosophy is seasonal living: If you have a tomato available 52 weeks a year, you don’t really appreciate it. So this year if the tomatoes don’t come, next year we’ll be ecstatic when they do.

How big is the garden?

The garden is about 52 raised beds, a little over half an acre. We feed ourselves off of that, and also have a partnership with a restaurant in town that uses our produce.

Why did you choose raised beds?

With raised beds you can get better soil, and you can cut down on maintenance because of less weeding. For us too, when the growing season is so short, they also help extend it a little, because that dirt will warm up faster than dirt in the ground.

How did you pick out which heirloom fruits and vegetables to plant?

We broke it down a couple of ways. We usually group by variety, and the beds are rotated each year. We also look at origin, which part of country they came from, to make sure we got varieties that came from nearby so we knew they’d do better.

How can you tell if an heirloom variety came from near you?

You have to do your research. It’s not like if you just go to the store and look at the rack you can tell. Ask your seed supplier, or get in touch with Seed Savers.

What are some of the varieties you recommend?

I would say go for the black cherry tomato. It’s easy to grow, and it’s very prolific. It makes a fruit about the size of a quarter in diameter, and is delicious. I think the purple pod bean is really nice. It’s a green bean, but when you first pick it, it’s got the most purple color, and makes beautiful purple flowers. I like the cosmo carrot; it’s purple on the outside and orange on the inside. I also love Chiogga beets. I never thought I liked beets because all I had known was pickled beets. Last year I started roasting them, and they are so delicious. There is also a wonderful icicle radish: It’s long and white, and it tastes just like a radish but has an unusual look.

Have you grown any really strange or interesting fruits or vegetables?

We grew this melon—you don’t eat it, it’s very tiny—called the Queen Anne’s pocket melon. It comes from Victorian England, and people would carry it around in their pocket as perfume. It smells very sweet and fruity.

What are some gardening books you’d recommend for people who are just getting started?

The Natural Garden Book by Peter Harper, Complete Vegetable & Herb Gardener by Burpee, and Jerry Baker’s Backyard Problem Solver. There’s also one called The Gardener’s Handbook and Dictionary, by Jack Kramer.

What are some mistakes you’ve made?

This happens to us every year: We get overanxious and start our seeds indoors, think the frost is over and put the plants out, and then it comes. The first year we installed [the raised beds] we paid to have this “clean” dirt put in, then made the mistake of putting hay from the fields around the plants to protect them, and it just brought in all the weeds.

You have a herd of 100 goats. The notion of having a milk goat has also been romanticized lately. Is it realistic?

We are a certified Grade A dairy. Our caretaker, Farmer John, works hard. We do all of the gardening, and John is in charge of all of the animal husbandry. From February to autumn, they milk twice a day, and you have to take care of the animals, store hay, etc. That said, if you had one goat and wanted milk, you could milk it very easily yourself. You’d get maybe a gallon of milk a day at its peak. Even if you only had the one goat, you’d still have to breed it each year to “freshen” it [keep her producing milk].

Over the past year, raising chickens has become very trendy too. What should people know if they want to get into it?

It’s not cheaper to raise chickens for eggs. It’s much cheaper, even if you go to the farmers’ market, to buy eggs than to raise the chickens yourself. But they are fairly low-maintenance animals. Our chickens love when we feed them weeds from weeding the garden, so think about that too—it becomes very expensive if you are going to buy organic chicken feed.

What is the goal of your Beekman 1802 website?

We’re trying to highlight the importance of supporting local economies and each one of us becoming more sustainable. The more you can do in your own backyard the better. The reason we first put [the site up] was to sell soap [one thing they do with the 500 gallons a week of milk their goats produce], but [selling] was always sort of secondary.

What was your motivation for putting on the Harvest Festival in September?

When we moved up here, we knew virtually nothing about starting a farm, so we had to go get advice from our neighbors, and we really saw how our local farmers were struggling. We conceptualized the Harvest Festival as an opportunity to showcase all the local food producers in Schoharie County. Upstate New York has historically been really big in agriculture, but in the last 30 years a lot of [agriculture moved to] the Midwest. That’s sort of why it’s impoverished now, because it doesn’t have the agriculture to rely on anymore. The soil in Schoharie County is actually considered some of the most fertile in the world—the county supplied almost all the rations for the American Army during the Revolutionary War.

What can we learn from gardening?

I just think people should have in mind going into it that it’s not only great exercise physically and mentally, but it’s also a great exercise in delayed gratification. We really are a society based on instant gratification, and it has been really ruinous to us as a culture. And the thing with the whole financial meltdown was based on wanting everything we wanted when we wanted it. We didn’t want to wait and save up for the flat-screen TV, we wanted to buy it on credit. Waiting for things that work on a cycle really teaches you patience. We try to preach seasonal living and appreciating what you have when you have it. That’s really the core: delaying gratification and earning and working towards what you want. There are lots of life lessons to be learned in gardening.

Roxanne Webber is an associate editor at CHOW.