Garden Gal of Paso Robles
It seems these days that everyone knows a friend who has a backyard flock of chickens. And, what’s not to love about collecting fresh eggs right outside your door? The soft cluck of the hens laying those beautiful multicolored eggs is music to the ears of the hen lovers.
In Paso Robles, Julie Whitmore has been enjoying that tune for 20+ years. She was a chicken gal long before it became a popular backyard thing to do. She has kept so many different kinds of hens over the years—for both eggs and meat—that, well, she could have written the book on keeping backyard hens.
It is a delight to follow her to her coop, which she has decked out with vintage pieces of chicken art gleaned from years of antique and flea market shopping. She stops in to throw some feed and gather the gals to her as she goes about gathering eggs. Just before reaching the coop, a fenced vegetable garden grows what Julie says she cannot find throughout the year at the markets: potatoes, garlic, as well as tomatoes aplenty. Lettuces and more seasonal vegetables, she prefers to buy at the local farmers markets.
Julie also loves to grow greens, including rapini. When asked her favorite way to cook it, she said she likes it simply cooked with olive oil and garlic; the garlic from her garden and the olive oil from local sources or, soon, from her own small orchard of olive trees.
Besides the olive trees, Julie grows apples in the varieties of Gala, Fuji, Pink Lady and Granny Smith. Her husband, Don, has even provided her with a grafted tree of three varieties, all on one tree! A Bosc pear and plums, apricots and one pluot (a cross of plum and apricot) surround the veggie garden on all sides. Two figs provide fruit into the fall with two abundant crops.
A peculiar fruit, which Julie says is great either fresh or dried, is the jujube, a Chinese date reputed to have great medicinal qualities for treatment of leukemia and blood disorders. She has just one tree now, but is enthusiastic about the possibilities and may grow more. The pomegranates she grows yielded 50 fruit last year, the juice of which she pressed and froze in ice cube trays or sipped fresh. The seeds she tosses on salads or eats by the handful right out of the fridge. This year’s crop may find its way into a cool libation such as the pomtini, a martini made with the juice of pomegranates.
Bees complete the picture. Farther down the garden path, two aptly names hives, B1 and B2, house tens of thousands of workers and two queens, enjoying the nectar from all the veggies and fruits and nuts and flowers that grow just a stone’s throw from the hives. The pollination is a gift from the bees and they give again in the form of honey. Julie’s favorite so far was a thicker honey that she likened to creamed honey, perfect for spreading on toast (and figs!)
The tall wooden dehydrator that Don made for Julie along with the just-completed full-size smoker, also constructed by Don, extend the garden bounty by preserving the work of the Whitmores. The jujube crop and the tomatoes and apricots all take on a new flavor with the help of the drying, which Julie does with the dehydrator. She simply rolls the screened dehydrator out into the summer sun and lets nature do the work.
The smoker is used for the meat side of the menu; bacon, pancetta and ham hocks have all been tried out so far. Even though they don’t grow their own large meat animals, they have often bought grass-fed or -finished beef and lamb, which they occasionally helped prepare and package themselves. Julie felt it was well worth the cost and effort. Because there are so many great sources of meat in the community, she said, they would rather concentrate on the large production that they have in the backyard already.
When asked who was the inspiration for her growing prowess, Julie easily credits her father, who loved to grow flowers, fruits and vegetables, and her mother, who baked and cooked for her large family of seven children. While the Whitmore clan is not that large, the sheer abundance of output from the garden and land would be enough to feed that many and more! Here’s to the original Garden Gal!
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