Lee Reich, horticulturalist, writer, and self-described “crazed gardener,” likes to quote what he calls an old sexist saying: “Never plant a vegetable garden further from the house than your wife can throw the kitchen sink.” Given his quirky sense of humor, it’s probably a saying he made up himself — and, as it happens, his own vegetable garden is a fair distance from the kitchen. When he rented his Ulster County property in 1981, the rectangular plot was already fenced and laid out in a sunny spot between the lawn and the field in back. By the time he decided to buy the place the following summer, he had enriched the soil — not something he takes lightly — so the vegetable garden stayed where it was.
That original plot remains the same, but the scope of Reich’s garden gradually grew over the years. “At first, I’d rototill a Maginot Line around the edge of the fence to keep weeds out of the garden, but I got sick of seeing bare soil so I started planting flowers there — perennials and annuals,” he says. More shrubs, bulbs and flowering plants went in around the house. But although he likes flowers as much as the next guy, Reich’s main interest is in edible landscaping. Soon after settling in Rosendale, he planted dwarf apple trees, and followed those with more fruit trees — pears, plums, cherries, and more exotic varieties like paw-paw and persimmon — and all kinds of berry-bearing shrubs, including blueberry, gooseberry and lingonberry. Eleven years ago, Reich purchased a neighboring field and began a second vegetable and fruit garden. (He jokingly calls it “the potager du sud.”) A couple of years back, he built a 400-square-foot greenhouse, where he cultivates vegetables throughout the winter. These days, he grows enough produce to feed himself and his wife year-round — and unusual, organic produce at that.
“I’m a big fan of autumn,” Reich says. “Most people begin to let the vegetable garden go in July, but I get another season out of it.”
Reich has fond memories of his family’s Victory-style plot in Westchester, but didn’t garden himself until he was in college. Although he’d originally planned to become a chemist — and earned a degree in theoretical chemistry — it dawned on him when he was in graduate school in Wisconsin that the subject didn’t mean much to him after all. He decided, like many of his late 1960s contemporaries, to drop out, and he and a girlfriend drove to Vermont. “It was a cool place to be,” he says. “I was reading a lot about gardening, playing a lot of pool. But my take on the back-to-the-land movement was the Jewish approach, which is to go and get a degree.” He headed back to Wisconsin, and spent five years getting a master’s in agriculture and soil science. “I was learning all this stuff about soil, and I started gardening like a total maniac,” he recalls. “So I decided to get a master’s in horticulture…. Then, unfortunately, I had to get a job.” The job he got was with the soil conservation service in southern Delaware. “When I moved, I rented the biggest U-Haul. I’d been growing apple trees in pots, because I figured I’d have to move sometime and that way I could take them with me. I’ve got a picture of myself standing at the opening of the U-Haul with all these trees with apples on them. The look on my face is totally insane,” he recalls, merrily. “There’s another picture at a rest stop on the highway of me watering seedlings, ready for the garden.”
Clockwise from top left: White lilies share a bed with black-eyed Susans and curly kale in high summer; the apple and pear allée in winter; espaliered red currants; the garden flourishing amid the blazing colors of fall
After a couple of years in Delaware, Reich got the urge for yet more study, and moved to Maryland to work on a Ph.D. in horticulture. “When I went, I took not only the plants with me, but a truckload of compost from my old garden,” he says. “Then I moved to the Hudson Valley, and once again, I brought my plants and compost.”
Reich put down real roots in his Rosendale garden, and let his trees do the same. His two-and-a-half-acre garden is now almost a small-scale organic farm, with bantam chickens running around to add to the effect. Its primary purpose is to provide food, but it’s every bit as pretty as a flower garden — and much more verdantly beautiful than the typical “yard” of lawn and foundation shrubs.
Most vegetable gardens are pretty in spring and summer, then become bedraggled by fall, and bleak in winter, but Reich’s fenced plot looks good in all seasons. The mulched paths, symmetrical beds, rustic gates and arbors provide structure. In summer, Reich tucks zinnias, calendulas and bachelor’s buttons into any gaps between vegetables, and plants an allée of lemony signet marigolds along the edges of the center beds. Nasturtiums spill over the pathways (“my nod to Monet’s garden,” he remarks). Basil ‘fino verde’ planted around the edges of some beds looks almost like boxwood. “One time, I grew different colors and textures of lettuce, all planted like a tapestry,” Reich remembers. “The problem with that is, you can’t eat any of the lettuce without ruining the whole thing.”
In fall, Reich has new crops underway. “I’m a big fan of autumn,” he says. “Most people begin to let the vegetable garden go in July, but I get another season out of it.” Throughout the summer, he sows seeds of lettuce, endive, radicchio and other plants that thrive as the temperatures drop.
As crops finally peter out in late fall, Reich spreads compost over the empty beds and sows a cover crop of oats. “It likes cool weather, comes up quickly and looks like the lushest lawn — I’m so enthralled with it. It keeps rain and sun from battering the soil, and it stays green until January. Then, when winter kills it, it flops down as a neat mulch. In spring, I just rake it up.” Much as he appreciates the glories of the growing season, Reich also enjoys the subtle beauties of a cared-for garden at rest. “The closing scenes need not be funereal,” he says.