Well-manicured lawns are not unusual in Santa Ana’s historic Floral Park neighborhood. Fully functioning culinary gardens, on the other hand, are not quite as common. That may change thanks to Ashley Irene, culinary garden designer and coach at Heirloom Potager.
Heirloom Potager is a full-service culinary garden design and coaching company that designs, installs and maintains year-round seasonal edible gardens for home cooks and culinary professionals in Orange County.
Irene’s showcase kitchen garden, situated in front of the 1920s French Tudor home she shares with her husband, Nathan, and their dog, Charlie, has inspired many neighbors to reach out to Heirloom Potager about starting their own gardens.
“Our goal is to design a garden that you are actually going to love,” said Irene. “There are a lot of ways to garden; we want to set you up with the absolute best way that we know how to garden.”
Irene is a member of the Garden Coach Society and a certified garden designer, but her style is also inspired by her grandmother.
“My grandfather was a traditional farmer, but what my grandmother had was a beautiful kitchen garden,” said Irene. “She gardened very intentionally. She was an organic gardener and she practiced companion planting.”
Companion planting is the practice of growing certain plants together, which can make them more productive.
Irene realized that not everybody planted a garden with the same intention, and she wanted to share her knowledge and turn her passion into a business.
Just like her grandmother’s garden, everything in Irene’s garden is edible. The planter boxes overflow with wild vines and lush leaves attached to radishes, carrots, sugar snap peas, tomatoes and eggplants.
Besides homeowners, Irene’s clients include local chefs. Most recently she has worked with Anaheim Packing District’s Poppy & Seed restaurant, creating a garden Chef Michael Reed utilizes for creating dishes.
“Now Chef has more basil than he’ll ever need to use in his life,” Irene said.
On a recent Wednesday morning Irene returned from Poppy & Seed to tend to her own garden before visiting two others she started at homes in her Floral Park neighborhood.
“I originally just wanted to design the gardens,” she said.
But it was important for the gardens to be built to Heirloom Potager’s standards, she said, and so she and her team took over the installations.
“Then at one point, I was adamant we were not going to be able to do the maintenance of the gardens,” Irene said.
But many of her clients enlisted her help in making sure their gardens survived.
“Almost every single client that we ever worked with has been like, ‘You’re going to come back, right? We want to make sure this lives!’”
Besides sharing her gardening skills, Irene studies the history of a home to ensure the garden fits the intended style.
“We work on a lot of research, and I won’t come and do something that isn’t true to the home’s architecture.”
Irene’s own showcase garden compliments her home’s French Normandy architecture with over 160 square feet of raised-bed garden space in a more classic potager style.
Irene says it is also important that the garden fit the gardener. She said her team looks at a clients lifestyle and goals to help recommend the right plans and plants. A resident might be more interested in herbs, while a chef might care more about low maintenance produce.
“It really helps clients to feel comfortable to know that what we recommend, there is a reason and an understanding behind it,” said Irene. “We really encourage people just to start and to try and do something, whether they hire us or not. We just want to be a good resource.”
Irene is also invested in connecting the past to the future with heirloom vegetables. She is involved with seed swaps, where gardeners meet to exchange heirloom varietals of seeds, and she also practices seed saving. During the pandemic Heirloom Potager arranged seeds swaps online and by mail.
“I think its is really cool to eat a tomato that my grandparents also enjoyed. That is a connection both backwards and a connection forward,” said Irene, “This is an opportunity for us to say, here is something that we are going save for tomorrow, for our children and grandchildren.”
Irene believes that a kitchen garden can also become a way to reconnect with our food.
“We all have that classic moment when we look in the fridge and say, ‘Ugh! There is nothing to eat,” said Irene. “But with a kitchen garden there is always something to eat because there is always something in the garden.”
Recently Irene has begun hosting invitation-only Sunday Suppers, where she prepares a meal using the herbs and vegetables from her garden, demonstrating to clients how they can use their harvest. She hopes to continue to connect people with where their food comes from.
“For me it is such an honor to be invited not only into chef’s restaurants but into people’s homes too,” Irene said.
She sees it as a small way to leave the world a little better than she found it, creating productive gardens that can be enjoyed for years to come.
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