Starting a Winery Garden at Upper Shirley Vineyards

Upper Shirley Vineyards just outside Richmond didn’t really plan to have a winery garden. But with so many farm-to-table restaurants actually tending their own kitchen gardens, the vineyard was inspired to explore just how “local” its own kitchen could get. They planned to grow a few popular herbs that the kitchen used every day, and the idea sort of leaped to life.

A member of the kitchen staff, Dan Leech, offered to get it started. He put a shovel to the rich Pamunkey soil and worked in some composted manure from the winery’s horse stables. Chef Carlisle Bannister asked about including a few key produce items. Winery owner Tayloe Dameron added some bright sunflowers to take advantage of the full day-long sun and to distract birds from devouring the rest of the produce.

Before long, the little winery garden had grown to a robust 15 by 40 feet. Visitors sitting on the back porch, facing the river, can look over to the left to see the plot.

From grapes to vegetables

There are rows of tall, dazzling sunflowers, backing stripes of colorful vegetables and bright marigolds. It doesn’t look all that big from a distance, but there’s an amazing amount going on in there. Once Dan got started, there was no holding him back. He sowed mint, parsley, rosemary, lavender, hot and sweet peppers, okra, turnips, carrots, beets, and radishes. There are three kinds of basil, four varieties of tomatoes, pickling and several other types of cucumbers, and then butterfly bush and comfrey, which produces beautiful white bell-shaped flowers, for good measure.

For the restaurant, the winery garden accomplishes a few important things. Mainly, the chefs bring all of these fresh vegetables and herbs to the table. For example, Chef Carlisle created a beet carpaccio using only the winery’s Chioggia own beets.

When the mint threatened to overrun the middle of the garden, as mint will, Chef Carlisle turned that problem into opportunity. He drew on his Lebanese heritage to create one of his favorites: fattoush—a flavorful diced vegetable salad with homemade croutons—featuring a mint and lemon dressing. He experimented with specialty drinks for hot days on the porch, like a mint and lavender limeade. So, as guests eat and drink, they help maintain order in the vigorous and sometimes unruly garden.

garden herbsWinery garden extras

Few professional kitchens can grow all of the produce they need, so the winery relies on a sturdy list of local growers to for the busy kitchen’s daily needs. They feature the garden treasures as each one peaks, rolling with that seasonal harvest of radishes, beets, carrots, cucumbers, or whatever else was picked fresh that morning.

Another important role for the garden is that the flowers attract good bugs, like pollinators. Bees don’t pollinate grapes – the vines manage that all by themselves. But they do pollinate some of the winery’s important cover crops and grasses, helping them to thrive and do their jobs. The flowers also attract ladybugs, which feast on the pesky aphids that love tomatoes and cucumbers.

What Upper Shirley didn’t expect was that the winery garden would quickly become a destination for its hardworking kitchen staff to relax before and after work. Mostly that means Dan and Chef Carlisle, tending to the plants and picking the harvest. “Working in a kitchen, it can be intense,” Dan says. “I like to unwind by coming out here and just spending time weeding. It’s relaxing.”

First year problems

In the first year of a kitchen garden, a lot is trial and error. A vineyard is used to that after years of growing grapes. Upper Shirley will have to learn what plants produce well in the clay-heavy soil and hot climate. They will find out know what produce will go to groundhogs and deer. There are plenty of groundhog holes in the area, which makes Dan a little nervous. But he thinks the deer will be less of a problem.

“There’s all that corn on the drive up,” he says. “And Tayloe and Suzy have nine dogs. If I were a deer, I think I’d stick to the corn.”

There are rabbits too, but since the nearby Presquile National Wildlife Refuge is home to bald eagles and other raptors, visible on the prowl from the winery back back porch, the rabbits are pretty careful to stick to the hedgerows.

If you visit Upper Shirley Vineyards, look for Dan out tending the teeming rows, and don’t be afraid to ask a few questions (or maybe lend some advice about groundhogs). And know that something on your plate likely came right out of that rich Pamunkey soil you walked across before you came through the door.

This story was originally written for the Upper Shirley Vineyards blog. 

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