Watch the video: At Tamarisk, it’s garden to table

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In mid-August, near the end of a busy growing season, Heather Coughlin put the finishing touches on a handmade sign. The sign is composed of rough planks and acrylic paint, and reads: “Garden of Eating.”

The garden in question is on the grounds of the The Phyllis Siperstein Tamarisk Assisted Living Residence, in Warwick. Invisible from the parking lots, the Garden of Eating is nestled in a grassy stretch behind Tamarisk’s main building. Here, Coughlin helps cultivate vegetables, and – true to its name – those vegetables are used to feed Tamarisk residents.

“I do a little bit of everything,” says Coughlin, 39, who serves as Tamarisk’s concierge. But this project is a point of pride; Coughlin is well-known among her colleagues for being artistic and creative, and for her green thumb.

The phrase “Garden of Eating” started as an inside joke; now, the sign makes the name official.

Coughlin, who grew up in West Warwick, says she’s enchanted by the pastoral lifestyle.

“I would love to live on a farm,” she said.

The garden is no farm, but it’s a decent substitute: its wire fence encloses six raised beds, each 40 feet in length. This season saw tomatoes, zucchini, yellow squash, peppers and herbs, plus a new row of strawberry bushes that should bear fruit next summer. Once picked, these items are used in Tamarisk’s Kosher kitchen, where they routinely become ingredients in residents’ meals.

“The residents, as well as the kitchen staff, appreciate the produce that we pick,” said Bob Gold, who is officially the residence’s driver, but who has maintained the garden for about the last three years.

Once he’s filled a large open container with fresh vegetables, Gold enters Tamarisk’s dining facility to display the harvest, to the delight of lunching residents.

“The reaction is awesome,” he said. “Everybody’s like, ‘This is from our garden outside?’ Yes, and it’ll be tomorrow’s lunch and tomorrow’s dinner – part of it, anyways – and everybody’s got a good response.”

Gold, 66, grew up in Cranston, where his father devoted a portion of the family’s backyard to a greenhouse. Gold worked with his father to grow greens and vegetables, and the tradition continued into his adulthood. Along with his wife, Linda, he maintains a garden at home, .

“It got into my blood at a young age,” Gold said. “As I grew up and moved out to my own place, I always kept a piece of the backyard to continue gardening with.”

A few years ago, Gold learned that Tamarisk needed a driver for its shuttle bus. Gold liked the idea of driving folks around, but then he discovered something more.

“As I explored the grounds, I noticed a large garden plot back there, all fenced in, with raised beds, ready to go, only to discover that nobody’s really doing anything with it. So I said, ‘Well, we’re going to get this up and running,’ ” he recalled.

The garden took root in 2019, spearheaded by then-Executive Chef Deb Blazer. Blazer both supervised the garden’s initial construction and used its produce to create Tamarisk’s menus.

Funding for the garden started with a financial gift, but none of the staff can identify the original donor.

Blazer has moved on, but the beds she created are still going strong.

“Every year it gets better,” Gold said.

Gold and Coughlin have put untold hours into the garden, adding a fabric barrier to prevent weeds, a tall fence to keep out animals and layers of topsoil and compost.

“It’s fresh,” Wayne Gauthier, 57, Tamarisk’s current executive chef, said of the produce. “There’s no pesticides, there’s no waxes. We use everything organic. We cut it, clean it and serve it.

“It doesn’t get beat up or bruised or mangled. Once you pick it, it’s nice and crispy. It’s flavorful. It’s not sitting on a truck, or driving cross-country from California or Florida. It’s right here. You can almost taste the earth.”

Gauthier easily rattles off some of the many meals he’s made this summer with the garden’s yield: green salads, zucchini pie, ratatouille and veggie-topped flatbreads, plus sauces infused with basil, rosemary and thyme.

“The residents definitely appreciate it,” he said.

Many people know that farm-to-table produce is healthier and helps support local growers, but Gauthier added that the Garden of Eating also helps cuts costs at Tamarisk.

“It saves a lot of money,” he said. “Produce is sky-high, everything is sky-high. We [purchase] a lot of cucumbers, tomatoes. Sometimes they’ll be $20 a case, sometimes $50 a case. Now we don’t have to order as much of anything.”

Gauthier isn’t certain whether residents can taste a difference between produce grown in the garden and produce purchased elsewhere. But Coughlin claims that she can, and said she’s glad to know that it’s fresh and pure.

“You know everything you put into the soil,” she said.

Gold said he gets great satisfaction working the soil, and the nurturing goes both ways. He easily connects his own work to the story of Eden, and God’s command to tend the biblical garden.

“It grounds you,” Gold said of the work. “Every time I work in the garden, with my hands, without the gloves, I feel that connection again. And I say, ‘This is what we’re here to do.’ And you share that with your brothers and sisters, of any age, and your families. And that’s what it’s all about. That’s what life is all about.”

To learn more about The Phyllis Siperstein Tamarisk Assisted Living Residence, go to TamariskRI.org.

 ROBERT ISENBERG (risenberg@jewishallianceri.org) is the multimedia producer for the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island and a writer for Jewish Rhode Island.