Robust, leafy heads of purple cabbage line the elevated garden beds. Giant carrots push their way up from the soil, their orange tops visible. Green stems dotted with brussels sprouts rise towards the sun. Fat, red strawberries peep out shyly from behind their leafy vines.
The layout of the garden is neat and orderly, with rows of raised beds filled with produce and herbs, each clearly labeled. Okra, tomatoes, collard greens. Eggplant, thyme and lettuce. White stone walkways encase a stately water fountain, the sound of trickling water adding a peaceful serenity to the grounds. And behind it all, on a wooden shed lined with upturned garden boots of all sizes and colors, is a hand-painted sign that reads, “The Giving Garden.”
The woman behind this cornucopia of healthy, fresh food is Mobile Bay-area newcomer Beth Branch. Just last year, Branch created The Giving Garden, a community garden where her team of neighbors and friends, whom she refers to as “the garden whisperers,” grow and harvest the produce, all of which is donated to Ecumenical Ministries in Fairhope.
Left Beth Branch serves her shortbread lemon tart. Right Fresh vegetables brighten the table and are served with bagna cáuda, a dish that orignated in Piedmont, Italy during the 16th century. (scroll down for recipe)
As someone who grew up in Saudi Arabia, attended college in North Carolina and then moved 11 times throughout her career, Branch understands the importance of grounding herself in a community quickly. In 2021, Beth was courted for her expertise to become chief commercial officer for the Port of Mobile. She was living in the San Francisco Bay area at the time. There, Beth had volunteered as a gardener with Farm to Fight Hunger, a nonprofit organization, which grows and distributes 36,000 pounds of organic produce and 16,000 eggs each year to those in need. Branch believed in the cause, and though she had no gardening experience, “not much grows in Saudi Arabia,” she laughs, immediately signed up to help. “At first I was the gal in the cute tennis dress who didn’t know how to play tennis,” she says. Yet Branch was undeterred by her lack of experience and threw herself into learning how to plant, tend and harvest vegetables.
When it came time to move, she wanted to bring her commitment to addressing food insecurity with her to her new location. So, when Branch began the process of looking for a new home and found a spot in Fairhope with an area already fenced in for a garden, she knew that she was on the right track.
Clockwise from Top Left Brussel sprouts grow well in a raised bed. “Garden Whisperer” Jerry Jackson serves the group sparkling Rose. Upturned boots line the shed, ready for gardeners’ feet.
She got to work right away, taking a Baldwin County Master Gardener class and working with a landscape architect to design the layout of the garden. Despite much-appreciated input from farmers in Stockton and advice from local green thumbs, much of the plot’s success came down to trial and error. She had to learn how to grow and plant in Fairhope’s humid, subtropical environment. This included dealing with a wide range of previously unfamiliar pests and bugs. She experimented with using environmentally friendly deterrents, trying to prevent her crops from succumbing to an infestation. Unfortunately, this did not always work. Her squash plants were lost to squash vine borers. “I gave up on the squash,” she shrugs. “I just can’t grow it here.”
And then there were the challenges that came with the beds. “Raised beds help with drainage and enable me to control the soil,” Branch explains, “But I wanted to produce so many vegetables for the ministry that I sometimes overcrowded the beds or tried to grow them in too small of a space. I’m learning to spread it out a little more.”
Despite the challenges and a few losses, she pulled it off. “I planted everything I could think of,” she says. In all, she has 18 raised beds, along with blueberries, strawberries, and fruit trees – citrus, peach and fig.
Neighbor Jane Jackson remembers meeting Branch for the first time and learning of her plan to build the community garden. “I thought, ‘great, in three or four years, you will have a really nice operation going.’ And six months later, here it all was. I couldn’t believe it. Beth made it happen.”
Left to Right Beth Branch harvests carrots in the garden to donate to Ecumenical Ministries in Fairhope. Chicken-wire lines the garden to keep unwanted critters out of the carrot beds.
Branch is known for being a go-getter, her friends say. But she is especially motivated by her passion for ending food insecurity. “Nearly 19 percent of children under 17 in Baldwin County are food insecure. This could mean missing meals or not knowing where the next meal comes from. That’s 8,500 children,” she says. “In our first year of the garden, we were able to donate 800 pounds of produce.”
While Branch works in the garden during the weekends and early mornings before work, she could not have been sucessful on her own. Neighbors Jane and Jerry Jackson and Valerie and Bob Kayser tend to it as well, watering plants and harvesting vegetables when Branch is out of town. They also help package and take produce to the ministry to be distributed to families in need.
The garden’s role is even more than charitable giving; it’s also building community. Branch has created a tight-knit neighborhood group, that, when not working in the garden, regularly gathers to socialize and connect over dinner and a glass of wine. They help one another when someone has surgery or needs a house sitter. The garden whisperers have even invited local children into the fold. They created a spreadsheet of all the children in the neighborhood and created placards with each of their names on it. The children planted pumpkin seeds in the garden, marking each of their individual, mini pumpkin patches. It turned into an event where neighbors, young and old, new arrivals and long-time residents, could meet and enjoy time outside together.
In the short time that Beth Branch has been a part of the neighborhood, she has made deep friendships, has chipped away at food insecurity in Baldwin County and has created a community hub. She has put down roots – in more ways than one.
Left to Right Jane Jackson (left) and Valerie Kayser (Right). Asparagus Tart, Spring Truffle Pea Pasta, Cumin Carrot Salad.
- Spring Truffle Pea Pasta
- Cumin Carrot Salad
- Asparagus Tart
- Shortbread Lemon Tart
- Crudites with Bagna Càuda
- Sourdough Bread
Spring Truffle Pea Pasta
Serves 8 as side, 4 as main
1 pound pasta
3–4 cups fresh or frozen green peas
2 lemons, zested and squeezed
1/2 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon pepper, or to taste
2 cups baby arugula
5 scallions, thinly sliced
1 shallot, very finely diced
1 cup chopped fresh mint
1 cup chopped Italian parsley
1 tablespoon truffle oil, or more to taste
1. Boil pasta in a generous amount of salted water according to package directions. During the last minute of cooking, add the peas to the pasta and lightly blanch. Immediately drain and place pasta and peas in large bowl.
2. Measure out 1/4 cup lemon juice. (You will have extra.) Add measured lemon juice and olive oil to pasta and season with with salt and pepper. Toss in the arugula and add the scallions, shallot, herbs and all the lemon zest. Drizzle with truffle oil immediately before serving.
Cumin Carrot Salad
1 pound medium carrots, tops removed
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoons garlic powder
1/2 teaspoons cumin
salt and pepper, to taste
1/4 cup toasted sunflower seeds
1/4 cup toasted pumpkin seeds
1 tablespoon poppy seeds
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
2 tablespoons thinly sliced red onion
8 ounces mixed baby greens
3 Haas avocados
2 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
4-5 fresh basil leaves finely chopped
2 cups baby arugula leaves
shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese for topping
3 tablespoons plain Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon olive oil
juice of 1 lemon
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper to taste
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Wash carrots but don’t peel, and arrange in a single layer on a rimmed baking tray. Add olive oil, garlic powder, cumin, salt and pepper. Toss to coat and bake
until soft on the inside and crisp on edges, about 30 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, combine all seeds in a small bowl and set aside. In a separate bowl, combine all dressing ingredients and set aside.
3. On a serving platter, spread out greens and arrange carrots on top. Slice avocados and distribute over carrots. Sprinkle with feta and seeds, and drizzle with dressing.
1 sheet frozen puff pastry dough, thawed
All-purpose flour for dusting
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 bunch fresh asparagus spears, trimmed and cut on the bias into 1/4-inch-thick pieces (about 2 cups)
2 garlic cloves, minced
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper,to taste
6 large eggs, room temperature
3 tablespoons chopped chives
3-4 slices prosciutto, torn into large pieces
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a half sheet pan with parchment paper and set aside. Unfold the thawed puff pastry sheet onto a lightly floured work surface. Roll into a 14-inch by 11-inch rectangle, trimming any uneven edges with a sharp knife. Lightly score a 1/2-inch border around the edges. Do not cut through. Prick the inner rectangle across the surface with tines of a fork. Do not prick the border
2. Transfer the dough to the parchment-lined sheet pan. Bake for 10 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from the oven and set on a wire rack while you prepare the asparagus.
3. In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. Add asparagus and garlic and sauté for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring often. Season with salt and pepper. Arrange the sauteed asparagus pieces over pastry, keeping within the border.
4. Break one egg at a time into a small dish. Then carefully place each onto asparagus mixture, spacing them evenly across the tart. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
5. Bake for 12 to 14 minutes or until the egg whites have completely set and yolks have just barely begun to thicken. Remove the tart from oven. Sprinkle with chives and distribute the torn prosciutto on top of the tart. Set on a wire rack.
6. Prepare salad: In a large bowl, whisk together the extra-virgin olive oil, lemon juice and basil until mostly emulsified. Add the arugula leaves to the bowl and toss to coat. Top the tart with the salad mixture. Garnish with shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and serve.
Shortbread Lemon Tart
3 large eggs, room temperature
1 1/4 cups sugar
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 tablespoon grated orange zest
1/4 cup butter, melted
1 cup flour
1/3 cup confectioners’ sugar
1/2 cup ground almonds
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
1/2 cup cold butter, cubed
Additional confectioners’ sugar to top
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Whisk together eggs, sugar, lemon juice and orange zest. Whisk in butter until smooth. Set aside.
2. For crust, pulse first 6 ingredients in a food processor until mixture forms a ball.
Press dough onto the bottom and up the sides of an ungreased 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom.
3. Pour lemon mixture into crust. Bake for 25-30 minutes. Cool on a wire rack. Just before serving, sprinkle with fresh raspberries.
Crudites with Bagna Càuda
Serves 4 – 6
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 ounces flat anchovy filets packed in olive oil, drained and minced
Vegetables, trimmed or sliced for dipping
Crusty Italian bread slices
1. In a heavy saucepan, melt butter over low heat. Add garlic, stirring frequently until soft but not browned, approximately 3 – 4 minutes.
2. Stir anchovies into garlic, then pour in olive oil slowly. Blend well. Reduce heat so mixture barely simmers. Cook, stirring frequently until oil is well flavored, 10–15 minutes. Don’t allow to brown or burn.
3. To serve, transfer bagna càuda into a heatproof serving dish placed on warming tray or over alcohol flame. Arrange vegetables and bread alongside.
Bob Kayser’s Vermont Sourdough Bread
Nothing goes better with veggies than freshly-baked bread!
Recipe adapted from King Arthur Baking Company. Makes 2 loaves.
LIQUID LEVAIN STARTER:
1 cup + 2 tablespoons (134g) all-purpose flour
3/4 cup (170g) water, cool
1 tablespoon (14g) ripe (fed) sourdough starter
All of the starter above (318g)
5 1/2 cups (660g) all-purpose flour
3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons (88g) rye flour blend
2 cups minus 1 tablespoon (440g) water
1 tablespoon (18g) salt
1. Make the liquid levain starter by mixing all of the levain starter the ingredients in a medium-sized mixing bowl, or the bowl of a stand mixer. Cover and let sit for 12 to 15 hours at room temperature. The mixture should bubble and expand.
2. To make the dough, add all the dough ingredients (except the salt) to the bowl with the levain. Mix briefly, just to combine. If you’re using a stand mixer, use the dough hook on first speed, mixing just until everything is incorporated.
3. Cover the dough and let it rest for 20 to 30 minutes.
4. Sprinkle the salt over the dough. Mix it in and continue to mix for several minutes. The dough won’t be smooth and elastic but should feel cohesive and a bit springy. Using a stand mixer with a dough hook at medium speed will take 2 to 3 minutes.