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Gardener With A Greens Thumb

January 19, 1986|RUTH REICHL

If you've got a garden going to waste, Andrea Crawford might want to borrow it. In return you'd get grazing rights-- and the satisfaction of knowing that greens from your garden were gracing the best tables in town.

Crawford, a sort of sort of latter-day Johnny Appleseed, makes her living putting plants into plots that don't belong to her. She herself is not only landless, but actually lives with her husband and two small children on a 50-foot gaff-rigged schooner. The boat's been moored in Berkeley for years, but last month Crawford weighed anchor, sailed to Los Angeles and began searching for growing space.

Although she lives on the water, Crawford has always liked to garden. Four years ago it occurred to her that although she lived on a boat, there was no reason not to do a little farming. She began peering around at her friends' yards, and when she found what she was looking for, she asked Bob Waks if he would be interested in having her put in a kitchen garden. Waks, a wonderful cook who often helps out at Berkeley's Chez Panisse, was thrilled. Then Alice Waters found out about the kitchen garden, and the plot grew.

"Alice loves little lettuces," says Crawford, "and she kept coming over to Bob's to raid the garden. One day she said casually, 'Anytime you have too much lettuce, just bring it over to the restaurant.' " Crawford had other ideas. "The next afternoon I went over to Chez Panisse with a big bunch of purple chicory and suggested that I grow a garden specifically for the use of the restaurant." Waters not only liked the idea--she immediately improved upon it. "Alice thinks big," says Crawford. Before long the two women were looking for $70,000 to start an urban farm.

The idea was not an overwhelming hit with investors. Waters refused to be daunted. "Let's just do it in my backyard," she said. In 1982 they ripped out Waters' lawn and put in neat rows of lettuce separated by little white hoops. The garden prospered, and a year later Waters was ready to expand. "We got serious," says Crawford. "We found a real lot in Berkeley and made a deal. We planted 100 square feet very intensively with all sorts of lettuces and herbs and flowers."

In addition to 20 different kinds of exotic lettuces like mache, arugula and mizuna, Crawford grows edible flowers. "Alice loves to use them," she says, "and we keep finding more to grow." At the moment her gardens contain pansies, violets, violas, borage, calendulas, English daisies, hollyhocks, anise hyssop, radish blossoms and pineapple sages. And every one of the petals end up on plates instead of in vases. "They all taste good," insists Crawford. "It's odd, 10 years ago people would not have eaten flowers. But now you can serve them rose petals and they're happy."

In fact, people are increasingly interested in the sort of gourmet greens that Crawford grows. Today the business has grown so that Crawford employs five people to tend the small plots of land she farms all over Berkeley. And now she hopes to conquer Los Angeles. "Winter in Berkeley is a great time for growing garden salad," she says, "but you don't get that much of it. Here, winter is the prime growing season. It occurred to me that I might be able to subsidize the business during the slow time if I planted gardens down here, too." Crawford wrote a letter to Wolfgang Puck, who encouraged her to sail down the coast. "We haven't moved," she says, "we just moved our home."

The first crop has just come in (lettuce grows fast), and last week screenwriters Henry Bean and Leora Barish sat at Spago munching on greens grown on their land. "The essential deal," says Bean, "is that we let her use our land and she builds us a kitchen garden." His wife spears a leaf of arugula and adds, "I just like to go out and look at the garden. It's really beautiful."

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