Local Garden Inspiration: Lara Sanderson’s Food Forest

October 25, 2019 | by Naomi Tomky

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It was a natural disaster that begat Lara Sanderson’s backyard food forest. A few years ago, the whole side of the ravine in her backyard slid away. Surveying the damage, her husband Jeff suggested they make the best of a bad situation – why not rebuild it as a European-style terraced garden? The pair still gardened at the Stroum Jewish Community Center plot that they began for their erstwhile business Stopsky’s Delicatessen, and this was a chance to expand their hobby. Three years later, the stunning space, which they named “Devi Gardens,” grows 3,000 square feet of fruits, vegetables, and flowers.

Photo courtesy Benjamin Benschneider

A “Stopsky’s Garden” sign quietly recalls the origins of the Sanderson’s gardening, where rows of various types of lettuce hedge in a few wooden chairs. Below, a retaining wall fortifies the slope, preventing any futures slides, and holds the terracing in place – but from the garden, it’s invisible. The greenery gently flows down from the house, cascading with colorful flowers, blossoming fruits and winding grape vines. To one side, there’s a fire pit and seating area; in the middle, a big table beckons; and a large statue of Devi Tara, for whom the garden is named, centers the space, presiding over the plants.

Photo courtesy Benjamin Benschneider

Sanderson places a rose in the hands of the deity. “It’s devotional,” she says. “Thanking her for watching over the garden.” She and Jeff spend about an hour or two working there each day, but despite the sprawling expanse of plants that feed them through the summer, they are relatively new to gardening. “When my mom passed,” Sanderson theorizes, “I think she handed me her green thumb.” Guided by generational knowledge, a little Internet research, and lots of observation, Sanderson was able to create the wonderland of greenery in just two short years.

She studies meditation, and that ability to simply watch and learn from what she sees has helped her to figure out what the plants need. “The best part is the connectivity to our living earth,” she says, learning how she could help support the plants’ natural cycle, including – this year for the first time – planting almost everything from organic seed.

Photo courtesy Benjamin Benschneider

Devi Gardens currently grows Italian and Japanese plums, Asian and European pears, flowering cherries, persimmons, apples, figs, kiwis, huckleberries, blueberries, beans, squash, cucumbers, lettuces, raspberries, strawberries, grapes, cherries, chard, kale, potatoes, collard greens, beets, kohlrabi, celery, spinach, arugula, tomatoes, peas, herbs, and various flowers.

The resulting bounty means that in the summer, they rarely need to visit the store to buy food, and what they don’t eat, they give away or preserve, as they slowly try to extend their homegrown diet into winter. They also use the garden to entertain, eating outside almost every night and creating a space for family and friends. They’ve even had a request from a couple who want to renew their wedding vows there.

Photo courtesy Benjamin Benschneider

That community aspect gets at part of what Sanderson wants of her grand homage to mother nature. She began it around the 2016 election and watching the devolution of environmental policy, felt that it would be a way to give back, to invest in the earth, a poetic gesture and prayer. And while she’s run into challenges in the garden – mostly in the form of birds, squirrels, and slugs trying to share in the harvest – she also says she’s amazed at how much it has yielded, both in terms of the harvest itself and the hummingbirds, Steller’s jays, bees and other wildlife that join them in enjoying the garden.

“Try growing anything,” she offers as her advice to others. “It’s joyous.”

Photos courtesy Benjamin Benschneider and Lara Sanderson