Sustainability in the Culinary Garden

Since every day is ‘Earth Day’ in my book, I’d like to take a moment to highlight some of the efforts we are making in the Castle Hill Culinary Garden to be environmentally friendly and use sustainable techniques. Castle Hill Inn has been implementing new “green” strategies each year. I am happy to be a member of our staff Green Team and manage the Culinary Garden in alignment with healthy earth-oriented principles.

When viewing the garden, one of the first things you might notice is the straw mulch on most of the beds. The straw has numerous functions and is something I have used since day one. Straw mulch is a fully organic material that naturally breaks down over time. It leaves no harmful residue (unlike some dyed or treated mulches) and, unlike plastic mulches, straw does not need to be discarded at the end of the season. The straw also helps retain moisture in the garden; less water is used, and it attracts worms that help aerate the soil and fertilize the plants with their castings. The only potential downside to using straw mulch is that it lowers the temperature of the soil by a few degrees. In the early spring this can slow germination and growth of some plants if the mulch is applied too soon. We mitigate this effect by applying the mulch when days reach an average temp of around 70*f, and we delay mulch application on the heat-loving plants like peppers and tomatillos until they are well established. Kale and Swiss Chard, along with many other greens and brassicas, prefer soil to stay cool, and so loading on the mulch for them extends the season and prevents bolting (going to seed).

Another “green technique” we use is fertilizing our gardens primarily with compost, instead of synthetic fertilizers that can run off and cause damage to the beautiful and sensitive ecosystems surrounding Castle Hill. In the Garden we use two types of compost: the first comes from The Compost Plant, a local business that picks up food scraps throughout Rhode Island and converts them to rich compost. Castle Hill Inn is proud to be one of the restaurants that uses this service. Each spring we receive truck loads of compost from The Compost Plant and, in doing so, we close the loop using compost made from our food. The second type of compost is created on site from worm castings. Behind the Garden we have two ‘Hungry Bin’ worm bins that we purchased from The Worm Lady of Southern Rhode Island. We feed the worms food scraps and other plant matter (like the weeds we pull) and in return we get worm castings- one of the best types of compost out there!

Crop rotation and companion planting are other techniques we use to minimize pests and disease and ensure that we do not need to apply any synthetic treatments. Each season I design the layout of the beds so that the same type of plant is never grown in the same place two years in a row. Doing this helps to prevent pests and disease, which are usually plant-specific, from building up. The flowers throughout the garden also help with this. Many of the flower varieties attract beneficial insects that feed on pest insects, and the marigold is especially helpful because it secretes a substance from its roots that deters parasitic nematodes (tiny soft-body insects that feed on roots). When we water or it rains, the straw mulch prevents soil from splashing up and hitting the leaves – this helps prevent the spread of any unwanted bacteria or fungi.

We grow >90% of our produce from seed in the beds and in the greenhouse, giving us the ability to completely trace and track each item we harvest. From the tiny “mouse melon” to the giant cucumbers, I value knowing that all our produce is chemical-free and grown in a way that supports the health of the land and people. Ingredients that travel “meters not miles” (as my catchphrase goes) also ensures a minimal carbon footprint and optimum freshness and nutrient content. Next time you enjoy a meal featuring our vegetables at Castle Hill, I hope you’ll be even more satisfied knowing the food you are eating was grown in a healthy and sustainable manner!

by Leita Lord, Horticulturist