The 17 cherry tomato plants growing in a row are not what make the backyard at 5310 Junius St. in East Dallas noteworthy. Neither its flourishing chives nor the king-size bed of cilantro are all that unusual. Even a robin nesting nearby in an evergreen tree, remarkable in her own right, is insufficient to put this well-mulched plot on the map.
No, what makes this garden in Junius Heights unique is that the organic vegetables and herbs it produces travel no more than 50 feet to be cleaned, cooked and served onsite to diners at Garden Cafe.
Chef Mark Wootton felt the quality of the ingredients used in the kitchen should be of utmost importance, which propelled the garden to the center of attention.
Opened 12 years ago by retired Dallas lawyer Dale Wootton, the cafe is a casual, neighborhood eatery with a standard fare of breakfast and lunch items. With an affinity for gardening, Wootton deemed the large backyard behind the cafe the perfect setting for outdoor seating surrounded by a variety of garden crops.
His son Mark took the lead for the cafe in 2010 after earning his food prep cred by working his way up from dishwasher to cook in several local restaurants. The younger Wootton felt the quality of the ingredients used in the kitchen should be of utmost importance, a sentiment that propelled the garden to the center of attention for the family business.
The garden is a seedling itself of the growing farm-to-table movement that's firmly taken root on both coasts and is slowly vining into the middle states. "It's all about transparency," says Cody Hennigan, chief gardener for the cafe. "People want to know where their food comes from and what's in it; here, they can see it and how we grow it.
"The objective is to grow food for the kitchen, but ultimately what we try do here with the garden is to invite people from the patio, from the restaurant and from the community and show what is possible."
In season, the garden yields beets, cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes and plenty of herbs. In one section, a hardy showing of garlic thrives against an arbor covered in vines. On the opposite side, kale blooms with yellow flowers, intentionally allowed to bolt so the bees and butterflies have a little early spring nourishment.
Hennigan says in his all-organic approach to maintaining the garden, worm castings are the soil amendment that most makes the crops thrive. "We're not adding fertilizers to the soil as much as we're feeding the myccorhizal fungi and the beneficial microbes and helping them turn the nutrients already in the soil into something the plants can use," he says.
"People want to know where their food comes from and what's in it," says chief gardener Cody Hennigan. "Here, they can see how we grow it."
Labor-saving drip irrigation pipes tap water right to the base of each plant. Cardboard topped with mulch covers the walkways, a low-cost method of retaining moisture, keeping weeds in check and saving the soil from compaction by foot traffic. Despite the tranquility of this outdoor attraction, Hennigan says it's a working garden tended by the kitchen staff who've all been assigned various plots to weed and protect from pests.
"It's a very active kitchen, so we can't provide everything it needs, but everything we grow winds up in the kitchen," Hennigan says.
Mark estimates that 5 percent of the kitchen's needs are met by the backyard garden. "We aren't buying any herbs from outside, except for cilantro when we don't have it in the garden. Right now, we can't grow cilantro year-round, so it's the only herb we ever have to buy.
"When you look at what we buy on a weekly basis — 100 pounds of just red potatoes, and everything else we go through in a week in a total grocery list of over 250 items — to be getting about 5 percent of what we use from a garden that's just under a third of an acre is actually pretty impressive."
The garden is quiet except for the pleasant calls of birds that frequently bathe wherever water has pooled here and there. For anyone who appreciates greenery with a spot of wildlife near the dinner table, the garden is a shelter from the noise and pollution of the city, open to anyone, diner or not, who'd enjoy a moment of respite.
"There's an older gentleman who comes here often in a big floppy hat," Dale says. "The other day, he came up to me and said, 'I've been coming here for years, and I've got to tell you I've never bought a thing. But, coming to this place makes me so happy.'"