Soaking the Soil With Sunshine
Ed Giobbi roots his gardening and cooking in folk-based philosophy
KATONAH, N.Y. — IN Italy, they're really sun worshipers," says Ed Giobbi, getting to the heart of his gardening philosophy."Not like Californians," he quickly adds, "after sun tans." "The Italians understand that all growth is due to light. "We Americans say, 'What a beautiful day.' "The Italians say, 'What a beautiful sun! In any event, sunshine, not water, is the essential element in Mr. Giobbi's art of gardening. Giobbi looks over his 150 tomato plants, staked in long teepee runs, his climbing and bush beans of French, Italian, and American varieties, his squash, fennel, chard, hills of softball-sized green Japanese melons, dill, rape, and spinach. "You have to get the sunshine into the soil," he says. "I never read it: I learned it from my father," he says, referring to his boyhood introduction to gardening in his hometown of Waterbury, Conn. "I don't spade the soil," he explains. "A spade packs down the soil. I till it with a fork." Giobbi describes a sifting motion in which the garden fork's tines let the earth fall as if through one's fingers, as he has seen relatives do in Italy. He tries to avoid packed soil: Even watering can form a light crust that insulates the ground against warmth. Turning the soil is not easy work. Most gardeners do it just once, at the start of the season. Giobbi goes through his entire garden every 10 to 14 days, aerating the soil, exposing it afresh to the sun's rays. "The secret is to establish a rhythm," he says about the mechanics of tilling. "A lot of people resent working a garden. But you have to bend over," he says, disparaging the many gardening methodologies, such as mulching, based on avoiding an aching back. "These people who write about gardening have four tomato plants and a window box for herbs." ll mulch around the melons," he says, "but not the tomatoes." Ed Giobbi is a successful artist - his oils, watercolors, drawings, sculpture are in many museums. His studio is part way up a hill behind the house on an old summer estate in Katonah, N.Y., an hour's drive north of New York City. Giobbi's two daughters and son - a writer, a dancer, and a composer, in their 20s - all live in the city. Ed doesn't take his visitors to the studio this day, but stops at the extensive produce garden beneath it. He wears work boots. Dust gathers on the visitors' city shoes. Americans overfertilize and overwater their plants, Giobbi says. "I use natural fertilizers," he says, gesturing to his rabbit shed. "I don't water my tomato or pepper plants - except when I plant them, and until they get their first new green leaves." He will also water during the worst of the long summer droughts. The preferred watering method is to soak the plants' roots, avoiding getting cold water on the leaves. The "rhythm" of Giobbi's gardening embraces more than the exertion - which he calculates at "an hour or hour and half every two or three days," once the garden is planted. Gardening is part of the daily and seasonal lifestyle of this artist-gardener-chef. "He's always going back and forth from his studio to the garden," says Ed's wife, Ellie, as Ed begins preparing lunch. Ellie has her own set of gardening and culinary interests. She keeps three beehives. She dries herbs like the mint she serves her guests for tea, and superintends much of the flower and shrub landscaping. She also raises fancy birds ... like the three guinea fowl that stalk one another, heads bobbing, in constant motion around the property. "When I first skinned a peacock," says Ellie, daughter of a bank president in Memphis, Tenn., "I learned I could do taxidermy.She would have made a good undertaker," Ed says, appreciating with amusement her late-found skill. Ed's approach in the kitchen is as experiential and folk-based as his approach to gardening. He is making a basil pesto sauce with fresh peas and fine green beans: "All the ingredients are from the garden," he explains, working quickly. The basil leaves, garlic, olive oil go into a food processor. He thins the resulting green pasta sauce with a little of the cooking water: "You've got to thin out the pesto to the consistency of cream," he says. He adds some cooked and fork-mashed potatoes to a large bowl of cooked, bow-tie noodles: "Pesto is always served with potatoes in Italy," he explains; the starch helps oil-based sauce adhere more evenly to the pasta. Ed's third, and latest, cookbook, "Pleasures of the Good Earth" ($23, cloth) has just been published by Alfred A. Knopf. Ed has for many years been a cooking amico of Craig Claiborne, the New York Times food critic, and Pierre Franey and Jacques Pepin, also chefs, gardeners, and authors. Ed is a highly respected member of the group, so his culinary counsel has been developed among the best of peers. "The idea of a garden is to use the seasons," Giobbi says. "You don't want everything to ripen in August. You have to understand that some plants like heat, some don't like heat." Ed's garden year starts in late February, when the first raddichio comes up through the snow. Then in March he harvests leeks, onions, and parsnips. In April he plants broccoli. In May he seeds beets, carrots, and turnips. The last weeks of May, when the nights begin to warm, he plants tomatoes. In August, he plants crops for late fall: savoy cabbage, leeks, and rape. Wild animals are one part of nature Giobbi has a hard time working with. Deer are as numerous today as when the settlers first arrived in New England. The region, once stripped for farming, is once again heavily wooded. Predators are returning: He now can hear coyotes at night, and bears have been spotted nearby. Raccoons have wantonly destroyed his rabbits. He has built an elaborate barricade to protect his garden from deer. He laughs at the maple syrup penchant of New England newcomers. When his kids were little, the Giobbis too tapped their maples for buckets of sap, boiled it down for hours - at high cost for fuel - to produce a negligible amount of syrup. "Everybody likes to make maple syrup - once," he says. "You always know when somebody new moves into the area: They put all those buckets out. The next years the buckets aren't there." "A lot of weeds are good to eat," Ed volunteers, as he returns to the topic of gardening as work. "I have four kinds of edible weeds in my garden. I sometimes even make a soup out of them." "You can't resent weeding or doing the work," he says. "But people don't have to garden anymore. People have choices today. It's not the Depression era. "Sure, gardening is a chore - but washing your face is a chore. "Every year I say my garden is too big. But I like to see it planted. "It's more like a flower garden: You don't eat the flowers. I like to look at it. I pass it five or six times a day on my way to the studio. Sometimes you start to look ... and you get lost in thought.