St. Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood is a long way from the French countryside. But Eileen and Bill Troxel have managed to create a little slice of Provence in their back yard.
The couple’s French-style kitchen garden is so picturesque that even the tomatoes, which usually look straggly by late summer, are tamed and tied into attractive submission — suitable for an elegant dinner party.
In fact, dinner parties al fresco are almost a weekly occurrence during the growing season. The menu often features Eileen’s signature Tomato Tart, a French recipe made with heirloom tomatoes and Gruyère cheese, and meals are served on the massive harvest table that Bill built using cedar planks and metal pipe.
“It’s all about the tomatoes,” said Eileen of her favorite produce. “We wait all year for this.”
They’ve even hosted outdoor dinners in pouring rain, thanks to a canopy that can cover their entire patio. “We’ve sat out here when it was raining so hard you couldn’t hear the person next to you,” Eileen said.
“The meal must go on,” Bill quipped.
Eileen’s passion for gardening is intertwined with her passion for cooking and baking. “This is what I do. I’m in my kitchen all day,” she said. She loves creating recipes (her orange chocolate cookie took first place a few years ago in the Star Tribune Taste Holiday Cookie Contest), sharing recipes and whipping up gourmet treats for her family, friends and neighbors.
When winter forces her inside, she spends more time on her blog, Living Tastefully (www.livingtastefully.com), which she shares with her sister, an antiques dealer, and contributions from a couple of German friends.
Gardening was a tradition in Eileen’s extended family. “I grew up in the Amana [Iowa] Colonies; my mother and aunt lived next door to each other — they had a massive garden,” she said. “Summer was gardening.”
But she didn’t start gardening on her own until she and Bill, a recently retired 3M executive, moved from a townhouse in New Jersey to their home in St. Paul in the mid-1980s.
A huge, spreading maple tree made the yard too shaded to grow much food. But as Eileen got more immersed in culinary pursuits, she started longing to grow her own fruits and vegetables. “It went hand in hand,” she said.
In 1997, the Troxels took down some trees, and with more sun coming into their yard, they began planting vegetables. “We started with two beds and kept adding,” Eileen said. Bill provides the heavy labor, while Eileen does the garden design.
Eileen had a very clear vision for her garden. “I knew I wanted a formal vegetable garden,” she said. “I go to France quite a bit, and a lot of the old chateaus have them.” After one trip, she remembers saying: “I don’t want to go home. I love it here.” She returned to St. Paul determined to re-create that feeling in their back yard.
A former art student, she was committed to making the garden pretty as well as productive. “It’s all intuitive,” she said. “I just see everything a certain way.”
The Troxels now grow a wide variety of edibles, including peppers, beets, beans, zucchini, eggplant, strawberries, rhubarb, grapes and herbs. But they also grow some food plants primarily for their looks — like cabbage, of which they have many heads, both green and purple. “I like cabbage, but not this much,” she said, pointing to her garden. “It’s for color. Without the cabbage, it would look kind of boring.”
They also grow a few strictly ornamental plants, including roses and marigolds. Bill built an arbor to support the roses, although he suspects the roses are now supporting the arbor.
The Troxels use raised beds, trellises and braces to provide structure for their plants. “I’m constantly tying,” Eileen said.
She grows some of her herbs in urns, for a neater, tidier look. “I wanted mint — for mint juleps and mojitos — but I didn’t want it in the ground. It goes everywhere,” she said.
A garden-worthy kitchen
Now that the growing season is winding down, Eileen’s focus is moving back indoors, where, after many years of cooking in a dark, drafty kitchen, she finally has a culinary shrine as beautiful and French-inspired as her garden.
Eileen said she’d been dreaming about her ideal kitchen for decades before they finally decided to make it a reality. “One of my best friends — Kathy Olmstead — is an architect,” Eileen said. “She’d listened to me for 20 years. In 40 minutes she had it drawn on a piece of paper.”
The new kitchen has open shelving for displaying Eileen’s collection of French porcelain and copper cookware. There’s lots of white marble on countertops and shelves. “I wanted a pastry feel,” she said. Her kitchen light fixtures feature innovative bases fashioned from French tart tins.
The kitchen is still small — 170 square feet — but much more functional, she said. “Every part of the kitchen is used now. There’s nothing here that doesn’t have a purpose.”
The Troxels are looking forward to hosting a large Thanksgiving gathering. And their makeover, which won a kitchen design contest sponsored by Food & Wine magazine (www.foodandwine.com), will be featured in the November issue.
Now Eileen spends even more time in her kitchen, she said. “Bill said he was going to set up a cot for me in here.”