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Tender Roots: Eugene & Jeffrey

Tender Roots: Eugene & Jeffrey

This week we made our way out of the county and into the heart of Olde Riverside. A beautiful and historic part of the city that we love for its quaint homes, eclectic restaurants and specialty boutique shops!

As we pulled up alongside Eugene & Jeffrey’s charming 1920’s home, we were greeted with a neighbourly smile and wave, that instantly made us feel like old friends who finally arrived for that long-overdue visit. Upon our first glimpse of the classic white-sided home, we knew we were in for a treat – the cozy front porch nook, dressed with curtains and paper lanterns dancing in the breeze felt like the perfect space for early morning coffee sips or late night glasses of wine.

For this interview, we had the opportunity to sit down with Eugene, a Chef and Sommelier originally from Kingston, Ontario. Bubbling with personality and the best stories, it became evident of his passion for the finer things in life – good food, good wine and good company.

The front garden was the first garden Eugene and Jeffrey worked on. Since they both despise cutting the grass, “the inspiration for this area was to not have to cut the grass anymore”, he jokes. Also, grass maintenance is very environmentally unfriendly and they wanted to do their part. So, the front garden has a lovely mix of Boxwood, Butterfly bush, Parisian Lilac, Mock Orange. Goblin flower, an Olive plant, Curry plant and 4 colour varieties of coneflower. Plus 600 spring bulbs-various daffodils, grape hyacinths, hyacinths and over a dozen varieties of Tulips. 

As we headed to the backyard, the anticipation began to build, a garden is such a treasure – no matter the size. It’s the thought and heart that goes into a landscape – each plant and its placement has a reason and story behind it. How different of a lens a garden must be viewed, from the gardener than that of its visitors.

Greeted by attractive flowering Clematis vines in shades of pink and purple, this side area of the garden was where Eugene explained they like to experiment with different soil combinations and plant varieties – a place to watch and learn what can make their plants thrive and bloom. Hearing and watching Eugene light up with the excitement of “finally seeing some blooms on his Lupine” is what gardening is all about!

As we turned the corner and caught a glimpse of the piece of paradise that Eugene & Jeffrey put together, our hearts fluttered. They took a small backyard and turned it into the perfect landing place for not only pollinators and songbirds, but friends and family. Meticulously planned with a pathway, they wanted to make things almost hidden so as you venture in, the garden reveals even more secrets…

It’s the little stories and details that make each garden so unique – for Eugene & Jeffrey, it was the sprinkling of statues throughout the yard that were all named based on pop culture references – with pun inspiration from one of their favourite shows Bob’s Burgers! We were sure to say hello to their fish Goldie Hawn at the base of their pond!

An Interview with Eugene Di Rocco

What does gardening mean to you?

Meditation and Joy

What type of garden do you have? 

Fruit/Vegetable/Herb & Perennial/Annual

How would you describe your garden?

Cottage garden

How has Anna’s been a part of your garden story? 

We have purchased many products from Anna’s through the 4 year transformation of our yard.

How did you get into gardening?

It’s always been something in our lives. I come from a very big Italian family- so to help with that, youngest of seven, we always had vegetable gardens and everything so it was always something that was in our life.

How many years have you been gardening?

More or less all of my life, well I think the first 10 years that I remember was more eating the raspberries than actually gardening. There was always the joke in the house if you couldn’t find me I was either in the garden picking lettuce or I was making a salad in the kitchen.

Do you have any resources for helping to make your garden succeed and where do you draw inspiration? (Books, podcasts, people. etc. )

I have a really close friend she is a huge gardener but she currently lives in an apartment so she can’t garden. She uses our garden to give us ideas and that sort of thing because we like to plant weird things, we’re like guinea pigs – She says “You should try this!” and then we see what happens. We have gardening days together, so she comes over and runs around and plays in the garden. We will be sitting here drinking wine and she will be jumping through plants – it’s fun!

I love Monty Don, he is great! – I love him! I don’t really have any specific person that I follow. When we were designing the waterfall, there was 40 hours of YouTube videos of how to build it and help from my neighbour to lift the stones.

What is your favourite thing to grow and why?

One of the funniest jokes that we say is that we love our vegetable garden because we can grow and nurture it and watch it get to the point where it’s ready to eat. It’s better than raising a kid because it doesn’t ask you for money every 5 minutes.

So true, And I guess as a chef, you are likely using it in your recipes and such?

Yes, and we have the edible flowers and we have all sorts of different things – I love my little edible section!

What does gardening bring to your life?

Calm..being a fine-dining chef for 25 years it has always been a way for me to decompress after work or on a day off. The rare moment you get a day off. Ya, it has always been that way to decompress because its such a high – you are yelling and screaming. Everyone is always like “So do you scream like Gordon Ramsay?” and I’m like we all do when we are in a kitchen. You don’t have time to hold someone’s hand and say this is how you do something.

So when I get home it’s kind of like glass of wine, do some gardening….

Do you enjoy sitting in the garden and taking it in, as much as you enjoy getting in the garden and getting your hands dirty? Or is there one over the other?

I would have to say I’m self-diagnosed ADHD, I think it’s the reason I became a chef because I’m constantly moving. I do love to sit out here, this is kind of the first year we’ve been able to enjoy the garden so we enjoy it a lot more this year than we have in previous years.

This middle garden and all behind me here, is all last year including all the stepping stones and everything. COVID did wonders, it was actually funny, we were planning to do this when we were on our honeymoon in 2019 so we had already planned to do this and then when COVID happened and we were both laid off it was kind of like now is a better time than any – it was April, it was freezing, and we got to work!

12 square yards of soil, 2 square yards of dolomite, 66 bags of concrete!

What do you feel when you are gardening or sitting in your garden?

Accomplishment and then of course because my brain runs at 700 miles an hour, what AM I going to do next? What plant is next, what is our next goal? Yup!

How would you describe your garden style?

Cottage garden, oasis – plants were picked based on hummingbirds, honey bees and monarch butterflies. It was really great the year before last, when we got married the day after the wedding we invited family over to the house because many of them hadn’t seen it because Kingston is 5 1/2 hours away and there were about 40 monarchs in our backyard – it was really special.

What is your favourite month and time of day in your garden?

I would have to say the spring because we have 1,300 spring bulbs that came up this year and we have another 300 coming. Go big or go home! But spring is definitely nice, it’s sort of that rebirth, re-blooming and then the fall. The evenings are my favourite, I’m not a big sun person so that is when it starts to cool down!

This past winter was my fifth winter here, and every single one of them is different. It’s just more damp in Windsor than it is back home!

What inspires your choices when it comes to plants?

Pollinators are a big one! We are really into the whole trying new things, trying something that looks cool. So we have black tiger lilies that are planted, Asiatic lilies, miniature ground orchids that we planted for the first time this year, Tiger flowers which we had never heard of, the Peruvian daffodils…

So how do you come across these new plants? Is it just you going to garden centres and greenhouses and you’re just like “Oh, I’ve never heard of this before!” and grabbing it?

It’s funny because some of them, it’s my husband at work, he works at Costco and they had these Peruvian Daffodils that he was just kind of like, I better grab them, we got to try these before he even looked into them or did anything. Just, they looked neat -let’s get them, so some of it’s on the whim and other times it’s going to Anna’s and trying to find the neat, interesting things. My go-to flowers are Delphiniums and Lupins which finally it looks like I’m having success with.

Do you have any dreams for your garden?

I want to do food and wine pairing classes in this garden.

What would you say is the thing you do best in your garden?

There is the joke side, which is drink wine. But I would have to say it’s relaxing. I have a really hard time relaxing so being able to come out here in the morning with a coffee or later on in the evening with a glass of wine or tea. It’s really nice to sit back and watch what is happening. We have a family of cardinals here, bluejays, yellow finches – we almost got taken out by a hawk the other day. We just installed our bat house, so yes, in the evenings when we are home we look up at dusk to see how many bats are around.

In terms of plants, do you have any that are hand-me-downs, or you knew you loved from when you were a kid so you were like I have to have more of these?

I lost my mom about 2 1/2 years ago and her favourite flowers were gladiolus so I have 80 gladiolus because that’s how old she was when she passed.

Forget-me-nots were another one of her favourite flowers, it was actually really nice I was working at a garden centre last year when COVID first happened and I was laid off and I couldn’t find forget-me-nots anywhere and a woman who was shopping there said “Where do you live?” so I gave her my address and she actually dropped some off on our front step the next day. We have them and they have gone to seed and we’ve thrown them everywhere because I want them to grow everywhere because they are so neat.

And then Cosmos was another one of my mom’s favourites, they are really neat and airy. The ones we have are white and pink, and yes they are nice and tall. It’s funny because I’m not sure what variety my mom had but they were 4 -1/2′ tall and just a solid pink, and she didn’t have to plant them. They re-seeded every year and they just came up every year and I don’t know how she did it, but she was able to do it for years and years.

Is there anyone that you want to pass down your knowledge for gardening to?

I think really what it comes down to is kind of like being in culinary and in the wine industry, you become passionate about something and you want to share with really anyone who wants to listen. When I’ve done wine seminars and that sort of thing I talk about my garden and how I will sit there and be trying a new wine or whatever and say “Oh I think I have some Nasturtiums blooming” and then going in and grabbing some Nasturtiums and then trying them together or then if you get Merlot to have McDonald’s because it actually goes really really good together. You know the biggest misconception with fine-dining chefs is that we eat really well – we eat really well at McDonald’s, as the last thing we want to do is go near a kitchen. It was really neat I did some junk food wine pairing at a place and I took all of the wines at this one winery and paired junk food with it. And I was like, the hint of Lime Tostitos go good with Sauvignon Blanc and Swedish berries go really good with rose. It was a lot of fun!

Visiting this Riverside garden gave us a feeling of groundedness – before this story, Eugene was just a stranger we would likely say hello to at the garden centre and then go about our days, but his story of what he built with Jeffrey so perfectly tells of what it means to be human.

Whether it’s the statues encapsulating some of their favourite things, or the blooming bulbs that hold dear to Eugene’s heart- it reminded us of just how much of a story a garden can tell.

Spend some time with a loved one in their garden this week, and ask questions about it, we bet you’ll learn something about them that you never knew!

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DiRocco Family Kitchen

Photography: Emily Gignac | Videography: Anna Kwiatkowski 

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