This year we partnered with Tennessee’s Blackberry Farm to create a Thanksgiving menu inspired by new recipes and old rituals. The farm’s chefs and artisans brought inventive dishes to the table, each with a personal twist. We talked to each of them about their favorite Thanksgiving traditions, as well as the inspiration behind their dishes — read on to hear their stories.
Here, we talk to John Coykendall, Blackberry Farm’s Master Gardener, who’s responsible for planting, growing and harvesting the seasonal bounty in the gardens. For years, he’s kept journals meticulously detailing the daily harvest and farming notes, as well as records of his extensive travels.
How did you become interested in gardening and growing vegetables? Was it part of your upbringing?
My interest in gardening began in the spring of 1954, when my father showed me how to plant corn and potatoes. From that year down to the present, gardening and farming have been at the center of my life’s work and passion.
How long have you been a part of the Blackberry Farm family? How did you find your way to the farm?
I have been working at Blackberry for the past 14 years. My time spent here, however, dates back to the early 1950s, when I would visit Blackberry with my family. At that time, Blackberry was owned by the Jarvis family and consisted of the main house and Singing Brook Farm.
I began working here when the then executive chef John Fleer expressed the desire to have gardens featuring unique produce, especially heirloom varieties which would give the chef a much wider range of culinary creativity.
Describe the growing year at Blackberry Farm. What is growing in the summer, fall, winter and spring?
Here at Blackberry Farm we are fortunate to have four growing seasons. In the spring, we begin our planting around the first of March, featuring cool-weather crops such as lettuce, kale, Swiss chard, radishes, onions, arugula, carrots, beets, potatoes, cabbage, and kohlrabi, just to mention a few.
During the summer months our fields are alive with produce. We have an abundance of corn, potatoes, tomatoes, summer squash, cucumbers, watermelon, beans, eggplant, okra, peas, peppers, lima beans, onions, shallots, garlic and a large cutting-herb garden.
Beginning around the tenth of August we begin planting the fall gardens. Anything grown during the spring season can be grown in in the fall with good success in our region, with the addition of turnips, rutabagas, mustard, collards, kale, winter radishes, cabbage and a number of other varieties. Most of our cold hardy crops overwinter well, such as kale, collards, turnips, most lettuces, winter onions, Swiss chard and winter radishes.
How do you work with the kitchen and the chefs to create dishes from seasonal ingredients?
One of the most rewarding aspects of working with our chefs comes from our ability to have unique heirloom varieties available for them to choose from. For me personally, our chefs are like artists, and to be uniquely creative they require a varied palate to be able to choose from.
During the summer months our chefs have a great number of heirloom tomato varieties to choose from, which create visual as well as taste delights. At the beginning of our growing season we consult with our chefs to make sure that any new-old vegetable variety is included in the garden.
Old varieties of field peas, butterbeans, beans, squash, pumpkins and many others provide numerous creative opportunities and choices to work with.
What’s a typical day like in the garden?
It’s hard for me to imagine a typical day in the garden, because for the most part no two days are the same. In most cases, the garden tells you what the day will be like.
On this September day, there were rows of fall greens to be weeded out, dried corn to be pulled, kale, mustard and turnip seed to be sown, and old tomato vines to be pulled up.
Tell us about the gardening/art journals you keep. How long have you kept them? What do you record?
At home I have a vast number of notebooks and drawing books filled with writing and drawings, which record past experiences and travels. I have been drawing and recording my experiences for as far back as I can remember. Many of my books contain stories and farming knowledge that I have learned over the years from other people. My early farming knowledge came from people who were born in the 1880s up to the early 1900s.
The gardening journals contain observations on the current year, what was planted, notes on the season, growing conditions, harvest yield and drawings of unique varieties.
I also have a good number of books filled with notes and drawings from travels in Austria, Hungary and Romania. Each book contains recipes and old farming knowledge that I have recorded in those countries.
How has your art background influenced your gardening career?
My backgrounds in art and gardening have always been closely related. Gardening is an art, both in the planting and the tending of it, to the way it is designed and laid out. I design the garden so that the final outcome is an aesthetically rewarding experience for our guests who visit our gardens.
What is your gardening philosophy?
My garden philosophy is one of sustainable gardening. We nurture our soil, we feed it with compost and manure, our seeds are heirloom varieties that have been handed down for generations. We use varieties which have adapted to our region. My gardening is a reflection of our history, heritage and way of life in east Tennessee.
What are some of the stories behind the varieties of vegetables that you grow?
I have over 500 varieties in my seed collection, and each variety has a story of its own. Here are a few of my favorites:
From 1959 until 1990 I searched for the “Tennessee Sweet Potato Pumpkin” which was listed in the Henry Maule seed catalog for 1913. In 1990, the year that I became a member of the seed savers exchange organization, I finally located seed for that variety and have been growing it ever since that time.
Another favorite of mine is the story of the “Socks Bean”: Fifteen years ago, while planting my potatoes on my farm in March, I looked up to see my feisty dog Socks trotting down the farm road with a paper bag in her mouth. This bag contained a wide variety of cornfield beans ranging in colors from gold, white, striped, red, tan and purple. Socks never did tell me where he found those beans.
What are your favorite vegetables to grow and why?
My favorite vegetables to grow are beans. I love them because there is so much variation in shape, size, length, seed coat colors and moteling and culinary uses. I have over 200 bean varieties in my collection, and many are distinctly unique visually as well as for culinary use. A selection of a number of bean varieties on display creates an inspiring sight to behold.
I have bunch beans, stick beans, pole beans, cornfield beans, creaseback beans, October beans and greasy beans. I have growing beans because they have so many uses throughout the year; there are varieties for spring, summer and fall. There are beans which are for shelling and winter use, for making “heather britches,” fresh use, and canning.
I love field peas, too; they were such an important staple for our ancestors, both for fresh and dry use. The vines were cut for hay, and the climbing varieties were planted in cornfields to build nitrogen levels in the soil. They were also planted as a cover crop.
Tell us about seed saving. What is it? Why is it important?
Seed saving has been a way of life for me for many years, and today the practice of seed saving has become crucial in connection with efforts to save our remaining genetic crop diversity. I have followed in the footsteps of our ancestors who were seed savers out of necessity. At the end of every season a certain amount of seed was saved for the replanting of the following year’s crops.
The seeds that we save today have been handed down over a long period of time. These old varieties are “living history;” they are the story of our agricultural past, our history and our heritage. They are part of our culinary traditions, and today they offer new creative possibilities for our chefs here at Blackberry and for future generations as well. These heirloom varieties represent what “real” food once tasted like. If you need an example of this, try one our of wonderful heirloom tomatoes that we grow here during the summer months, then try one of those supermarket cardboard tomatoes in January. No further explanation will be necessary.
How do you work with the other artisans on the farm?
Here at the farm we are continually working with our fellow artisans in many areas. On any given day you will see chefs coming down to the garden for last-minute items, a handful of chives and basil. Our bartenders often drop by to cut peppermint or other herbs which are used in drink preparations. This year I am doing a special project in connection with our preservationists in the larder.
All of the produce from my 100-year anniversary garden, which features varieties that were offered in the Henry Maule seed book for 1913, are going to them for pickling and canning.