Meet Eva Sommaripa, a farmer who grows more than 200 kinds of uncommon herbs, greens, and edible “weeds” that are highly coveted by Boston’s best chefs.
What makes the harvest from Eva’s Garden, her farm in Dartmouth, MA (about an hour’s drive south of the city), so special? For one thing, most of her 22 acres are set aside for wild edibles. And on the 2 1/2 acres she actively cultivates, many of the plants she grows are rarely encouraged elsewhere because they’re considered weeds or invasive species. But they’re also delicious. Eva’s organic purslane, juniper berries, lovage, sorrel, stinging nettles, autumn olives, wild roses, Japanese knotweed, cardoon, chervil, chickweed, and wild carrotsâ€”to name a fewâ€”make their way north to end up on the menus of many Boston restaurants.
Eva is considered a pioneer in the farming world, and not just for her unusual plantings and the quality of her produce. It’s also because of her firm commitment to a simple, sustainable life based on the principles of preserving, conserving, salvaging, and bartering. Here’s what Eva was growing when I visited her the other day:
Photography by Christine Chitnis for Gardenista.
Above: Grapevines (L) and alliums (R), with Eva’s winter greenhouse in the distance.
Eva showed me around the farm, imparting some of her vast and intimate knowledge of the natural world. She knows the taste, season, and growing tendencies of every edible we encountered.
Above: At one stop, she plucked a fistful of bronze fennel and urged me to drop it into my water bottle. “It will give the water a sweet, slightly licorice flavor. Go ahead, try some,” she encouraged while popping a bit in her mouth. By the time we’d walked through the entire farm, I had tasted many herbs and weeds that I’d never encountered before.
With her lanky frame, mud-stained jeans, and wind-blown hair, Eva looks younger than her age (she’s in her seventies). She credits outdoor work, fresh air, and a diet of farm-fresh whole foodsâ€”she visits a grocery store only once or twice a year.
Above: Eva began farming more than 40 years ago in a small kitchen garden. The Dartmouth property she now calls home was her familyâ€™s weekend cottage back then, an hourâ€™s drive from their main residence, in Cambridge. When her garden began producing more herbs than she could use, Eva took the extras back to sell to markets and restaurants in the city. At the time, fresh herbs were hard to find in the Boston area, so Evaâ€™s business soon flourished.
Above: Treviso Radicchio, an Italian heirloom variety in Eva’s garden.
As interest in her produce grew, so too did Evaâ€™s interest in horticulture. She began taking guided walks with foraging expert Russ Cohen, and quickly realized that many of the wild edibles they found were growing as weeds in her own garden. â€œOnce I learned that the weeds I was battling were edible, and incredibly nutritious, I let them grow,â€ Eva says. â€œTo this day, weeds are still an important part of our production. But it’s always a balancing act to decide what to leave and what to pull so that they donâ€™t choke out the other plantings.â€
Above: Eva makes room for peonies and other flowers in her organic garden.
Eva takes a seasonal approach to both the growing and preserving of food. Spring finds the forest teeming with wild edibles, and the waking garden putting forth tender shoots. Summer brings a full harvest and bustling sales to restaurants and chefs across the northeast. (Any extra bounty is preserved for the barer months.) In fall, only the heartiest greens survive the dipping temperatures and first frosts. Finally, winter means relying on stored root vegetables, which find harmonizing flavors in juniper berries, a foraged winter treat.
Above: Lunch from the farm. Eva manages to feed her family and her farmhands, and to keep her customers supplied, year-roundâ€”not an easy feat in New England’s harsh climate.
Above: When her children were young, farming wasn’t a full-time venture for Eva. Nowadays, however, the farm seems to run in overdrive, with multiple farmhands on staff, a busy delivery schedule, and a phone that never stops ringing as chefs from Boston and New York place their orders.
I asked Eva to explain the current interest in wild and foraged edibles. She doesn’t think it’s just their superb nutritional value; she also credits the human love of discovery. â€œPeople are fascinated to learn there are things growing right under their feet, whether it’s in the city or in the country, that are not only edible, but incredibly tasty and nutritious,â€ she told me. â€œItâ€™s the same joy we get from pulling fresh vegetables from the soil. The thrill of harvesting our own food, whether cultivated or foraged, is one of lifeâ€™s ancient, lasting pleasures.â€
Above: Purple hollyhocks flourish in Eva’s garden.
After my day with Eva, I started to explore the uncultivated areas of my own community garden. I’ve already maxed out the growing potential in my modest 6-by-9-foot raised bed, so I’m tempted to supplement my production with foraged edibles. And now I feel compelled to examine every weed I pull. In fact, I believe that kind of attention is Eva’s wish for all home gardeners. It’s doubtful we’ll cast aside our lettuce and spinach to snack on knotweed and purslane, but perhaps we’ll give those weeds a second thought. And once in a while, we’ll sneak a handful onto our dinner plates.
For more, see Christine’s own garden in DIY: A Family Friendly Vegetable Garden.