Master Gardener Brings Edibles to Manhattan Beach and Beyond
Sep 17, 2015 10:44AM ● Published by Jeanne Fratello
Geri Miller of Home Grown Edible Landscapes
Gallery: HGEL Manhattan Beach [2 Images] Click any image to expand.
Although one of her most visible local plots is in downtown Manhattan Beach outside Reaney Design Co, where she grows exclusively for the high-profile Love & Salt restaurant, Miller is just as much about helping the "everyman" create an eco-friendly, sustainable garden. With a hands-on teaching philosophy, she believes there is more value in teaching individuals and families how to design and care for their own garden plots than in the “stop and drop” style of traditional landscaping.
"There is nothing that brings people together more strongly than digging in the dirt," she says with a smile.
Miller is, by training, a U.C. Davis Certified Master Gardener and horticulturalist. Much of her work had previously centered around volunteering in schools and with nonprofits focusing on children.
Her journey to creating Home Grown Edible Landscapes (HGEL) began in 2009 when her house was on the American Martyrs' "Sophisticated Snoop" home tour and visitors kept stopping to admire her garden.
"The docent said, 'I keep getting asked for your business card,' and I told her, 'Well, I'm a master gardener, but I don't really do that,'" said Miller. Nevertheless, she and her husband made up 250 business cards on their home printer that night. "They were all gone the next day," she adds.
Miller also happened to start HGEL at a time when businesses were only barely beginning to discover the power of Facebook - but through her popular HGEL Facebook page, she managed to touch on a real need.
"This was the summer of 2009, at the height of the recession. I just had a sense of how many people were suffering," she said. "I put up on the HGEL Facebook page, 'If you want help learning how to grow your own food, let me know.' I had no intention of charging anyone."
The response to her offer was almost immediate - and enormous. "I spent all that summer driving around, from Temple City, to Huntington Beach, you name it...I met the most wonderful people. These were people who, up until a few months prior, would have described themselves as middle class, and certainly not 'food insecure,'" she said. "But people were losing everything. And for some, gardening was just a way to quiet their minds - you might equate it to another form of meditation. For others it was a way to put a meal on the table."
Inspired and overwhelmed by her experiences of that summer, Miller wrote about her journey for the Huffington Post. "I want to pass on to you what my Facebook friends have shown me, that no matter what challenge you face, you possess the talent and ability to change your life and that of those around you. Your belief in yourself will make it happen," she wrote.
From that point on, HGEL continued to grow, "to a point where it was no longer a hobby," said Miller. "But it came from a really soulful place."
A Chef's Garden
Miller began one of her first big commercial ventures on a chance visit to Terranea Resort (where she also met Love & Salt Chef Michael Fiorelli, who was the chef at mar'sel restaurant at the time). Miller walked by the restaurant and saw potential. "I said, 'There are raised beds here - How cool is that!' But they were filled with dead plants."
Miller wrote to the top brass at Terranea and offered to design, plant, and maintain the garden at the restaurant for one year - for free - in exchange for a small HGEL sign and her business cards on display. "I wound up staying for five years - That was my first commercial account," she says.
That same year, she walked through downtown Manhattan Beach and North Manhattan and looked for potential garden plots. "Anywhere I saw a shop that had a space, I made the same offer. I ended up at Reaney Design Co,, Four Daughters Kitchen, and Elegance Spa."
As the business grew, she got larger clients elsewhere in Los Angeles. A partnership with Chef Govind Armstrong and owners Brad and Linda Johnson at Post & Beam Restaurant in Baldwin Hills yielded a new restaurant garden, a series of classes, and an article in Sunset magazine.
While consulting on a second restaurant partnership (now Armstrong/Johnson's Willie Jane) on Abbott Kinney in Venice, Miller was struck by the idea of developing the vacant lot next door into The Cook's Garden by HGEL, an organic 'urban farm' for chefs on the block.
The Cook's Garden by HGEL now has 33 raised beds offered to local restaurants for subscription (offering full service from seed to harvest), a retail nursery (edibles only), greenhouse, garden shop and a chicken coop with 16 chickens.
Love & Salt Garden
Back in Manhattan Beach, The Cook's Garden by HGEL/ Manhattan Beach at Reaney Design Co. grows exclusively for Love & Salt, the partnership between Fiorelli and the Gabriele Family.
The planting plan is developed seasonally by Fiorelli and Miller. It is carefully crafted to reflect not only the season but the melding of cultures; Old World, East Coast, and West Coast. The collaboration keeps both chef and grower creating and innovating with heirloom Old World Italian varieties, a bit of Italian-American tradition and California style. The result is special menu dishes created with the garden bounty harvested just hours before.
"The most amazing thing about working with Geri is how much I've learned throughout the whole process," said Fiorelli. "When a chef and a gardener have a close relationship, it's crazy how you can affect the product. We are actually able to manipulate the flavor profile of our foods."
For example, Fiorelli remembers a day when Miller was having him sample some red veined sorrel out of one of the garden beds to get a sense of the flavor he was after. She had him taste a larger leaf which he said he liked, but he thought it a bit of a bitter aftertaste. Then she handed him a younger, smaller leaf that had exactly the bright, lemony taste he was after. "She said 'Then that's exactly the size leaf we'll harvest for you.' Moments like that just blow me away."
Currently in the Love & Salt garden there are more than six varieties of tomatoes; three varieties each of squash, eggplant, and beans; four varieties each of peppers and cucumber; as well as basil, mint, passion fruit, artichokes, rosemary, lavender, saltwort, purslane, pineapple guava, and Meyer lemons, all in a 529 square foot area.
From a practical standpoint, having the garden close to the restaurant is "a way to have something so fresh on the plate within a matter of hours," noted Miller. Plus, since the produce has not had to travel or sit in refrigeration, it's fresher and it lasts longer.
And Fiorelli is thrilled to have custom produce almost literally at his fingertips. "In the end, it's us working together to put the best possible product on the plate. It's the collaboration that makes it fun. Without it I'd be at the mercy of Mother Nature," said Fiorelli. "I'm lucky enough to have Mother Geri watching over my produce. Every chef should be so lucky."
Drought and Beyond
One question on many peoples' minds is how California's severe drought will affect edible gardens and the homegrown movement. Miller says that the drought has strongly affected her growers and fellow nurseries because people seem to have cut back on buying edible nursery starts.
"The thinking is that has something to do with people's perception of how thirsty edibles are when the reality is, they're no more thirsty and sometimes less thirsty than roses or other plants you typically see in the landscape. AND an edible landscape feeds you," said Miller. "Which would you rather water?"
She continued, "Ironically, the drought hasn't affected my garden installations though - we are busier than ever. We always use drip irrigation, which uses at least 50% less water than traditional overhead sprinklers and delivers water much more efficiently, because there is much less loss to evaporation or wind drift."
Miller has several new restaurant partnerships in the works, and she continues to do consultations for individual gardeners through the HGEL business.
To follow along with Miller's edible gardening news - and to hear the occasional chicken joke - follow HGEL on Facebook. To reach Miller, visit http://groedibles.com/contact/.