Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Honoring The Farms' Homegrown KK Haspel

KK Haspel, at The Farm

It was last week while reading Lindsay Morris’s Instagram notice that I first learned the surprising and sad news that KK Haspel had died.

KK was the quintessential Mother Nature archetype and her legion of devoted fans included chefs, bakers, the sustainable, organic and biodynamic growers, edible schoolyard growers and students, farm-to-table enthusiasts, parents, backyard gardeners, cooks.  And me. 

KK is a featured grower in my book: The Hamptons & Long Island Homegrown Cookbook.  And Lindsay is the over the top photographer who contributed those luscious, food narrative images to the book.
As fans of the Homegrown Cookbook know, I asked each locavore chef, “Who inspires you most?” and then wrote a profile of the chef and the grower or maker who’s delicious ingredients ignited a culinary creation.  From oyster growers to vintners to honey makers to tomato growers, the bounty of Long Island fostered a growing culinary renaissance.
Truth was, KK was selected by more than one chef as inspiration.
It’s no wonder.

Just interviewing her was kinetic.  Her passion and energy nearly sparked the handset.  Words, descriptions, organic practices, and successes that transformed her life came tumbling out like molten lava bent on changing the landscape. 
I almost couldn’t take notes fast enough.
At one point while explaining how she douses with her plants, she paused, saying, “You must think I’m a little nuts, talking to my plants.” 
As a gardener and confirmed plant person, I thought she was joking. Silence. When I could sense a reply was needed on the table, I recovered and reassured her, “You are preaching to the choir!  I am in complete simpatico: I understand and agree!”
We continued.

But here’s the thing – KK did so much more than “just talk” to her plants.  She had a full-on frontal relationship with them. 

While on the Homegrown Cookbook’s photo shoot at The Farm with Lindsay, KK, chef Robby Beaver from the Frisky Oyster, and KK’s husband, Ira, we were all enthralled by KK and her exuberance and garden power – and elegance. She was in her element. She was fairly waltzing with the plants: barefoot!

Lindsay Morris in boots, captures KK barefoot! 

KK not only walked her raised beds magic garden with us she also showed us her labyrinth-like maze where we watched her walk her fascinating and somewhat mystical creation. 

Lindsay & KK walk the maze

KK bookended by me (L) and Lindsay 

I love this image of the three of us in Shadow Art

I wanted the Homegrown Cookbook’s images to suggest the special and enduring relationship a chef has with his or her grower and in addition, the grower’s relationship to the land or the sea from where they harvest. 
Of course Lindsay captured all that horticultural, culinary respect – and more. 

This photo is just about my favorite one showing that mutual respect - I've used it often in news stories: 

Separate from the work for the book, on more than one occasion that afternoon, I watched Ira as he basked in his wife’s beauty, spirit, and ability to almost cast a spell on all of us. 
Ira & KK Haspel with their homegrown edible

I couldn’t but say, “You are so lucky. She’s so incredible and beautiful” Without taking his eyes from KK, he said, “I know.”
So I had to ask, “How’d you meet?” 
He went on to describe how he was bewitched by her beauty and charm the first time he laid eyes on her.
But he said she was a bit too young for him at that time, so with patience and devotion, he waited for her to grow up…

She may have clicked off pages on a calendar but clearly she’d kept that child-like curiosity and unbridled enthusiasm.
It too was an enduring love affair all those married years later as one could easily see just watching Ira watching KK.

All that magic and mystery was only enhanced as she later demonstrated her dousing prowess with what looked like two sorcerer’s wands.

Then, some real hocus-pocus was evident when she showed us a photo of her using the ancient art of dowsing her plants.  It was abundantly clear to see a rainbow of color effect that was readily visible in the image. It revealed the plant's communication energies, telling her where and when to plant. “This is not altered or retouched,” KK exclaimed. 

Now we could see her “Technicolor vision,” too.

After we concluded the photo shoot on that warm, late June afternoon - we all sat under the big tree in she and Ira’s backyard, drinking her homemade Kombucha.

Heaven on earth. 

The only way I could think to pay some tribute to this extraordinary woman is to tell her story. 
Below is the draft of KK’s profile before it was edited down to fit into the Homegrown Long Island Cookbook.

I hope you enjoy reading it.  And I hope you can carry on the good gardening and farming practices KK espoused and demonstrated. 

KK Haspel
KK’s “The Farm” draft from The Hamptons & Long Island Homegrown Cookbook

KK or Kathy Keller was destined to be a biodynamic farmer. 
She gushes giddy enthusiam recalling when she and her architect husband advanced the long driveway to what is now The Farm.  

They had been looking for more than a year for a getaway, second home on the North Fork.  All they wanted was a barn, a hammock, and no phone.  But nothing they’d seen until then met the expectations of the couple.

Like an impassioned lover, she couldn’t see the optics as they were: sagging, abandoned barns leaning back towards their 1700’s heyday and abandoned fallow fields. 
KK had what she refers to as her “Technicolor Vision.” She “saw” zinnias and sunflowers and wildflowers.  Before she could hatch a plan to convince her husband about the Wizard of Oz-like color transformation magic of this place, she heard Ira telling the real estate agent, “We’ll take it.” 
It wouldn’t be the last time KK heard unexpected “voices.” 

There was no mistaking the immediate, kinetic connection to the land: like a mother to a child, KK couldn’t wait to plant on their 5-acre Brigadoon.

The flowers were indeed inspired. Following local tradition for the bounty of the harvest, she put out the “extras” on a stand at the end of the driveway.  

People loved her flowers and extra vegetables. “They’d tell me --those were great vegetables -- how about some more. “  At the same time, she was getting more seduced by the need for organics and soon enrolled in a two-day intensive organic course in West Hampton at  “The Nature Lyceum.  “The class changed my life.” She learned about organics and biodynamics – the first step on the way to the Zen of farming.

KK’s plants paid her back in spades.  The cosmic soil responded.  

According to KK, biodynamics can transform and restore the planet. “Every day, people used to eat some of their own soil - it was the natural probiotic.” KK points out.”  The unspoken implication is it should be the healthiest soil available. She says biodynamics can grow inches of topsoil in a few years, helps the produce last longer by two to three weeks and imbues the food with more nutrition. The microbiotics in the soil make for a unique and powerful food source. Everything at the Farm is grown in 50 -70 tons of biodynamic compost--all in raised beds.  KK is very intense with her planting.  

KK also does a lot of dowsing. She talks to her plants.  They talk back. 
“The plants tell me what they need.  They know what their purpose is – they want to give you the best food and seeds,” explains KK.  “Biodynamics helps mediate that conversation.” 
The Homegrown photo shoot stars

KK has a devoted chef following.
Chef Gerry Hayden, James Beard nominee, co-owner and executive chef of nearby The North Fork Table & Inn restaurant, was the first to put KK’s name on the menu, which in turn, further attracted a loyal food-worshiping cohort.

Emblamatic of KK’s Relationship to chefs is that of Robby Beaver, The Frisky Oyster. Robby first visited KK because it was near his father in law.   “The chefs are true artists,” says KK explaining their sensual connection to food and farm.  “They see color and texture; experience taste. Chef Robby frequents the farm tasting this and that, drawing his inspiration walking the field together with KK.  She says she learns what creative chefs like Robby and Gerry like and what they can use and then plants it.

KK likes to grow what’s easy; standards like garlic and tomatoes. She also likes growing “new” things. Like okra and collard greens.  But to KK, the new things are a little like going home. In fact, she took to growing them, as she wanted to grow some things from her mother’s native area: New Orleans.  Her parents met when her father was quartered at her mother’s boarding house during WW II. After the war, the couple moved north where she grew up with her two brothers in Oak Beach in Rockville Center. 

KK recalled she started working with the area’s homegrown chefs when the North Fork Table’s Gerry Hayden and Claudia Fleming were opening up.  KK fondly remembers a food moment when chef Claudia presented she and Ira with one of her James Beard award-winning desserts, saying, “Let me show you what we can do with your stuff.” A memorable blackberry tart was forthcoming. "They waited on us on hand and foot!”

The Farm grows everything from seeds. KK saves her seeds, almost admonishing, “They become your own seeds.” She lovingly described her garlic. It’s been nourished by KK, taking in nature's energy, acclimating and accommodating its own special terroir.
KK, along with Ira were soon managing half a dozen interns at various times in a season.  They gave workshops and talked about the importance of biodynamic farming and eating local.

KK was a force of nature and will be truly missed in this world.  She was only 63 and cancer was the kidnapper. KK died October 4, 2014.

I can’t help shake the feeling that like the true garden sprite as was revealed to us, she is really Mother Nature herself – a beautiful, nourishing soul who visited with us awhile in order to teach us and help renew our commitment to sustainability, respect for the environment, and taste. 
As noted at The Farms: Healthy Soil = Healthy Plants = Healthy People.

Bless you, KK. It was an honor to know you.  I’m forever grateful that The Hamptons & Long Island Homegrown Cookbook can pay homage to your indomitable spirit.


Link over to Lindsay's "musical maze" tribute to KK at Edible East End

Friday, October 3, 2014

The New York Botanical Garden Hosts Symposium to Explore "The Changing Nature of Nature in Cities

The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) wrote to me saying  - "Novel ecosystems are a controversial topic you may have seen discussed recently on NPR and in The New York Times.

On Friday, November 7 from 9:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. the Botanical Garden will host a symposium of experts for a vibrant discussion of this salient issue in The Changing Nature of Nature in Cities.

 This symposium, the second of the Garden’s new Humanities Institute, will explore the concept of novel ecosystems that are the result of urban development, and ask if these much-maligned accidents of unbridled growth could ultimately mitigate the impacts of environmental change and re-introduce the wonder of nature in cities.  

The featured experts in urban design, restoration ecology, science writing, and plant ecology who will speak are Kate Orff, Richard J. Hobbs, Emma Marris, and Peter Del Tredici and moderated by Todd Forrest, vice president for Horticulture and Living Collections, NYBG

I'm all all in.  
See you at the Garden

Register @NYBG.org/Humanities 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Artful Garden Design Lecture Presented by Oehme, van Sweden & Associates, Eric Groft

East Hampton home garden, Oehme van Sweden design, photo copyright: Richard Felber
Eric Groft, principal at the renowned landscape architectural firm, Oehme, van Sweden & Associates, was the featured speaker at the Metrohort’s inaugural meeting earlier this month.
Earlier that same day I attended the NY Design Center’s annual party/event for all things interior design where I met Jack Staub for his gorgeous Private Edens book signing at the Pennoyer Newman showroom (see earlier post) Proving it's a small world after all, especially when it comes to good design, when I told Jack where I was heading, he said to say hello to Eric.  They are professional friends; Jack said Eric brought him in on some projects.  I was happy to deliver his salutation.
Groft’s artful approach to designing the landscape that in turn, he learned from his former boss, James van Sweden, reflects much the way I approach garden design; inspired by the other fine arts and a Genius Loci (spirit of the place) so I was keen to hear him and see his portfolio of work.
Groft is billed as “encouraging everyone to find inspiration in the arts: painting, sculpture, even dance and ballet.  
Whether it’s a ten-foot-square city terrace or a ten-acre expanse, the same principles apply: the intelligent use of positive and negative space, of form and scale, of light and shadow, of rough and smooth textures. Eric illustrates the connection between the path in a garden and the horizon of an iconic painting, the syncopation of jazz and the free form of nature, and the intrigue of a good novel and the mystery of a thoughtfully sculpted landscape. “
Eric shared garden projects from the sandy beaches of Sagaponick to the rolling hills of northern West Chester County.  

The presentation was arranged by chapters, following the format of The Artful Garden: Creative Inspiration for Landscape Design written van Sweden, and my horticulture friend, Tom Christopher. 

Each chapter begins with a quote from a noted artist that sets the tone for the gardens presented.  For example, the Space and Form chapter introduces us to all the dimensions of a garden.  Lao Tzu wrote: “We turn clay to make a vessel; but it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the vessel depends.” Or Duke Ellington’s musical art introduction to chapter four with the saying, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”  
I have an autographed copy of this delightful book. I love the way it laid out and its way of bringing us into artful orbit – connecting garden art to the other fine arts.  It’s an elegant book and a must-have inspirational addition to a garden library.  Van Sweden helped popularize the notion that garden design is a fine art influenced by another art form – referring to it as “The Hybrid Art.” The Artful Garden is filled with images from Monet to a scene from a Kabuki play to illustrate the glamorous inspirations and nexus of where garden art meets the other fine arts.
The breakthrough work with the Chicago Botanic Garden's Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Center is a classic already – the beautiful and practical rooftop eco-garden there is one that is widely studied and imitated.  

Eric said Chicago’s Green Roof design has made them “A leading authority on green roof research.”  The firm designed the infrastructure for the plants – much attention devoted to water issues from waterproofing to nurturing the “living laboratory” of the planting beds. 
Chicago Botanic Garden Green Roof
The science demonstrates how the 40,000 plants thrive in an extreme environment by using low maintenance – most are grasses.  He showed a field of verbena that is breathtaking.

Chicago Botanic Garden Great Basin: Image courtesy of Wolfgang Oehme

Eric's firm worked with the Botanic Garden to design and create more than 30 water gardens.  
Chicago Botanic Garden Great Basin "before" 

Eric showed how they employed the use of vined trellis bridge as a continuous thread of green in the Chicago Botanic Garden's Great Basin and Water Gardens where – unlike the masses of single plants, the palette here features great plant diversity.  Interesting that funds for transforming the Great Basin came from the creator of the American Girl doll, Pleasant Rowland. (As if having a name like Pleasant, wasn’t happy enough!)

There was a 25-acre Greenwich home with no lawn – but lots and lots of daffodils. There was a landscape that merged house and garden in a grassy landscape that took its inspiration from Monticello. No detail is too insignificant. The firm designed a cobra handrail for a water garden pool, 

and built-in benches. Eric showed a stunning 5-acre house, swimming pool pond with wet and dry coping that is used to best reflect the plants in the water. Double the pleasure. 

Liquid, mirrored beauty.

Photo courtesy of Oehme van Sweden; photograph byClaire Takacs features a Grace Knowlton Sphere sculpture.

Oehm van Sweden Landscape Architects is renowned for its diversity in residential, commercial and institutional work from Manhattan rooftop terraces to a 3,500-acre nature preserve/hunting lodge in Maryland.

I had intended to post this on the 26th – the one-year anniversary of the death of James van Sweden, the influential landscape architect who helped found the firm in 1977 with Wolfgang Oehme and were very much known for their exuberant use of ornamental grasses and wildflowers – and land conservation. I salute Mr. van Sweden and his passing. The design world mourns its loss...

In his work, Eric writes that he takes pride in his sense of regionalism and attention to the vernacular. He has a passion for horticulture.  This is no small thing.  It’s far too frequent that landscape architects know next to nil about the horticulture and plants. Usually they bring in garden designers or horticulturists and they keep to the hardscaping and land reform. 
Eric Groft talking to Metrohort members 
Eric is widely recognized as an industry leader in environmental/wetland restoration, and shoreline stabilization/revetment.

Via a follow up email, Eric explained about the firm's shoreline work, including some terrific plant suggestions: “The loss of the towering oaks, allowed for better light to hit the lawn and planting beds below and it cleared up an area where we installed some broad lawn steps that led the eye up the hill and connected the “rockery” to the rest of the garden.

     The shoreline revetment in Sagaponick was an opportunity for us to do some revegetation        
     using Amophila/Cord Grass, Limonium/ Sea Lavender, Solidago gramifolium and Eryingium/Sea Holly. 
     This was done in combination with the NY State beach revetment providing a seamless transition from             
     our seaside garden to the ocean and extending the beach significantly
     Select plants that can take the transition from dry to wet: Panicum, Carex, Solidago, Rudbeckia.”