IN A STRAW HAT trimmed with a blue ribbon, Gar Wang leads her vegetarian cooking class through a gate under a hand-painted sign that reads Gar’s Den. “This was the bull pen,” she says of the eight-foot-by-seven-foot plot that now hosts one of her two gardens. “You know what that means?” she asks, her eyes lighting up. “Manure!”
Gar (pronounced gah) and her husband, Ron Gee, met while studying at Princeton and bought nine swampy acres of a pre-Civil War cow and pig farm near Warwick in 1985. The barn, which had been converted to a summer stock theater in the 1960s, is where they now live and work. Nearby, a recently built studio with a state-of-the-art rooftop solar array produces more electricity than they can use, two organic gardens provide food and double as fodder for Gar’s cooking classes, and the yards and assorted outbuildings are shared by a variety of animals, including geese, chickens, a horse, Dusty (the cat) and Thor (the rabbit). The view from the glass-walled living room in the renovated barn is of the pond, surrounded by cattails and phragmites, and the bluegreen hills of New Jersey farmland in the distance.
Here, Gar and Ron, both artists, live a successful, sustainable blend of art and nature, productivity and peace. “We’re trying to live in harmony with nature and still be connected with society,” Ron says. The key, Gar adds, “is to keep your life simple.”
“People tend to romanticize our life. What they don’t understand is how much work goes into it.”
It took years to transform the run-down old barn into a home for the couple and their son, Eliot, currently a student at Princeton. The couple camped out in the calving shed while they worked on the barn. “People tend to romanticize our life,” Gar says. “What they don’t understand is how much work goes into it. It took us a full year to clean out the junk in the barn—our shower was a black bag with a hose. People thought we were nuts.” More than a third of the building’s space became a studio where Ron produces large, three-dimensional landscape paintings, calligraphy and portraits. “One of our architect/artist friends visited soon after we bought the pro
perty,” Ron recalls. “He left a note that said, ‘It will be beautiful when it’s done, but I feel sorry for you.’”
Inside the house, the air is cool and smells of mint; the floors are unstained, wide-plank pine, smooth from heavy use. The couple’s artworks—paintings and drawings and sculpture—blend seamlessly with the view from the wall of south-facing windows. “At night,” Ron says, “there are as many fireflies as there are stars.”
Self-described do-it-your-selfers, the couple did much of the construction and built most of the furniture themselves. “Rather than spending time to find something that fit, we built it,” Gar says, pointing to a cabinet behind the dining table and the low-slung, modernist couch with built-in end tables. “I like to work with my hands in many different ways.”
A painter and sculptor working in fiber, wood, clay and bamboo, Gar says she felt uncomfortable just working with paints. “It was too separate from my other interests— working with the land and being in nature. I didn’t like the idea of a career. It’s life. All these things feed into me.” One of her recent works, a large, multimedia wall installation titled Sentient Be…ing, uses materials from their land: bamboo, black walnut wood, chicken feathers, fibers from the angora rabbit and the horse’s tail, even a porcupine quill. Ron observes, “Gar’s development as an artist is parallel to her attitude about cooking—getting closer and closer to the natural state of things.”
Gar’s vegetarian cooking class evolved naturally out of another of the couple’s passions: the practice and teaching of the Chinese martial arts chi kung and tai chi chuan. “I never anticipated giving organic gardening lectures or cooking classes,” Gar admits. “These classes came about when I realized that my qigong students didn’t know how to improve their diets. I wanted to show them the benefits of a plant-based diet and that eating healthfully does not mean deprivation. Allowing these opportunities to flourish naturally is what the Way of Tao is all about.”
In the garden, Gar plants intensively in raised beds, watering with spring water and rain collected from the roof into an old horse trough. She mulches heavily with weeds from the pond or partially decomposed organic compost from the three-bin compost heap. “It’s an old-fashioned notion,” Gar says of organic gardening. “Organic is the way we always used to grow vegetables. If your plants are healthy and strong, they will become resistant to pests—the key to all of that is compost.” (Ron notes the same principle applies to people: “When the immune system is strong and healthy, you’ll be resistant to disease. You assist that by eating well, exercise and stress reduction.”)
In the garden, Gar invites a Saturday morning cooking class to pick snow peas. She explains they’re ready to eat “when the peas are just showing a little bulge.” The harder peas—a bit past their prime—won’t go to waste. “We can take the peas that are tough and make a nice fresh soup,” she says, adding, “One of my favorite memories is being out here with my son, talking about school and eating fresh peas.” She pulls a fat, red kohlrabi out of the earth, and plucks a blossom from a row of waist-high cilantro for a student to taste. (She’s allowed the cilantro to bolt because the flowers encourage beneficial insects and make tasty and nutritious additions to salad.) “I like to be still for a moment,” she says as the student munches on the spicy bloom, “and see all the life that gathers here.”
The class will prepare a lunch of chilled pea soup, Chinese garlic chive dumplings, vegan Caesar salad, lettuce wrap with kohlrabi, shiitake and pine nuts, and for dessert, rhubarb-date tapioca. In the kitchen, students julienne the kohlrabi for a salad and chop it into quarter-inch cubes for the lettuce wraps while Gar sautés tofu in a frying pan along with reconstituted cloud mushrooms for dumplings. The table is set with Gar’s distinctive, handmade white bowls and one of Ron’s flower arrangements. Silent appreciation comes over the table as the students savor the myriad flavors and textures created from the garden.
Gar explains that it’s taken her years to come to this place as an artist, cook and gardener. “A friend once said that my life is my art, and there is a lot of truth in that statement,” she admits. ”It’s not a straight path, not about arriving at a goal—the whole thing is about the journey, the discovery and the growth. Life is too short to confine oneself to a narrow scope.” The couple’s journey includes a surprising new passion—learning to tango. “It’s all about painting the feeling, getting everything to fit and dance together,” Ron says. “I like tango because you don’t know what you’re going to dance until you dance it.”
Gar’s Garden Tips
Intensive planting and bug repelling
“To get the most out of planting intensively,” says Gar, “you need to know when things are harvested, how tall things will grow and how big their root systems will be— The peas, for instance, are shelter for the lettuce.” Gar plants radishes (fast germinators) with carrots and parsnips (slow growers). “The radishes act as row markers and as I harvest I help loosen the soil for the carrots and parsnips.” Another trick: interplanting onion and garlic to keep small insects off. Her favorite cucumber is the Puna, as it’s the “sweetest and crunchiest.” To keep beetles off she uses a veil of bridal tulle.
“The bounty is in August—the last thing you want is the stove running.” For dried tomatoes that taste sun dried when reconstituted, she uses non-watery cherry tomatoes cut in half, placed cut-side up on a non-reactive cookie sheet (or one covered in parchment), and slow roasts them at low heat (200° to 250°F) for 45 minutes. She then freezes them in plastic containers.
Green herb drying
Gar burned out the motors of two dehydrators from excessive use, so now her car doubles as a dehydrator. “I dry my herbs on wide, woven trays in the car. With the windows up to keep insects off, the heat of the car can dry herbs for teas as well as shelled beans quickly without the use of any energy. With the recent heat spell my lemon basil and mint for tea dried in less than a day.”
Gar loves using blossoms from the garden in her salads: clusters of white flowers from cilantro, yellow blossoms from bok choy, mustards, collards, kale and rapa, pink and white blossoms from radish plants. Snow peas give purple blossoms; later in the summer they enjoy nasturtium, borage and squash blossoms—“a feast for the eyes” as well as for the taste buds.
All of Gar’s and Ron’s farm animals are rescued. “Each has a job,” Gar says, “providing manure, laying eggs and eating bugs (the chickens), mowing the fields (the horses) or growing angora wool (the rabbit).” Dusty, the old cat, was “the best mouse catcher in her younger days,” she says. “I guess it’s like the olden days, when farm animals were an integral part of farm life.”