Just call him Gov. Green Thumb. When Earl Ray Tomblin moved into the Governor’s Mansion in late 2010, he couldn’t bear the thought of leaving his home garden behind.
Besides producing the bounty of fresh vegetables that he and first lady Joanne Tomblin love to eat, Tomblin’s garden also offered him a nice distraction, a hobby to help him unwind — things he thought he also might welcome while serving as the state’s chief executive.
So one day he told the mansion’s chef that they needed to plant a garden.
Problem is, the chef came from New York.
“I’d never planted a garden before, a few tomato plants maybe,” Nelson “Chip” Bell said with a laugh. “Where am I gonna put a garden in New York City?”
Nonetheless, their experiment — backed by Tomblin’s green thumb — has blossomed into a small but fruitful garden that yields a cornucopia of food used to help feed the first family and their guests.
The garden includes cucumbers, peppers, zucchini, squash, eggplant, snow peas, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, turnips, beets, lettuces, cabbage, kale, green onions and tomatoes the size of melons. Nearly all of them are doing well because of Tomblin’s, well, leadership.
Seriously, the man knows his way around a garden.
As he walked through rows separating seven small beds, he pointed out what plants were doing well and why, the best time to plant different vegetables and what improvements they could make.
“He’s very good at this,” Bell said of Tomblin, who also has a beautiful rooftop trellis garden of flowers, plants and herbs just off the main living quarters. “He came out at the beginning and started pointing around, ‘Let’s do this here; let’s put that there’ and so on.”
And although Tomblin acknowledges Bell tends to the garden most, it’s not for lack of him wanting to. A hectic gubernatorial schedule leaves little time for weeding.
“If I’m home before dark, I like to come out and take a look at how things are doing,” Tomblin said.
Not that darkness really deters him.
Bell said as he has worked in the kitchen late some nights, he has heard someone pass behind him.
“I’ll turn around and there’s the governor — flashlight in hand, a trooper not far behind — heading outside. ‘Going to check on the garden,’ he’ll say. Sometimes he’ll have me out there at night with him. I’m standing there getting bitten alive (by mosquitoes), but he’s worried about the snow peas.”
Perhaps the governor is worrying a little less these days — about the garden, anyway.
“All of the plants came from Blatt’s Greenhouse down in Wayne County, and everything they brought us has just done so well,” Tomblin said.
Bell said some attribute that success to Blatt’s special “Posey Powder” used to fertilize the plants.
“It’s basically horse manure from Ohio, but a lot of people swear by it. I like it because it’s natural and I try not to spray a lot,” Bell said.
He lost a patch of peppers to blackspot this summer, but they’re starting to come back healthy now. He also lost a lot during June’s damaging storms and had to start all over on some plants, but they’ve bounced back, too.
“The tomatoes have just been phenomenal this year,” Bell said, pointing skyward to cherry tomato, tommy toe, big boy and beefsteak vines that easily dwarfed him. “If I hadn’t used the wrong poles to hold them up,” he said, chuckling, “they’d even be a lot higher.”
But not one will go to waste.
“The first lady likes to can so we make big batches of our own marinara sauce with tomatoes and onions from the garden and then can it for later,” said Bell, who has been the mansion chef since 2005, when he started cooking for then Gov. Joe Manchin. “They haven’t bought a jar of pasta sauce in 30 years.”
Can we get the recipe?
“Oh no, I made that mistake before. I gave out the recipe once, and then the first lady started getting these calls about her great marinara sauce. ‘That’s one we keep to ourselves,’ she told me later.”
They also just canned some peaches the governor and first lady picked up at the West Virginia State Fair.
Tomatoes that aren’t canned play a starring role on the gubernatorial dinner table because Bell tries to base his menus on what’s ready to be plucked from the garden on any given day. Well, on that and what the governor and first lady like to eat.
Fortunately for him, those two worlds often collide.
“They love to eat a lot of fresh vegetables, so this garden gets a real workout,” Bell said. “They eat a lot of eggplant, a lot of zucchini and squash.”
As Tomblin surveyed the garden, he shared some of his recent favorite dishes using the ingredients he saw before him.
Eggplant Parmesan. An eggplant rollatini stuffed with herbed ricotta and covered with the first lady’s homemade marinara. A medley of steamed vegetables drizzled with butter.
Most people have a love-’em-or-leave-’em opinion of Brussels sprouts, but count Tomblin in the former.
“Oh, I love them,” he said. “We toss them with a little olive oil, salt, pepper and roast them in the oven. They do well in the garden because they can grow up until the first early frost.”
Bell added some of his recent creations: Stuffed peppers, zucchini Parmesan — “sliced lengthwise for a nice, different texture” — and eggplant croutons.
“Yeah, I cut up the eggplant into half-inch cubes, bread them in panko and then fry them up. They have the same taste and texture as bread croutons and go great on a salad.”
And he makes a lot of salads.
“The governor and first lady love salads,” he said. “Have to have one with every meal, always a salad. I planted a lot of lettuce this year — some romaine, red romaine, green leaf — but I’ll probably double that next year.
“There always have to be scallions in the salad, too,” he said. “I guess I’ll need to plant more of them next year as well.”
This is the second year for the mansion garden, which is easily out-producing last year’s inaugural effort. If there’s a year three, they’re excited to do even more. And the success they’ve enjoyed is something Tomblin says just about anyone could duplicate.
“It’s not difficult for West Virginia families to do the same thing,” he said, “It doesn’t take a lot of time or special equipment. You’re working mostly with your hands or just small hand tools. And you really can take a small area and produce quite a lot of food for your family.”
Tomblin says if you plan right, you can maximize your crop by taking advantage of a long planting season — starting with snow peas in late winter, then tomatoes, eggplants and peppers, then more snow peas in late summer and Brussels sprouts into the fall.