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A plastic crate with chilis, squash, okra, and other produce. Two hiking shoes outside the crate.
A box of produce from Este gardens
Este [Official]

Three Gardening-Obsessed Austin Restaurants Share Their Tips for Growing Better Produce

Gardeners at Este, Dee Dee, and Rogue Radish cultivate a garden bounty for both restaurant and home cooking, including some ingredients harder to find in Austin

Spring is finally here, and as people spend more time at home these days, they’re finding out that Central Texas is a surprisingly fertile region. Those with the patience to tackle rocky or clay soils and hot summers are rewarded with a long growing season. Not to mention, a surprising number of crops can thrive in home gardens.

With farm-to-table dining becoming the new standard for restaurants, Austin chefs are experts when it comes to honoring Texas produce. Many have even ventured into growing their own ingredients, with home gardens ranging from simple to lavish.

Eater talked to the gardeners and chefs behind three Austin restaurants — forthcoming Mexican seafood restaurant Este, essential Thai food truck Dee Dee, and vegetable-focused trailer Rogue Radish — to find out their secrets on growing produce in Central Texas. Here, they share their favorite things to grow and advice for new gardeners.


Este

Anamaria Gutierrez, the head gardener at soon-to-open Mexican seafood spot Este and favorite Mexican restaurant Suerte, has some big shoes to fill. Under the guidance of owner Sam Hellman-Mass and chef Fermín Núñez, Este is slated to take over 30-year Austin institution Eastside Cafe and the ample garden on the property this year.

Though Gutierrez grew up around grapefruit and lime trees along the Texas border, she never imagined in her wildest dreams that she would someday work in this storied East Austin garden. Her passion for gardening emerged when she started volunteering at Urban Roots, a nonprofit that cultivates youth leadership skills through farming, just a few years ago.

A smiling brunette woman in a white and pink shirt and khakis working soil in a garden with a few sprouts wearing gardening gloves
Anamaria Gutierrez in the garden at Este
Dimitri Staszewski

In Este’s garden, Gutierrez focuses not only on growing seasonal vegetables and herbs, like the chocolate mint used in Suerte’s chocoloco dessert, but also providing a green space for neighbors and nature alike. (The garden houses local purple martin birds and two beehives.) “It feels very important to hold on to green spaces when possible,” Gutierrez says. She praises organizations that provide spaces for Black, Indigenous, and other people of color in the community to farm, like Austin nonprofits Veggie Mijas, Rooted in Melanin, and Urban Roots.

Favorite thing to grow

Gutierrez: I love to grow peppers and watch them change colors. I believe nothing beats the flavor of a farm-fresh tomato or cilantro flowers, and harvesting potatoes is my favorite treasure hunt.

Unique produce in the garden

We just started growing hoja santa for Suerte. Hoja santa — also known as yerba santa and root beer plant — is native to Central America, and its broad, heart-shaped leaves are used in Mexican cuisine with flavors resembling licorice, sassafras, and tarragon.

Advice to new gardeners

You may have heard growers say they are soil farmers. That is because rich, living soil is key to growing healthy, bountiful, and delicious produce. Start composting and seed cover crops [ed. note: such as clover, buckwheat, and vetch] to add nutrients to and aerate your soil. Next, pick produce that excites you and stay for the ride. Mourn the losses and try again. Most important, celebrate the victories. Nothing tastes better than the fresh produce you grew.

I know gardening at home can seem intimidating at first. If and when things don’t go right, it can be frustrating — we have all been there. Don’t let that discourage you from trying again. The joys of your success — be it growing your own salsa ingredients or attracting pollinators with your native plants — are well worth it. Also, you don’t have to do it alone. I’ve found it incredibly helpful to go visit and volunteer at local gardens and farms. You get to learn what’s growing seasonally, ask questions, and meet amazing like-minded people. Beginner gardeners and farmers are always welcome at Este Garden.


Dee Dee

A squatting woman in a wide-brimmed hat and a dog in front of a long row of dirt
Lakana Sopajan-Trubiana and Mango gardening
Dee Dee [Official]

After growing up on a rice farm in Roi Et, Thailand, Lakana Sopajan-Trubiana, co-owner of Thai food truck Dee Dee, always dreamed of growing the vegetables and herbs for the truck at home. When the pandemic hit last year and the truck closed from March through May, she finally had the free time to earnestly put the project into motion. She started a YouTube channel where she gardens, shares her techniques, and gives cooking lessons using her bounty. (Her dog Mango also makes frequent appearances.)

Sustainability was also a goal for Sopajan-Trubiana and her husband, Dee Dee co-owner Justin Trubiana. The garden uses food scraps from the food truck for compost, has 10,000-gallon rainwater collection tanks for irrigation, and makes use of solar energy.

Answers below are from Justin Trubiana.

Favorite things to grow

Trubiana: Lakana grows three different types of basil — lemon basil, Thai sweet basil, and Thai holy basil, which is very limited and very difficult to find at farms here; she brought this with her from her family’s farm in Thailand. The smell of the different basils brings her right back home with her family. She also really enjoys growing watermelon; she loves to snack on it with Mango while working in the garden.

A French bulldog looking over his shoulder in front of some pepper plants
Mango in the Dee Dee garden
Dee Dee [Official]

Unique produce in the garden

She grows several varieties of chiles: Thai bird chiles — which are used in most of our dishes — jalapenos, and serranos. Lemongrass, garlic, cherry tomatoes, and onions are also big staples that we use a lot in our dishes. Our garden has a lot of zucchini, long green beans, cilantro, dill, celery, mint, kabocha pumpkin, and sweet potato, used for our special dessert bua loi.

Advice to new gardeners

The most important thing is taking care of your plants, keeping an eye on them, and seeing what they need, whether it’s water, fertilizer, or even more shade. You really have to get a feel for each plant, as they all have different needs at different times. You just need to keep checking in on them and make sure they look healthy and happy. Spend time with them and get to know them.

Don’t get discouraged — just get out there and start planting. You will have some things that may not grow, but just stick with it and you will start to see your hard work pay off. As your garden starts to grow, you will feel joy. It’s so fun to go outside, grab something you want, and then go cook with it. It doesn’t get better than that.

Top picture of dirt in beds, bottom picture of lush vegetable plants
Progress on the Dee Dee garden
Dee Dee [Official]

Rogue Radish

While working at East Austin restaurant Pitchfork Pretty, chef Max Snyder helped transform an abandoned lot into a lush garden that supplied the kitchen with fresh produce. Now, out on his own with another vegetable-friendly truck, Rogue Radish, Snyder continues to harvest from his home garden. “My family has always been big on gardening — my grandparents were very industrious people,” he tells Eater. “So I’ve always been around it, always enjoyed it.”

Now Snyder has come full circle, as Rogue Radish, the vegetable-focused truck he operates with his wife, Jenny, is parked at Pitchfork Pretty. Though he relies mostly on produce from local farmers for the truck, he often uses his garden’s bounty when cooking at home.

A garden bed with many plants and a wheelbarrow in the background
Chef Max Snyder’s home garden
Max Snyder

Favorite thing to grow

Snyder: My wife and I generally focus on herbs and flowers, but we also go along with the seasons and grow what we can: beets, kale, chard, lettuces, spinach, peas, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and others.

Unique produce in the garden

Anise hyssop and apple mint are two of my favorite herbs that we grow. Pink buckwheat is another unique one.

We have several roses of Sharon growing around our house. I enjoy using the blooms as a dessert canapé vessel. They have a soft texture that works really well with sweet things.

Advice to new gardeners

Make sure you have good soil, and follow the seasons. You can’t overcome bugs and heat; you just have to roll with it. Grow stuff that is heat-tolerant. Do what you can to keep the bugs at bay. Don’t let old plants fester: Once they start to decline, pull ’em out.

Este

2113 Manor Road, Austin, Texas 78722

Dee Dee

4204 Manchaca Road, Austin, TX 78704 Visit Website

Rogue Radish

2708 East Cesar Chavez Street, Austin, Texas 78702 (512) 653-1836 Visit Website
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