Sunday, July 14, 2013


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (7/10/2013)


          “I bet we have one of the best compost piles in Flagstaff.”  The words were those of Nancy Branham of The Cottage Place Branham’s.  “We take all of the kitchen scraps from the restaurant for our compost pile.”  Frank and Nancy Branham are conservationists.  They collect rain water in barrels, some 550 gallons, to water their garden, harvest electricity from solar panels, and enrich their soil with their compost.  As with any great chef, Frank believes in living close to the land. 


          Years ago while an urban friend of mine was visiting me, I showed him around my garden and plucked a bright ripe red strawberry for him.  He replied, “Oh, no, thank you; I eat only processed food.” He wouldn’t have done well with Frank’s fresh salads and vegetables.  Frank even said that he didn’t use any animal manure in his compost.


          Nancy began their garden by wresting from a mute refuse of rocks and decomposed granite and sandstone a habitat fit for flowers and vegetables.  The dirt was churlish and inhospitable.  She started with a shovel.  Soon Frank added his two cents, buying Nancy a pick axe.  Then Frank became more involved and 14 yards of imported soil were added.  Nancy’s no slouch, a realtor, a professional woman who wields a pick axe and brags about her compost pile, a woman of savvy down-to-earth charm.    

      A large rain barrel stands, as an ecological sentinel, at the top of the steps leading from the street to their front door.  Once over the threshold, a row of windows beckons the eye outside where their garden begins with a view from a deck.  The view goes forever, skimming over tree tops with no hints of artificial construction to the furthest reaches of human imagination, to the mountains and beyond.


Their garden is a visionary gardener’s garden, not a landscaper’s garden, that is, it has a haphazard look until you get the genius of it.  It wasn’t designed for the eye, but rather for the tongue.  Built on a descending slope, it is a group of 12 raised beds and six hoop houses.  The first raised bed was built by Nancy out of imported soil, compost, and concrete blocks.  A large solar panel helps shade a bed of herbs and nasturtiums.  And then the other raised beds followed, filled with herbs, vegetables, edible flowers, and squash for squash blossoms, placed where ever the flow of the land allowed.  Squash blossoms are one of the seasonal delicacies at the restaurant.


          Six hoop houses jammed with heirloom tomato plants dot the slope, and even early in the season the tomato plants were loaded with tomatoes.  Frank has been known to uses walls of water inside the hoop houses.  As with any vegetable garden in Flagstaff, tomatoes are the pièce de résistance of the garden, and they are not just any old tomatoes, but heirlooms that take about 80 days to mature.


          Frank uses his tomatoes in the restaurant in three ways.  Some he roasts.  Those beyond perfectly ripe he turns into sauce and paste.  However, the most beguiling use is the Inslata Caprese, named after the Isle of Capri.  It’s a salad in which layers of sliced buffalo mozzarella cheese and tomatoes are spread across a plate and then strewn with basil leaves.  This savory mélange is then drizzled with olive oil and reduced Balsamic vinegar.  Of our five tastes of salt, sweet, bitter, sour, and savory, amongst vegetables, tomatoes are the most savory.


All of the vegetables either come from the Branham’s garden or from local farmers save for the Balsamic vinegar and olive oil.  The buffalo mozzarella is produced in-house. 


          It’s a question of whether their garden is an extension of the restaurant or the restaurant is an extension of the garden.  What’s not in question is, thanks to Nancy, that Frank is a first-rate gardener as well as a celebrated chef without a surgeon’s ego.  Gardeners tend to be pleasant, engaging people, always wanting to share.  With the Branham’s, it’s the delight that both Nancy and Frank share in their garden and by extension to their restaurant.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2013


Dana Prom Smith and Freddi Steele edit Gardening Etcetera for the Arizona Daily Sun in which this article appeared 7/13/2013.  Smith emails at and blogs at




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