In good company Gardening: Companion planting has become a passion for a sailor-turned-gardener, and now he's growing produce for a restaurant in Severna Park.

July 19, 1998|By Barbara K. Johnson | Barbara K. Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

They say it takes two lifetimes to be a great gardener - the second life to be used correcting the mistakes of the first. If you don't believe in reincarnation, you have to wonder if Bob Ray is hiding a twin.

Tucked behind the newly-renovated Cafe Bretton, a French restaurant on Baltimore Annapolis Boulevard in Severna Park, is Ray's football field-sized vegetable garden. Passers-by might wonder just how this very well-established plot managed to appear practically overnight.

It was actually three seasons back when Ray, 56, moved into the compact house next door and took on the job of caretaker and gardener for the restaurant. His goal was to transform an empty lot into a bit of French countryside.

"The garden was an old parking lot, nothing but gravel, oil, beer tabs and busted whiskey bottles on top of clay," recalls Ray. "We cleaned that up, hauled in 300 truckloads of dirt to raise the ground level two feet, and put in two drains so that water would drain out from the rock wall in front. The whole garden acts like a big basin."

That ugly duckling has become one beautiful swan. It's a mouthwatering walk through sturdy tomato and squash arbors, past elephant-eye-high corn, among beds of spectacularly lush Swiss chard, eggplant and okra, all perfumed profusely with marigolds and herbs.

For years, Ray ran sport and tournament fishing boats from Newfoundland to New Zealand. But as a boy in Kentucky, he gardened with his Cherokee grandfather, learning the techniques of companion planting, or placing plants to benefit each other. This is still his passion, and he avoids chemical pesticides. He is frequently asked to lead seminars on his methods.

"I just want to get the word out on this lost art," Ray says. "People think companion planting is an old wives' tale, but it works! There's a softer, easier way that takes a lot of work out of gardening.

"The garden polices itself," he explains. "I plant onions next to the strawberries because they have a natural fungicide. The smaller flowers attract beneficial insects. Herbs masks the scent of the plants that are desirable to bugs. I always have a few "trap crops" with plants that bugs prefer to eat (Canna is a trap crop for Japanese beetles). And I leave some weeds for the bugs to eat."


"I plant Italian dandelions on the outside, and the rabbits don't come inside. They just can't walk by without eating them."

What comes first, the garden or the menu?

"It's getting its own balance," says Ray. "In the spring, the chef and I get together to talk about what we both want. Everything I grow goes through the Cafe Bretton kitchen. We serve a lot of things you can't get at a regular restaurant, like squash blossoms, which should be in the skillet five minutes after they're picked."

The Cafe Bretton garden is a community magnet, an oasis. Diners meander as they wait for their tables. Neighbors drop by to swap seeds, plants, stories and ideas with Ray (he says that local knowledge is essential to him). Garden clubs throw cocktail parties among the vegetables.

Part of the draw is the oddball plants that Ray cultivates, including 15-foot New Zealand tomato trees, tennis ball-sized strawberries from the Netherlands, Channel Island walking stick kale on 9-foot stalks, and Ray's trademark giant pumpkins, which he calls "the Blue Marlin touch in the garden."

With the high seas in his wake, Bob Ray's garden reflects the contentment he feels on firm ground.

"This is a serene occupation," says Ray. "I just roll out of bed in the morning and go play in the dirt. Now, prosperity to me is good health and feeling peaceful."


Companion planting - a method of arranging plants in a way that one type of plant can benefit from another - combines folklore, culinary art, intuition and now laboratory science. Because this re-emerging body of knowledge was nearly extirpated by the glut of chemicals developed around World War II, Bob Ray buys gardening books printed before 1940. His new bible, "Rodale's Companion Planting" by Susan McClure (Rodale Press, 1994), is one of several recent books that describe plant interactions. These books list plants and detail their nutritional/chemical supporters or competitors, as well as their protective and attractive qualities regarding insects and disease.

Is your herb garden puny? If it includes fennel, look no further - other plants hate it. Basil loves most plants, but inhibits insects and fungus (basil leaves laid over sliced tomatoes will repel fruit flies).

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