Food & Travel

In the Bronx, a garden of healthy delights

The Martha Stewart-designed herb garden at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. The Martha Stewart-designed herb garden at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. (Aaron Kagan for The Boston Globe)
By Aaron Kagan
Globe Correspondent / September 22, 2010

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NEW YORK — The New York Botanical Garden has long been an oasis of green in a sea of asphalt. Now it is also a smorgasbord.

The nearly 120-year-old garden in the Bronx is currently hosting its second Edible Garden exhibit, in which handsome specimens of fruits, vegetables, and herbs occupy space typically reserved for purely ornamental plantings. Striking arrangements such as striped yucca spines next to ripe, red grapes portray crops as pure art. The attractive and educational exhibit also satisfies the growing hunger to better understand the origins of our food.

The herb garden was designed by Martha Stewart, and here common aromatics such as lavender and thyme rub shoulders with the lesser-known Thai basil, French sorrel, and Greek oregano. Perfectly pruned sweet bay trees stand sentinel in large terra cotta pots, and pale green, frilly hops vines wind through the iron gate as casually and convincingly as though this occurred naturally. Bronze fennel grows close to nose level, and its warm, sweet, licorice fragrance fills the air.

Spiky, silver-gray fronds of cardoons dominate the center of the herb garden, contrasting with the otherwise familiar and somewhat cuddly seeming herbs. The stems and roots of these relatives of the artichoke are eaten raw, and the toothy-looking plants make for a striking visual. Chef Mario Batali, who will be at the garden for a cooking demonstration on Oct. 16, looks on from a placard featuring his headshot and an invitation to visitors to contribute their own thoughts on cooking with herbs by text message.

Part of the exhibit’s appeal is its interactive nature. While strolling the grounds, visitors can sample garden-inspired recipes, learn techniques for growing, and listen to audio tours narrated by celebrity chefs on their cellphones. A weekly farmers’ market is held on the premises every Wednesday, and on those days admission to the garden is free. You cannot, however, buy produce grown in the Edible Garden. Besides the occasional handful of herbs pinched by a visiting chef, the garden goes uneaten (except by a rabbit or two) so it will remain attractive.

At the container garden on the steps of the conservatory, which has not yet opened for the season, city dwellers are presented with models for growing vegetables using limited space. Clusters of cherry tomatoes spill out from their pots, maroon amaranth grows near gangly, aptly named yardlong beans, and a nearly ripe pineapple dangles over the edge of its planter as if daring visitors to consider the seemingly endless possibilities for gardening where there is no garden.

Some elements of the exhibit are less well executed. It can be hard to find the Edible Garden, as it is scattered through the permanent collection and not always clearly differentiated. Trams help passengers traverse the 250-acre expanse, and though they are supposed to appear every 10 minutes, they sometimes take 20. Visitors should also be prepared to present admission tickets at frequent checkpoints. Presumably this is to help keep the city out of the garden.

Cooking demonstrations showcase ingredients grown in (though not actual specimens from) the garden and are offered daily, and certain weekends are designated as festivals with specific themes and additional activities. The Fiesta de Flores y Comida (this Saturday and Sunday) occurs during Hispanic Heritage Month and features cooking demonstrations by Elsie Ramos, author of “Elsie’s Turkey Tacos and Arroz con Pollo: More Than 100 Latin-Flavored, Great-Tasting Recipes for Working Moms.’’ The garden’s two cafes feature dishes inspired by visiting chefs, who are in turn inspired by the exhibit’s produce, and a salad bar contains ingredients from the farmers’ market. Stewart’s brand of herbal iced tea is also served.

Many attractions are specifically geared for children. Behold the Pizza Garden, home to tomatoes, garlic, onions, basil, oregano, and wheat. The Breakfast Bowl garden features cereal grains — oats, barley, and rice — and a friendly looking caterpillar with colorful plants growing out of its well-tended back heralds the entrance to the children’s section. Young visitors can also engage in such activities as digging for worms and learning the basics of planting.

Both children and adults will leave here with a better sense of how food is (or should be) produced, along with recipes for fresh produce and tips for growing it. This interactive, multidisciplinary exhibit keeps the notion of a botanical garden relevant in an age when few Americans have time to stop and smell the roses.

The Edible Garden runs until Oct. 17. For more information go to

Aaron Kagan can be reached at