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Growing Local: Bluff View Herb Garden – Edible Art

Monday, March 26, 2012 - by Jen Jeffrey

Bluff View Art District is a favorite place of many in Chattanooga. What may be surprising is how Dr. Charles "Tony" Portera, founder of Bluff View Art District along with his wife, Mary, grows his own herb and vegetable garden and how he ties it all together. In 1998, Dr. Portera began working his garden, located on the corner of Veteran’s Bridge and 4th Street, to supply fresh herbs, vegetables and flowers to his three restaurants onsite. He also keeps fresh flowers for his guests at the Bluff View Inn.

When you walk through the garden you realize that it isn’t just an herb garden. Dr. Portera is very artistically inclined in everything that he does and it shows - from the careful placement of herbs to the homemade bamboo markers placed in the ground to indicate what is growing.  With rhyme and reason Dr. Portera combines these key ingredients for his astounding garden - knowledge, art and a whole lot of love.

With trees artfully shaped into Bonsai and botanicals spread throughout; the garden is as beautiful as it is functional. There are more than two dozen varieties of herbs grown specifically for some of Chattanooga’s finest chefs to continue the artful manner in their own creations at the restaurants on the property.

A fundamental practice that Dr. Portera uses is not pulling up the whole plant from the ground but to pull from it only what is needed. This is how it continues to thrive throughout the summer months. The garden supplies 1,500 pounds of basil in a year’s time, “We trim it from early May up until October. If we don’t use all of it, they can make pesto from it, grinding it up and adding oil and pine nuts. They can freeze it and use it throughout the winter,” Dr. Portera explains.

Varieties of herbs include basil, thyme, rosemary, oregano, sage, mint, tarragon, cilantro, parsley, chives and garlic chives among others. Basil is his favorite herb to grow. “I love to smell it, cut it and eat it,” he asserts.

Dr. Portera also grows tomatoes, red, green and yellow peppers, grape vines, kale, blue kale, Italian kale and Russian kale. “It’s not bitter,” he claims, “it’s very good kale.” Kale has all the elements that one needs in vitamins such as riboflavin, and has more potential for good health than spinach. “Many people are going to this for plant-based protein and getting off of the animal-based protein,” Dr. Portera insists. 

Also growing are hops, arugula, strawberries, blueberries, apples, and pears. Snow peas climb bamboo trellises; romaine, broccoli, onions, beets, spinach, collards, concord grapes… it really is endless what goes on in this flourishing garden.

Dr. Portera is full of information regarding art, growing and nature. He talks of ginning a tree and he explains how to cultivate bonsai and what makes a good bonsai, “Some people get discouraged because they lose a tree, but in nature you are going to lose trees too, so just know that you are going to lose some but don’t get discouraged and try to get the style that you want.”

A friend of Dr. Portera, Al Good, added a bonsai on the property two weeks ago. It is a 35-year-old tree.

When he speaks of the Bonsai trees, he pronounces with his Mississippi drawl, “bones–eye”. With charm and likeability, Charles Portera keeps your attention when he gives a personal tour of his garden in which he holds much passion. As Dr. Portera breaks off pieces of each herb, the fragrances are celestial.

The herbs are not planted on the ground in the soil, but implanted in raised cross-tie beds of natural compost, making the herbs and plants thrive.

“We are not certified organic but we use organic practices,” Dr. Portera states, “we don’t use chemicals. We gather all the leaves from our property and process it in the bins and that is our mulch. We do major recycling over here,” he explains. “We use about 200 lawn bags of leaves and we use coffee grounds from Rembrandts for our compost.”

Michael Vasta, director of operations, and Chris Anderson, director of food and beverage, are a major part of the efforts in bringing the garden inside. “They’ll get menus together along with the chefs and try to figure out what they need for what new things will be on the menu.” 

The pear and apple tree in the garden are shaped with iron rods so that they grow in a controlled manner instead of branching out. This does not change the fruit or harm the tree, it just saves space and makes it easier to harvest.

Following along on the tour, Michele Kephart, director of marketing and sales, is Dr. Portera’s right hand person. Michele holds as much information as does the host of the garden. She gasps at a snake in one of the herb beds and then realizes it isn’t real. This must be Dr. Portera’s “scarecrow method.”

Florally, he grows lavender, cone flowers and a variety of wildflowers. “I have always loved to work in the yard. I had a real passionate mother-in-law who was always trying to beat me in raising a garden. One instance; I got ahead of her and planted peas two weeks early and when she had told me that she had planted hers, I told her that I had planted mine two weeks ago. She said, ‘well you still won’t beat me because you didn’t soak them, you have to soak them!’ and we would always go back and forth like that,” Dr. Portera laughs.

“A lot of this is intuitive,” Dr. Portera claims, “what I have seen work and what I have seen not work. The last eight years we have put nothing but compost in these beds.”

The greenhouse is predominantly used to keep the flowers during the colder seasons, as well as develop seeds to seedlings that are eventually moved into the cherished garden. As he shows off more of the garden, he adds, “Lavender is just pretty and the bed and breakfast wanted us to grow it for them.”

More of what is grown in the garden includes Daylilies, Black-eyed Susan, January Jasmine, Roses, Jonquils, Poplar trees, Gingko trees, Echinacea, Coneflower, and Hydrangeas of various colors. “I really enjoy the Zinnias and Dahlias,” he says.

“We use bamboo for our fence; you can’t nail it - you have to drill it,” Dr. Portera explains. “You can’t get discouraged if you don’t see your harvest do well at first. It takes time to get the soil the way it needs to be. We work every day, seven days a week.”

Dr. Portera has a few men who help him harvest, though he commits himself very early each day. He knows exactly where his soil comes from, what he uses and he gets the best crop out of it with his involvement and passion for it.

Wife Mary tells him he is a “creature of habit.” He says, “…but if I can handle it that way, then that’s the way I have to be.”

Dr. Portera first came to Chattanooga in 1964 and completed his internship and residency at Erlanger, then he went into the service. “I was in Chattanooga when you’d walk out in the morning and have about 1/8 of an inch of soot on your car; we had a lot of foundries. I got that sculpture,” he points to an iron wheel figure, “because I wanted to remember Chattanooga as being a steel processing place. When they were tearing the foundry down, I wanted to get a piece and Gary Chazen brought that over here. We have tried to surround ourselves with sculptures,” Dr. Portera says.

Sculptures frame the garden and are made from many different media. Keeping watch over the garden is a giant 20-ton piston built in a deep concrete base . Jim Collins created “the watcher” which sits on top of the piston. This piece of art was given the name, “Herb”.

 It is clear that Tony Portera has an eye for art though he blushingly admits, “I don’t know about that. I just know that when I walk by that bonsai, I feel good. My mind feels good, my spirit feels good and I feel good… if I can feel good, hopefully somebody that sees that will feel good too. That’s one of the big reasons we did this sculpture garden. We had a lot of that art in our back yard but we brought it over here and now a lot more people can enjoy it.”

Jen Jeffrey

jen@jenjeffrey.com

The garden is made available to the public to visit as everything else in the Bluff View Art District. Visit online at www.bluffviewartdistrict.com


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