Magazine article Sunset

Living Laboratory: A Science Lover Discovers the Possibilities Waiting in Her Own Backyard

Magazine article Sunset

Living Laboratory: A Science Lover Discovers the Possibilities Waiting in Her Own Backyard

Article excerpt

NEVER MIND BEAKERS and bubbling potions--experimenting with seeds and soil can be just as exciting. That's what Penny Barthel discovered when she left her job as a middle-school science teacher to become a full-time mom and took up gardening in her Albany, California, backyard. "I think of each bed like its own little tidepool," she says.

Over the past 21 years, Barthel has transformed her 900-square-foot garden by taking an approach that's one part scientific and one part free-spirited. Encircled by citrus trees, the yard today bursts with aromatics like lavender, lemon balm, oregano, rosemary, and thyme, along with edible flowers like bachelor's buttons and pansies.

This slightly wild "fairyland look," as Barthel describes it, has been cultivated through trial and error, along with some serious studying up. Being short on space, Barthel thoroughly researches each plant before committing. Seeking a rose with a fragrance that would fill her yard, for example, she landed on 'Gertrude Jekyll', which has proven itself a winner over the past decade. But she also enjoys letting nature do its thing, as seen by her willingness to let her mint--usually contained to a pot--run wild. "For the most part, I'm growing for scent," she says.

Experimentation in the garden overflows into Barthel's kitchen, where she's come up with such recipes as a salt-preserved citrus (which she points out is an example of enzymatic change) and a rose drop cocktail, the result of a classic acid-base reaction. "Gardening and cooking are the perfect marriages of art and science," says Barthel. "Creativity with no skill leads to failure, but being all science leaves you with no sense of adventure."

FROM GARDEN TO GLASS

Barthel embraces a wild and untamed look in her backyard. The perimeter overflows with citrus-a 'Bearss' seedless lime, a 'Eureka' lemon, a 'Lisbon' lemon (which she uses to make limoncello), and a 'Kieffer' lime. …

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