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.