Friday, July 11, 2014

Can / Should Botanic Gardens Lead the Way to a Healthier Diet?

The shady, enticing patio of the new Hive Garden Bistro (photo courtesy of Denver Botanic Gardens)

I was excited to read the news from Denver -- the Botanic Gardens there recently unveiled an expanded and upgraded cafe called The Hive Garden Bistro.

Why the excitement? After all, I don't live in Denver.

I guess it's because I think botanic gardens can help lead the way to showing America how to eat a healthier, more local and more wholesome diet.

The part of the press release that really caught my eye was the idea that some of the produce for the dishes served in the cafe would be sourced from the adjacent Le Potager Garden and the Chatfield CSA.

CSA = Community Supported Agriculture. In my own part of Tennessee, I've seen CSAs offered by vendors at farmers markets, where customers pay a lump sum upfront at the start of the season in exchange for weekly deliveries of fresh produce chosen by the farmer. Farmers benefit from a reliable income stream. Customers develop closer relationships with the producers of their food, and they also get a first-hand idea of the risk involved in farming. If a heat wave or drought wipes out a crop, they might have a meager harvest some weeks.

The Chatfield CSA, I've just discovered, is a CSA that's actually run from a 5-acre working farm inside a 70-acre nature preserve and garden owned by the Denver Botanic Gardens in the Denver suburb of Littleton. Very cool!

But I might even be a little more excited by the idea that some of the produce that shows up on the plates at The Hive Garden Bistro comes from Le Potager edibles garden growing right next to the cafe. I'm hoping that will open the eyes and minds of some of the visitors to the garden - adults and children alike - who may have come to see beautiful flowers or dazzling Chihuly glass sculptures, but who will walk away thinking about a delicious meal they had at a cafe that was flavored using ingredients that they could actually see growing alongside the restaurant.

Le Potager edible garden (photo courtesy of Denver Botanic Gardens). Even though my own gardening style is much less formal and ordered, I love how Denver Botanic Gardens is showing that edibles can be ornamental too -- which of course is part of the essence of a potager!
(What sort of dishes will incorporate Le Potager ingredients? I'm sure the menu will change with the season, but right now I've been told that chard from Le Potager shows up on the cafe's hummus plate, lettuce from Le Potager and the CSA gets used in cafe salads, and there are plans to soon incorporate herbs from Le Potager into refreshing agua fresca drinks.)

I know that plenty of progressive restaurants are driving the locavore farm-to-table dining experience, and I applaud all of those efforts.

But I wonder if botanic gardens can play an especially important role in encouraging people to eat local, fresh fruits and vegetables?

After all, many visitors come to botanic gardens prepared to see something beautiful and to learn something new. Should every botanic garden have an edibles section so that visitors could how lettuce grows, how tomatoes ripen and measure whether the corn is as high as an elephant's eye?

My own experience - and I think the experience of many other folks - is that fresh-from-the-garden produce looks better and tastes better than mass-produced products that have been trucked, flown and shipped from thousands of miles away.

And when fresh food looks better and tastes better, it stands to reason people will be more likely to enjoy it and want to eat healthy fruits and veggies more often!

Simplistic? Perhaps. But I think there's some logic to that line of thought.

Of course, I believe that home grown produce tastes best. When you grow your own tomatoes and lettuce, that's when you really get excited about having salad for dinner. Again, I think botanic gardens can lead the way here, educating the public on edible gardening. That's exactly what Denver Botanic Garden is doing with a range of edible gardening classes on topics like succession planting, overcoming pest and disease problems and learning how to grow a year-round edible garden -- even in Colorado!

Finally, I hope that botanic gardens could encourage gardeners to look beyond the tried-and-true homegrown crops. Just as botanic gardens can open eyes and minds to trying new types of ornamental plants, I'd hope they could help people discover new and amazing edibles. For instance, before we visited Powell Gardens a few years ago outside Kansas City, neither my wife nor I had ever (knowingly) tasted mustard greens (Brassica juncea). We were both hooked from the first zesty bite! Now we've grown it at home several years and it's become one of our favorite salad and cooking greens. It's also easy-to-grow (our two plants volunteered this spring and we've got a bumper crop of seeds ripening in the garden) and reportedly packed full of nutrients.

What do you think? 

Should botanic gardens - which are typically strapped for space and resources - redirect some of their energy from ornamentals to edibles? 

Could this really make an impact on changing America's eating habits for the better? 

Personally, I give major props to Denver Botanic Gardens and hope that other botanic gardens - including our own Cheekwood here in Nashville - will follow in their footsteps!