Agricultural Convergence

Food, art, politics, and culture come together in the garden

The garden at Fonda San Miguel
The garden at Fonda San Miguel (Photo by John Anderson)

Fonda San Miguel

2330 W. North Loop, 459-4121

Agricultural Convergence
Photo by John Anderson

www.fondasanmiguel.com

Inspired by the wonderful vegetable garden at Eastside Cafe, Tom Gilliland dreamed of having one for his successful Fonda San Miguel, but he lacked the space in which to do it. Years passed before Gilliland acquired the land adjacent to the restaurant. He considered expansion, or perhaps adding an art gallery or a private dining room for special events, but kept the lot vacant, until one day the garden idea was revived in conversation with a longtime staff member. "I know the right person to do it," she said. So in October 2008, she put Gilliland in contact with Randy Jewart, founder of Austin Green Art project.

After a few meetings, Gilliland commissioned the Land Art Division of Austin Green Art for site design and the arduous task of installing the garden. After the initial planting of ornamental trees and perennials, the division enlisted Scott Dubois, an experienced gardener and landscape designer, to oversee the edible garden. Eventually, Dubois parted ways with Austin Green Art, and the garden at Fonda became the full-time project of his own company, BlueGreenProject.

Agricultural Convergence
Photo by John Anderson

Dubois is a young, enthusiastic visionary and lover of all growing things. He took on Fonda's garden with a contagious passion and dedication. A landscape/graphic designer, photographer, and educator, he graduated from UT and is a certified permaculture designer. A creative bundle of energy, the Corpus Christi native oversees a handful of initiatives under his BlueGreenProject: Fruit Rescue seeks to map fruit trees in the Austin area whose fruits go unclaimed and unused, in order to distribute them to food banks and volunteers; Urban Homestead is an organic landscape design, installation, and maintenance company that specializes in edible and ecological landscaping; AntiLawn "tells the truth about the dangers of lawns and promotes healthy alternatives." Dubois is behind all these projects and more, both here in Austin and in San Francisco, as well.

He can be found at the Fonda garden two or three times a week, doing everything from weeding and preparing soil beds to planting, seeding, and mulching. All produce and herbs go directly to the Fonda kitchen, where the chefs create specials around the day's available crops. The first time I met Dubois, he was thinning out seedlings for the first fall crop. The beds were loaded with cabbage, broccoli, and tiny lettuce, spinach, arugula, cilantro, carrot, and beet seedlings. Mexican herbs such as epazote and hoja santa dotted the landscape. I asked if he had planted radishes, a vegetable widely used in Mexican cooking. "No, but in a few minutes I'm going to the Natural Gardener with Diana Kennedy to shop for some plants she suggested, and radishes are on our list," he replied. It was my lucky day. I had the chance to walk the garden with Ms. Kennedy, one of my most admired authors and cooks, and we talked about where the hoja santa should be moved so it wouldn't scorch in the sun and how wonderful it would be to find a few Seville orange trees to plant along the fence line.

On a more recent visit, I found Gilliland, plastic bucket and scissors in hand, heading for the old iron garden gate to harvest tender lettuce, spinach, arugula, and beet greens. "Since we started using greens from the garden, our salads usually sell out before 8pm," laughs Gilliland, adding: "We picked the carrot crop last week, roasted them, and served them on some of our dishes and soups. And I swear I'll never buy broccoli from the store ever again. The flavor is just so wonderful when they are fresh. We left a few to bloom because the bees love them!" Dubois planted a second fall crop with radishes, lettuce, and spinach, which are being harvested now and can be found all over the restaurant's menu. Just now he's waiting for the last frost date before planting the summer garden with tomatoes, squash, chiles, and more.

Dubois is always looking to the future – currently he's planning to add all the necessary requirements to qualify the garden as a wildlife habitat. This will mean reinstalling purple martin houses and adding more native plants and fruit trees (his specialty). Dubois' love for his work is evident in every conversation, and Gilliland couldn't be more pleased. "Our patrons enjoy strolling through the garden, sitting on the swing, and asking about the plants," he says. "For me, it's been enormously gratifying!" As far as this gardening writer is concerned, Scott Dubois is an absolute treasure. Check out his work at www.bluegreenproject.com.

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