After winding down NW Blue Ridge Drive for what seems like forever, I pull up in front of my assigned meeting place with Amy Pennington, cook, writer, blogger, TV personality and edible gardener extraordinaire. I follow the sounds of laughter-filled chatter up the stairs and into the back garden, where I am met with a spectacular view: beautiful ornamental landscaping blending harmoniously with an edible garden of raised beds at the height of the property, with sweeping views of Puget Sound and the Olympics. It is a tapestry of blues and greys on this overcast morning.
Amy’s at work with her gardening assistant, Yvonna, tilling in a cover crop of red clover for her Go Go Green Garden clients. This will be her third year planning, planting and caring for the family’s edible garden and each year she gets three full crop rotations out of the raised beds and surrounding borders, filled with veggies, herbs and fruit.
The first rotation starts in early spring and the heat-loving veggies are in by the first of June. A second planting of carrots, lettuces and fall veggies happens at the beginning of July. In September, when the tomatoes come out, a cover crop is sown, with winter lettuces and beets (ready to harvest by February) planted in another bed. I ask if she uses a cloche to cover the winter crops and she smiles. Usually, she does build a cloche but this year she has decided to experiment and see what happens without one. She quickly adds: “I highly encourage everyone else to build their cloche. Don’t follow me on this one. It’s risky because you just don’t know what’s going to happen with the weather.”
I wander around the garden, taking in the view and perusing what has already been planted for rotation #1. ‘Maestro’ and English shelling peas are already in, as well as ‘Umpqua’ broccoli. There are ‘Red Torpedo’ onions, ‘Detroit Golden’ beets and loads of fun lettuces with names like ‘Strela’ and ‘Speckled Amish’. I notice several varieties of carrots – including ‘Yaya’ and ‘Mokum’ – that I’ve never seen before. Amy tells me that she wants to offer her clients lesser-known varieties, “something a little different.”
She usually grows about 70% of the vegetables from seed and the other 30% are starts. At the moment, she’s sowing more beet seeds, to fill in where some failed to come up, and I ask about thinning: “I’m not a huge fan of thinning,” she says matter-of-factly, “I am totally ruthless [about pruning, ripping things out] – I’m not dainty – but why plant all those seeds just to rip them out? There’s no sense in wasting my seeds.” Sounds like good advice to me. Personally, I’ve always been hesitant to pull out sprouts, but for different reasons. I guess I just have a soft spot for those struggling veggie babies trying to grow (a sentiment that apparently doesn’t affect me when I’m eagerly harvesting the full-ripened, adult vegetables!)
Amy teaches her assistant the best way to plant cucumbers, showing her how to build a small “hill” of dirt for warmer soil and better drainage (“they don’t really like wet feet”), and we chat about some of our favorite edibles. We all agree ‘Costata Romanesco’ zucchini is both beautiful and delicious. Yvonna loves Swanson’s mustard mix and uses it as a fall cover crop as well. Amy grows tons of herbs and fruit, all in pots on her balcony. Some of her favorites? Anise hyssop, lovage, scented geraniums, blueberries and strawberries, and pennyroyal, for its medicinal properties. It turns out you can make a high-calcium tincture from pennyroyal that is excellent for easing PMS (always consult an experienced herbalist before using any plant medicinally)*
What else will they be planting in this garden today? ‘Kentucky Wonder’ pole beans, collard greens, peppers and tomatoes, of course, and loads of other goodies. I’m sure everyone will want to know what varieties of tomato Amy Pennington recommends, so I ask. Her answer includes many traditional favorites, such as ‘Sweet Million’ and ‘Sungold’ (great for kids), and also a cool variety of paste tomato called ‘Speckled Roman’, because, she assures me, everyone should grow at least one paste tomato. Sold. I decide to pick one up as soon as I get back to Swansons.
Amy’s sorting seed packets, advising her assistant and trimming back a lovage plant, all while answering my questions. This woman has multitasking down to a science. “I need to maximize my time economy,” she says, laughing, “I tell myself, ‘get smart, Amy Pennington!’” It is amazing all that she has going on: gardening for clients, writing books, a television show on PBS, a blog… the list goes on. I wonder how it all got started.
Apparently, with a family in Laurelhurst back in 2004. A friend asked her if she would grow “Nonna’s tomatoes” for the family, from seeds that they brought back from Italy. Some friends at Oxbow Farm in Carnation agreed to raise the starts for her in one of their greenhouses and then she and her friend planted them for the family. She ended up planting and tending their garden for several years. At the time she was working for Tom Douglas and freelance writing on the side. Slowly, she gained more garden clients and in 2007 she decided to quit her job and pursue gardening and writing full-time. She pauses, looks around and says, “And that’s all she wrote!”
Now, Amy has clients all over the Seattle area and has become an expert on growing food in the region: “At this point in my career, I know all the science,” she says, “I’ve been growing food [professionally] in Seattle for over seven years and I’m hyper tuned-in to the microclimates here.”
I ask her how a Long Island native living in Brooklyn found herself moving across the country to Seattle and she points out that besides all the practical reasons – she couldn’t afford NYC, she knew people in the state, and she was accepted to the University of Washington – there was also a "sign": “I lived in Brooklyn and the UW student housing was on Brooklyn Avenue, so I was like ‘what more do I need?’”
Amy has clearly embraced her adopted city and she shares a few of her favorite things to do in Seattle. “Well, I love all restaurants, of course,” she states emphatically, especially Mamnoon, where her friend Garrett Melkonian is the chef, and Tillicum Place Café, about which she can’t say enough good things: “It’s unsung, oddly. It’s a beautiful place. I love that there is a female chef and she is an amazing cook; she has just nailed it: simple, elegant, flavorful. ” She also loves Señor Moose in Ballard for breakfast, a sentiment echoed whole-heartedly by Yvonna.
I end the interview with two questions usually reserved for the bios of Digging Deeper contributors: “what is your favorite Seattle-area greenspace/park/garden?” And “If you were a beverage, what would you be?”
Amy muses: “I live in Discovery Park and… I would be a bitter Manhattan, ‘cause it’s delicious.”
A discussion of the merits of Manhattans and brown liquor cocktails ensues. Amy likes that Manhattans are sweet, but a bit of a digestif, too. Yvonna recommends Janine at Moshi Moshi (“she’s the best bartender in the world!”), and I leave them hoping we can all get together again soon, this time over some good food and high-quality brown liquor. For the moment, however, Amy has inspired me to get out into my garden and grow more food.
Want more edible gardening inspiration? Check out our inspiration boards on Pinterest. We have ideas for all conditions and types of garden beds!
Swansons is so excited to be partnering with Amy Pennington for our Grow with Us Project.
For more information on her many endeavors, visit Amy-Pennington.com and be sure to peruse her books on cooking and urban gardening (available in our gift shop).