|Hacienda Cusin Chef Romano & Jefferson in the new Edible Garden bed|
So given the opportunity to return, I was very keen to dream a bit in order to contribute our talents to add to the magic and mystery and charm of Cusin.
First, I needed to assemble my team as Cusin preferred two smaller groups this year rather than one bigger group. In addition to Linda Tejpaul, Magnolia Design, who was part of the Cusin team last year - the invites were a slam-dunk/no-brainer for me. I immediately asked the ever-talented, dynamic horticulturist, landscape architect, NY Parks Horticulture Manager at Randall's Island, and founder Live Rice - EunYoung Sebazco --who is also the first person to grow rice in New York City -- along with Sarah Owens, who I worked with at Brooklyn Botanic Garden where she is the former curator of the Cranford Rose Garden, and has just launched her super-successful Sourdough: Recipes for Rustic Fermented Breads, Sweets Cookbook, inspired by the botanicals.
As luck would have it, Sarah was going to be in Central and South America beginning in December, so she could meet us there. Sarah and EunYoung had also worked with me for years as part of the Duchess Designs fine gardening team. So we all knew and admired one another’s horticulture and passion for the garden -- both ornamental and edible. All replied an enthusiastic “yes!”
It was then time to come up with a plan for this year’s Cusin garden design. Reflecting on last year’s experience and recalling the picture perfect landscaped gardens that bejewel the colonial elegance that is Cusin, I thought there really isn’t much to improve or change or modify… We of course do a ton of garden “editing” and fine gardening that involves pruning, weeding, creating new compositions - especially as the plants grow so fast here. But I was looking to contribute in another way too. One of the elements I thought was missing was the sensual element of fragrance.
The gardens here are so sensory: igniting one’s sight, touch, and hearing -- given the birds that orchestrate a sweet serenade during the day and the tree frogs offer a kind of syncopated cantata at night. But fragrance - while here and there - could be amplified. Thus the concept of a Fragrance Garden came to be. I asked the team to research fragrant plants that are native to Ecuador and/or that would do well here. Bonanza! I also did up a quick garden design rendering (not to scale) to share with Nik, Cusin’s owner to better demonstrate our design concepts.
The location of the Fragrance Garden is next to the Biblioteca (where I’m writing from now), adjacent to the Edible Garden - and opposite a suite of rooms/cottages where I stayed last year for a week. The fountain is in the center of a four-quadrant axis with the garden beds lining those paths. I thought we could make this more of a destination garden rather than a pass-through visual -- with the fragrant plants enticing both guests and pollinators.
There’s no denying that I believe edible gardens both rival pure ornamental gardens for their beauty but also offer the best tasting food. A double delight. Again, last year I discovered this astonishing fruit and vegetable garden, visiting it many times during my work holiday here - even getting a tour from the head gardener: Luis. I took a kind of inventory in order to research and learn more about the plants. That list became useful this year.
See, I thought we might augment the edible garden, adding more local or native plants that, in turn, could better inform Cusin’s menu and recipes. I was thinking big here, I know. But given that my book: The Hamptons and Long Island Homegrown Cookbook-- was prompted as a way to explore how locally-grown ingredients inspire chefs, along with my food and drink writings for Garden Glamour and the Examiner - you can’t blame me for thinking that in some small way, we might kickstart an effort to embrace more of a cultural cuisine - making Cusin a culinary destination - to celebrate the flavors and bounty of Cusin -- along with its other charms. Besides, I’d reported on and/or have food friends who have contributed to their own country’s culinary culture ascendence, including Brooklyn (I know, but Brooklyn often does think of itself as a separate country), Denmark, Spain, and Peru. If they can do it, I figured why not us and Ecuador.
The team - that by that time the reception staff at Cusin had nicknamed, El Grupo Duchess, because of my Duchess Designs -- enthusiastically jumped in to research local Ecuadorian recipes and the plant ingredients found in their recipes. This was exciting!
|Duchess Designs: Angel - Cusin's driver picked up our group at the airport in Quito|
I knew right away I wanted to include the market treat I’d had last time: figs in honey with a kind of mozzarella cheese on homemade bread… mmmm.
(By the way, the local treat is guinea pig -- but I’ll have none of that, thank you! But a man on our trip to see the raptors and Condors ordered up one and Cusin accommodated. What an Instagram moment. Culinary? Not so much…)
|Guinea Pig entree!|
However, there are so many delicious recipes that use the bounty of this rich land, including potatoes, fruits, edible flowers, and sugar cane (panella), along with rice and dairy. Otavalo, where Cusin is located is a dairy - and rose-growing area - so the milk and yogurt are especially good.
Still in New York, the team produced a list of plants for the Fragrance Garden and the Edible Garden, along with herbs and companion plants. And recipes to illustrate how the plants can be used in the menus.
With these and the two garden design renderings, we were “ready” to meet with Nik the owner.
|Fragrance Garden - it's actually on the axis - but not bad considering I did it from memory!|
Long story short here - he approved! Nik gave us the confidence and a plan on how to make it all work. Happy Day! Oh - and we planned to do fine gardening and add to the beds around 25 - a casita/cottage that is at the far end of the Edible Garden. I did my morning yoga on top of this room last year. What an inspired view. Well, really, the vistas from most any spot are heart-clenching, breathtaking, and tranquil at the same time.
Working in the Garden
Let me add that we are one of two teams of gardeners who will work here this “winter.” The Mel team that comes after us is the team Linda and I worked with last year. So once Nik approved the project plan, I shared with them.
Travel arrangements were made: Linda, EunYoung and me flew out from JFK direct to Quito via TAME airlines. Nice flight. We met Sarah at the attractive new airport where Angel, from Cusin, met us. It’s a twisty, turny, not-so-long drive to Cusin. Beautiful scenery that astonishes at every point: volcanoes, nature, and the clouds…
We hit the ground running on Friday morning. We met with Cusin’s brilliant manager, Cesar.
|Cesar, Cusin's incredible manager|
We were honored to have the project accepted and looked forward to making them proud. Cesar walked the gardens where we would be working our designs, pointing out the area where we could create the new edible garden bed, along with confirming the gardens that were part of our design proposal.
Next it was work in the gardens. Finally, getting into the rich Ecuadorian soil. As I mentioned, plants grow really fast here. In addition, pruning is a horticultural art - especially so here because every garden is a showcase - guests are always exploring the gardens - so no luxury of hard pruning because there can’t be any “holes” or cutting back hard. No problem for EunYoung - she took a leggy “wall” of fuschia and had it looking healthy and magazine-worthy in no time.
|"before" pruning of fuchsia|
|"After" artful pruning - now guests can see out to the Edible Garden & wall|
EunYoung divided the liriope too.
|"Before" 25 Garden Bed path|
|Sarah & Linda pruning|
|EunYoung & Sarah transplanting Alstroemeria|
|Austrian guests at Cusin: children love gardening! This lad picked up the trowel & was an El Grupo Duchess team member before I could say, "Guten Tag!"|
|EunYoung dividing & planting strawberries|
|Puppies in the Jardin!|
|Puppies were cute until they started romping on the new plantings!!|
|We got some surprise "help" from two adorable puppies . I name one, "Toffee" & Sarah named the other one, "Fudge!"|
|"After" 25 Garden Bed - Alstroemeria transplanted tall - & new color-coordinated low alstroemeria added depth to design |
|I love that it looks like the plants are reaching out to one another in a kind of "bloom embrace!"|
Linda and Sarah were busy working on the entrance area to the casita - that was separated by a lovely wall from us/the side beds.
|Front entrance area of Room 25|
|Front entrance to 25 after fine gardening|
I also saw that the side roof prevented any plants from growing there but we needed a bit of beauty to cover what was an otherwise blank spot. I spied one container with impatiens - they grow like trees here -- and pulled that over. My design eye thought it needed another pot positioned at an angle or caty-corner so that it would better camouflage yet still get needed rain to the second pot. We got one and a palm on nursery shopping expedition. You can see the “before” and “after.”
|"After" with pots & plants - making a lovely composition|
|We also cleaned up this architectural jewel - jokingly referred to as the"dry hot tub" that was once used to cleanse the cows. We're thinking of a folly for this beauty...|
I think it was after lunch that we moved on to the Edible Garden. Cesar had already determined the space so it was left to create a design within that area. We worked out the egress from both sides and around a center tree. We managed to create two parterre-like beds and the other space was sculpted and yet allowed for more of an open bed for edibles and herbs.
|"Before" edible garden bed|
|"Before" edible garden bed|
|Sarah starting in on the new bed|
|Sarah, Cusin jardinero Vincente, & me|
|Sarah, Vincente - he lent some of their big tools - we could only bring hand tools in luggage - & Linda|
|First stage: outlining/digging beds & paths|
And then Linda reminded us that Japanese gardens used winding paths to thwart the evil spirits. But only good spirits in Cusin garden!
|Sneak Peek to "After" with Edible Garden micrograms & pepper plants|
|Planted new edibles|
The next day we shopped the local nurseries for fragrance and edibles.
|EunYoung, Linda, & Sarah inspecting citrus & stone fruits at the nursery|
|So many pretty pots to choose from|
|El Grupo Duchess - successful nursery buying trip|
|Eye Candy nursery plants in Ecuador|
After all, EunYoung brought microgreen seeds that we started on Friday and they were sending up shoots by Tuesday.
|EunYoung explaining the microgreen's propagation to Luis & Jorge - some of Cusin's top garden talent|
|Cusin's rich compost helped get the seedling up & growing in a week|
After purchasing some chocolate mint plants (just two! -- not to take over) and some medicinal plants, we walked to where a family was selling red beans we recognized from our research, oka, and lima beans. The lima beans are BIG here. We learned so much from the family, especially given Linda’s Spanish language skills. The women were busy shelling peas while the father taught us how to prepare the seeds and oka for planting. It was a fantastic learning experience for all of us.
|a kind of lima bean - to be planted after drying and yellow part turns black|
|Our market "teacher" shows us Oka - a kind of sunchoke. I love this taste! |
|So, we secured a few Oka to plant - with direction from our market teacher|
|Food market in Otavalo|