It was only early June, and the sage plants were already threatening to take over Nola Kevra’s Ripton greenhouse. In the garden plot outside, squash plants unfurled their leaves next to shallots, garlic, beans and peas.
The hundreds of varieties of plants surrounding the house ran riot over nearly every available surface, creating an air of comfortable chaos in the small clearing around the house.
Kevra sells her salad greens and herbs to the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op and to restaurants under the name “Nola’s Secret Garden.” She doesn’t do farmers’ markets, though, because she is short-staffed — she is the sole employee of her business.
“If Greta and Orion could sell for me, that would be great,” she said of her dogs. “But I’m it.”
Most of the plants growing outside of the greenhouse never see the market — many are food for herself and her husband. But plants don’t have to be practical to have a place in this whimsical space.
“Once I get the show going with stuff to sell, it’s nice to have some fun,” she said. “It’s part of the fun, trying new things.”
This year, one of those new things is indigo, which Kevra is hoping to use to experiment with dye-making.
There is also an area of the garden dedicated to her dogs, planted with forget-me-nots and other flowers that neighbors have given her. And ellecamp flowers grow in abundance in one of the beds, planted in memory of Kevra’s dog Elsa, who died of cancer two years ago.
Of course, there is a place for practicality — the salad mixes Kevra sells differ widely depending on what’s growing at that particular time of the year, but she does need a consistent supply of greens to meet demand. But even the practicality is laced with inventiveness. A hanging hose contraption slides along a moveable track that runs the length of the structure, allowing her to water the plants without dragging a cumbersome hose. Two towering tripods made from roughly hewn trees are currently acting as climbing poles for sweet peas and morning glories, but when the time comes to replace the greenhouse plastic every three years, they serve as stands to prop up the 250-pound plastic rolls. And each night, the extra seedlings (in case the ones that are direct-planted in the ground grow badly) get covered by a metal cage, improvised to prevent mice from flattening the young plants.
Kevra and her husband Mark moved to Vermont as newlyweds in 1989, and Kevra has been growing plants ever since.
“I went to college and got a degree in biology, and that was OK,” she said. “And then I was offered, through a teaching fellowship, an opportunity to get my master's in environmental studies and that was wonderful. And so, as good parents, my Mom and Dad said, ‘Oh, yeah. Nola's going to make lots of money now.’”
But when the time came to begin making her fortune, life took her in another direction.
“I tried it, but the role models that I saw in these moneymaking jobs — including my own father — were not happy people,” said Kevra. She gestured around. “I can credit this to my grandfather.”
Her grandfather, who grew up in Beirut, Lebanon, was forced to leave school at an early age because of religious persecution. As a young man, he emigrated to New Jersey and started what would become a farm of several hundred acres.
“So here's a guy who had no education at all, who did what he loved and did it really well,” said Kevra. “He was happy, he made other people happy, and I thought, ‘Huh. Nice role model.’”
Though she hasn’t had luck with all of the Middle Eastern plants she’s tried to grow, since many of them need more light and warmth than they get in Vermont, Kevra pointed out a row of rounded leaves just beginning to grow upwards from the soil. Those, she said, were kousa squash.
“(My grandfather) grew acres and acres of the squash, and he handled it with such care. Every one had to be just perfect,” said Kevra.
Sometimes, when she was young and her grandfather went to Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn to sell and barter the squash at the Middle Eastern markets there, he would bring her along
“You walked into Sahadi’s and it was like going to Beirut, it was like going to Cairo. Everyone’s bartering.”
It’s a long way from Vermont to Brooklyn, and even farther to Lebanon. But stuff the squash with ground lamb and rice, said Kevra, then cook it in a tomato broth with mint and garlic, and you get a classic Middle Eastern dish.
So she is growing the squash preserve her heritage, and gardening to preserve her grandfather’s vision. And that, she’s decided, is what is important.
“I like to think, on a much, much smaller scale, I’m trying to do the same thing,” she said.
Kousa Mahshi (Stuffed Squash)
Recipe adapted from http://www.habeeb.com/Vegetarian-and-Lebanese-recipes.07.html
• 15 medium size kousa (or other summer) squash
• 1 1/2 cups ground lamb
• 1 cup rice
• 1 1/2 cups tomato juice
• 1/2 cup water
• 1 1/2 tsp. salt
• 1/4 tsp. pepper
• 2 tomatoes, chopped (optional)
• 1 tsp. mint
• Several garlic cloves, to taste
• 1/2 lemon, juiced
Kousa mahshi may be cooked in an ordinary saucepan. Scrub squash well. Hollow from one end with apple corer or small spoon. Mix rice, meat, seasonings and half of the chopped tomato. Stuff squash three-quarters full. Lay several meat bones on bottom of deep saucepan and cover with the remaining chopped tomato. Arrange stuffed marrows in layers over bones. Add tomato juice, water and 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt. Cover the saucepan and simmer for an hour, or until squash is tender. Uncover and simmer to thicken sauce. Crush a teaspoon of dried mint with several garlic cloves and two teaspoons of salt. Mix in the juice of half a lemon. When the squash is tender, sprinkle it with this sauce and allow to simmer a few minutes more.
Andrea does reporting and online media for the Addison Independent. You can find her on Twitter here or see other Table Talk entries here. Feel free to weigh in on this post or suggest future topics, either in the comments section below or at andreas [at] addisonindependent.com.