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Ezra Gardiner - Interview with a Plant Whisperer

Posted by: Amanda Sullivan

Sitting in the garden watching Ezra is like seeing a keenly focused artist interact with a canvas or sculpture. Though Ezra oversees multiple acres of gardens and greenhouses for Old Edwards, every tiny plant gets his undivided love and attention while he is in front of it. His hands move gingerly from plant to plant, carefully observing, brushing, pruning and encouraging—from the roots and soil to sprouts and seedlings. And the results are nothing short of inspiring. It’s as if the plants want do please him and reward him for his care by doing their part. They set their roots quickly so they can work their way up through the earth, where they emerge verdant green, vibrant and eager to shine.

It’s like therapy, watching Ezra in the garden. His way of being fully in the moment with each plant takes you back to a slower time. And Ezra easily and eloquently talks about his passion for his craft as he goes about his work.   

When did you become interested in gardening and agriculture?

I grew up in Ashe County, NC, an agricultural community with lots of small homesteads and sustenance farming. Growing things for aesthetic and for the tables and cellars was a part of daily life for most. I don’t think that I felt an immediate connection to horticulture as a removed facet of homesteading, but in retrospect those vegetable gardens and the culinary heritage were very important to me and central to my enjoyment of the life.

What about working with plants and the land appeals to you the most; what moves or rewards you?

Working with plants requires a lot of optimism, but at its best is a real and pure pursuit. It requires the husbandry of earth and cooperation with elements that we may normally protect ourselves from, and there’s a great reward that comes with pulling harvest after a hard but fulfilling relationship. Farming is one of the great experiments, and forces us to be interested and curious or find eventual failure.

Tell us about your history with gardening.

Most of my early work was with landscaping, and I never left horticulture for long, working with small landscape firms across North Carolina as well as with growers and farmers and, most recently, as a Horticulturist at the Highlands Biological Station.

When you’re not in the garden, how to you spend your time?

Outside of my work with Old Edwards, I enjoy living on and looking after a small farm outside of Franklin where we keep Icelandic sheep, poultry and propagate and grow heirloom vegetables. I absolutely love tomatoes, so I live on tomato sandwiches with lots of mayo for a chunk of the year and the rest of the time is spent planning how to grow more.

Who are some of your role models?

My parents surrounded themselves with really substantive people and my life has been filled with their guidance and support. Whether they work in farming or some other field, the care and sincerity that they approach their efforts with has taught me the returns of discipline in craft.

Do you also like to cook? If so, what are your specialties or style of cooking?

I love to cook, especially with other people. Most of my favorites are peasant food, Italian and Irish especially, but mostly I find myself eating whatever our community is producing. Western North Carolina is such a great culinary world, full of heritage but also pretty bold, and farmers around here take a lot of pride in their products, really honing in on high quality and a seasonal mind.

Share some thoughts on the last decade of the food culture in America, how it makes you feel now that people are turning back to eat closer to the land

I’m excited that people are getting interested again in the origin of their food, both at home and at restaurants. It’s a pure and intriguing thing, the nuance of food and food production, so every meal, simple or complex, tastes better and feels better if you have put work into that connection, on a human level. There’s nothing more human than cultivating and understanding the art and grace that can be put into our basic survival.

What is it about Old Edwards that excited you to take the position?

All of these things create an endeavor of production that can help lift a community. Old Edwards has shown a lot of generosity to the plateau and all of us, and I love the challenge of working to the Old Edwards standard while exciting and aiding our community. While forty percent of the food that comes into American restaurants is thrown away, one out of four children in North Carolina does not have enough to eat. The height of our work will be in generating an inspiring an exciting product while doing everything that we can to help Highlands. I’m looking forward to finding ways to help continue Old Edward’s efforts to serve Highlands, while realizing more and more means to learn my craft. And to make the gardens as accessible to and as open a learning place for our plateau neighbors as possible.

What are some visions you have for the future with the gardens and greenhouse at Old Edwards?

North Carolina is a great place to be growing vegetables, especially here in one of the most diverse places in the world. Our latitude is actually similar to places like northern Egypt, meaning that we have a lot of sunlight even in the winter and that we can grow under minimal protection throughout the year. I envision the Old Edwards gardens capitalizing on this in many of the same ways that French market gardens and Appalachian sustenance gardens do, blending methods from the old world or colonial tradition and the rural refinement of necessity historically found in the gardens of our area. Our selection of vegetables will reflect this in their interest and usefulness, from wild species to historic European favorites.