Melina Hammer's Kitchen Garden

A peek into the garden of Catbird Cottage.


ith our minds on kitchen gardens this week, we thought we'd check in with cookbook author Melina Hammer to see what she's growing at Catbird Cottage, the local bed and breakfast she runs with husband Jim Lafferty. As a recipe developer, cookbook author, food photographer and stylist, Melina's garden is all about deliciousness. Followers of her Instagram profile enjoy frequent video "stories"  documenting Catbird Cottage meals made from scratch, dining scenes filled with ambiance, and the occasional backyard bird nibbling seed from her palm.

Melina is a resident expert at Food52, where several of her recipes live full time including one for pickled Shiso. If you're growing tomatoes this year, try the panzanella recipe she shared with us here.

Her forthcoming cookbook with Ten Speed Press will be out in Spring 2022.

So, Melina, what can guests expect to find when they arrive to Catbird Cottage?

Catbird Cottage was born from the interest to give people a place they could come and experience my food, and a way for us to connect with Nature. So many have drooled over commissioned works I shot or styled for magazines, The New York Times, and on my Instagram, Catbird Cottage felt like a natural extension as good food took greater prominence in my own world. We create an intimate and curated experience centered around each set of guests. Menus are formed based on what's in season, from both wild foods I forage, foods that I grow, or things I love at our local farmers market. Inside, our cottage is eclectic, filled with mid-century modern pieces and paintings from my grandmother, artifacts from around the world, vintage ceramics, and all kinds of still lifes. Outside is a lush convergence with Nature. Lots to see, whether at the raised beds vegetable garden, our moss+fern hillside, or the swale gardens, populated with native and pollinator-attracting plants.

What do you hope people will notice when they stroll around your garden?

It means a lot for people to notice the care I take in my plantings. Their diversity, as well as my attempts to make the gardens experiential. We invested in numerous berry shrubs, including a sour cherry tree, serviceberry tree, gooseberry shrub, elderberry, currants, and our property already had numerous black raspberry shrubs.  Since we're in competition with all nature's creatures as the berries' ripen, it's a work in progress. I hope to harvest more as their yields increase, to produce small batch pastries and compotes which I lace into menus.

We have rocky, clay soil, and we live on a hillside. Since the beginning, we had to learn how to mitigate the flow of water or be bogged down in a marshland. We endeavored a large landscaping project our second summer here explicitly to deal with this, where we cleared out all kinds of invasives (poison ivy, barberry, multiflora rose, etc.) and created two distinct swales on which I planned to grow sizeable, meandering native gardens.

I have a perennial upper and lower swale woodland garden, in addition to a full-sun garden along the side of the house. There is also a cottage flower garden along the driveway and the raised bed garden, along with containers dotting our free-standing deck.

What are some garden experiments you’re trying right now?

Last year I began square foot gardening and will probably grow my veggies this way from here on out. Doing so meant I needed to connect to companion planting, which is nifty to lace-in in the aim to help plants thrive. Though it isn't new information I am struck over and over again that, living out here in nature, plants will find a way. Especially aggressive growing ones... If they have the barest crack they will germinate, especially invasives. Given that, I try to incorporate plans which feel fully fledged before endeavoring new clearing, i.e., having mulch at the ready, new plants ready to take the place of whatever was cleared, etc. 

Are you growing anything unusual this year?

I have grown an herb garden since even before moving upstate. With greater space there's room to experiment with more niche flavors, including strawberry mint, pipicha, tarragon, anise hyssop, and dwarf basil. Tomatoes are always a favorite, and I grow heirlooms I cannot readily find elsewhere (or would like an abundance of). Two recent favorite varietals are Santorini from Greece, a brightly acidic, creasy red tomato, and Rumi Banjan, originally from Afghanistan, a squat, golden, sweet tomato. This year I am growing a lot of celery. It was something I grew my first season at the Catbird and loved (puts grocery store celery to shame), but since celery seed must be used the season it is prepared–and much of mine germinated–I am growing a good bit. I use it in all kinds of ways: shaved raw salads, morning juices, aromatic poached veggies, and to season soups or stews. I am trying long beans for the first time, as well as bulb onions, and am trying my hand at growing dahlias and tobacco flowers (their flowers attract hummingbirds!).

What are some summer dishes that you’re looking forward to? Which crops do you preserve by drying or canning? Tell us more about the role seasons play in what you make for meals.

Summer means lots and lots of tomato dishes. I love riffs on panzanella, as well as a pesto-like paste I create using pipicha. I allow some of my scarlet runner beans to mature and shell them once their pods become papery. They are excellent sustenance for cold days. I can, confit, and roast many of my tomatoes so that I can reproduce "summer" all year 'round to deliver their robust flavor. I will dry late season nettles for teas and tonics. I pickle all kinds of veg, and make fermented green garlic with part of my garlic crop.

You mentioned working with wild foods in your recipes. What sorts of wild edibles do you regularly find in our area?

One of the biggest reasons I wanted to move to the country was so I could forage (responsibly) on a daily basis. To be in the middle of a landscape which has so much means I can be spontaneous, rather than having to plan to go foraging. There are innumerable ingredients I forage and preserve, and in my upcoming book, I detail how to find them, as well as many staples you can make to bottle the season. From garlic mustard, field garlic, ramps, to honeysuckle, wineberries, mugwort, nettles, autumn olives, and more. I–of course–love discovering flushes of wild mushrooms through the season, both an exercise in trusting a hunch, as well as paying attention to the weather (and benefiting from abundant rains, which activate the fruiting of the mycelium). Last fall, I came upon a hen of the woods cluster that must have weighed 10 pounds. I made stock from the drier parts, and seared and preserved the juicer sections. Heaven!

Indeed. Finally, Melina, what do you hope guests to Catbird Cottage take away from their visit?

I hope Catbird guests are ignited somehow, that connecting to nature fills their wells and inspires them to eat more consciously. Maybe they become inspired to grow some of their own food or practice foraging, or maybe it's simply that they pay more attention to eating with the seasons. I want people to be excited by the incredible diversity of ingredients out there and feel reconnected to themselves in a way they may not have been when they arrive.

Sounds wonderful. Thank you for walking us through your kitchen garden, Melina!

Follow Melina Hammer on Instagram here.
Visit the Catbird Cottage website.