How to start your own natural garden
What do you get when a popular resort grows its own eco-friendly garden? The most delicious farm-to-fork vacation you've ever tasted. Wisconsin's Grand Geneva Resort & Spa at Lake Geneva broke ground on a one-of-a-kind Natural Vegetable and Herb Garden earlier this summer. Enjoying the first harvest of this eco-friendly endeavor, Grand Geneva's executive chef Robert Fedorko tells SheKnows about the benefits of getting your hands in the dirt and growing your own produce.
Learn how to start your own natural garden:
Q&A with Grand Geneva's executive chef Robert Fedorko on the Natural Garden
For the increasing number of people appreciating and practicing the farm-to-fork concept, Grand Geneva is a delicious destination that offers guests more than locally-sourced meals. Hotel guests and Lake Geneva culinary enthusiasts can leisurely tour the garden and learn first-hand about the field-to-table process as well as the unbeatable tasty benefits of growing your own garden. Combining a delectable dining experience with environmental sustainability makes Grand Geneva a popular stop for culinary enthusiasts seeking an gastronomically pleasing eco-friendly getaway. Excited about the Natural Garden's success, Chef Fedorko is pleased with the ability to reduce the resort's carbon footprint while improving the quality of the food and teaching guests and locals about the benefits of locally-sourced herbs and vegetables.
Taking the "going green" concept to the next level
SheKnows: What inspired you to get involved with the Natural Garden? Was it related to Grand Geneva being designated as a green certified hotel by Green Travel Wisconsin?
Chef Fedorko: We have been involved with local farmers for the past 15 years or so. It was challenging at times to get the product we wanted or needed on a regular basis or in the quantities we needed. The Walworth County Country with Character initiative helped a great deal with this by organizing and identifying farmers to pair with chefs and help grow the right products in the best quantities.
We decided to plant the Natural Garden to create an incredible guest experience here at the resort. The garden came about when were reviewing our Green Initiatives for our green certification for the resort. We were certified as green earlier this spring. We looked at the available space here at the resort and decided we could add the garden and use it as a point of interest for the guests as well as a great field-to-plate opportunity.
SheKnows: How did the Natural Garden come to be?
Chef Fedorko: After identifying the space, we developed a plan for the garden and then realized we may need some help. We contacted the largest grower we could find, which was Bonnie Plants. This was important to us because we wanted the guests to have the same access to the plants as we do and Bonnie Plants is sold in almost every large retailer in the Midwest. We quickly realized they were the best option for us. After contacting them, they invited us to their Milton, Wisconsin growing station.
We had an idea of what to expect but our ideas were instantly crushed when we arrived. There were huge dumpsters in the front filled with plants that did not make the grade and were being discarded because of low quality levels. However, on the inside we could not believe the size of the facility or variety of plants that were in several stages of growth. It was very impressive to say the least. I am still a bit stunned by the variety and efficiency and simplicity of the operation. Bonnie Plants helped us to select over 600 plants for the garden.
SheKnows: Is the Natural Garden organic?
Chef Fedorko: The garden is not organic; it is natural. Bonnie Plants uses all natural fertilizers and growing soils as well as biodegradable planting containers. We use organic mushroom mulch to fertilize. Bugs are becoming an issue and we are looking for all natural ways to treat for things like Japanese beetles. They may win the battle for the rhubarb this year.
benefits of growing a garden
SheKnows: As a chef, what are the greatest benefits the Natural Garden has to offer?
Chef Fedorko: Having instant access to fresh herbs and watching the produce mature allows us to plan our menus knowing what we are about to harvest. Last week we harvested a small amount of ripe tomatoes and then picked some half-ripe heirloom tomatoes. We also snipped a variety of herb tops. We fine chopped the herbs and folded them into a tempura batter and fried the half-ripe tomatoes in the batter. The flavors were incredible.
We also do a small cooking class where we harvest fresh tomatoes and basil with the students and, using local garlic, create an instant no cook tomato sauce for penne pasta. The sauce goes from field to plate in under 10 minutes. (Not including the walk from the garden, of course.)
SheKnows: What are the benefits for the guests at Grand Geneva? What can guests expect when they visit the Garden?
Chef Fedorko: The guests are just discovering this area of the resort. Each time we go to the garden we get several guests stopping by to ask questions. I hope they can resist a garden raid when the shiny red tomatoes are ready to pick. We actually had some women that stopped by while we were weeding and working on the plants the other day and one of the women was so excited she drove home and picked up her husband to bring him to show him the garden. They loved the fact that we take the time to do this for our guests.
Tasty ways to incorporate fresh produce into your family's meals
SheKnows: What is your advice to home cooks for incorporating fresh produce into their everyday meals?
Chef Fedorko: Shop your local farmers markets. Stop by the local roadside stands and enjoy the produce while you can. There is nothing better while cooking than local fresh ingredients. Those small roadside stands on that back country road offer produce that you remember from when you were a kid. It changes the whole meal. If you don't grow your own garden, at least plant a few herb plants for your own use. A small investment of one to two basil plants will give you fresh basil for five to six months. Take your kids and find a favorite farmer that will talk to them. This creates memories for them when they grow up.
SheKnows: Indulge us, what are your five favorite produce items and what do you like to do with them?
Chef Fedorko: Tomatoes – I grow far more than I need and pass them out to my neighbor's every day I can in brown paper bags. I even have them growing basil and other herbs in pots and in their flower beds. The paper bag is important for the nostalgia feeling. Almost every night we have dinner at home and a plate of fresh tomatoes are on the table usually drizzled with olive oil and vinegar and kosher salt.
- Fresh herbs
Basil, rosemary, thyme, cilantro, they just spark your imagination when they are at your fingertips. They are easy to grow and can last for several seasons.
- Peas, beans and carrots
I love these because my daughter picks and eats them straight from the garden.
This is one of our favorites because you can eat it raw with some dip or cook it as a side. We definitely need more of this next year.
- Butternut or acorn squash
These are important for the fall for baked squash with loads of brown sugar or as a filling for a dish like butternut squash ravioli.
Ready to sink your teeth into Chef Fedorko's delicious dishes?
Grand Geneva's Natural Vegetable and Herb Garden will provide fresh produce for the Wisconsin resort's signature restaurants Ristoranté Brissago, Geneva ChopHouse and the Grand Café. Grand Geneva also plans to use the Natural Garden as an outdoor event space for wine tastings, and starlit dinners. In the future, there are plans to expand the Garden throughout Grand Geneva's 1,300 acres of grade-A, Wisconsin farmland. Stay tuned! If you can't make it to Wisconsin, try these signature recipes from Chef Fedorko.
For more information on Grand Geneva Resort & Spa, visit GrandGeneva.com.