A Celebrity Chef's Edible Garden
Chef Virginia Willis's Massachusetts home garden is brimming with edibles and flowers.
For Virginia Willis, home is where the harvest is. While the classically trained chef is best known for her Southern-themed cookbooks such as Bon Appétit, Y’all and Okra, Willis splits her time between Atlanta and the tiny town of Hatfield, Massachusetts where she shares a home with culinary literary agent Lisa Ekus.
Located 100 miles west of Boston, Hatfield was founded in the late 1600s near the banks of the Connecticut River. The region is called Pioneer Valley and is known for its rich farmland and historic structures. Willis’ New England home is a 250-year-old farmhouse that sits on four and a half acres. This makes for a sizeable garden, which includes an herb garden, perennials by the front door, and annuals in the back yard as well as a vegetable garden. The back meadow has a marsh with a picnic area, an Asian garden near the house adjacent to the screened-in porch and framed by the trellis with morning glories.
“It's several acres and we keep carving out more gardens,” says Willis.
The gardening duties are shared with Ekus tending to the cutting garden and starting the vegetable seedlings under grow lights in the cellar. She nourishes them and maintains a meticulous watering schedule. Willis then transfers the sprouts to the ground and that’s when the magic starts.
“The soil is so fertile that weeds are a real problem. So, we just keep trying to pack the garden with more and more flowers to fill the space,” says Willis. “The front garden is a study in overabundance. I love the wildness and fecundity. In my vegetable garden, however, not so much.”
To further abate the weed problem, Willis often places cardboard or newspaper between the rows of plants and then covers it with salt marsh hay. She also utilizes this strategy around the fruit trees and flowerbeds covering the area with mulch.
“It recycles and reuses the paper and is easy to shovel through if we do want to add additional plants unlike fabric weed barrier,” says Willis. “The paper eventually breaks down and we simply till it into the soil the next year.”
Willis takes tremendous pride in her garden for the joy it brings her relationship and for the inspiration it provides to her cooking. Naturally, when there is a bumper crop the produce makes it into her recipes. This past harvest, for example, yielded many hot peppers that are made into hot sauce, chili and soups; the overage goes in the freezer to be used throughout the year. The eggplants are still producing and inspired her Savory Eggplant Dip.
“I love growing something and cooking what we grow. It's a real partnership,” she says. “Seeing progress feels really good and it's nice to spend time together digging in the dirt. It's a lot to keep up so there's always something to do. We also try to realize that our gardens are meant to be enjoyed, not rule us and make it seem like work that has to be done.”