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Some people baked sourdough during 2020’s confinement. Some people took up canning. Newbury resident MaryJo Anderson and her family built a garden—and not just any garden either. They envisioned a spectacular oasis for entertaining—with a space right down the middle for a really, really long table—one that could fit a hundred people along each side.

“In March 2020, we just started digging,” Anderson recalls. “We’d dreamed for years of creating something like it, but we never really had the time.”

With everyone stuck at home, Anderson, her husband, Bryce, and their three kids, Jackson, Reece, and Bryce (the third), went out every single day for months, with shovels and hammers, landscaping, building garden boxes, and planting. The family planned and designed the entire space, with advice from gardening coach and edible garden expert Arianna Iappini of Birch Arbor Gardens, and assistance from William and Steve Hunt of Hunt Garden Beds, who helped with the construction of the raised planters.

The family filled the beds with a mix of herbs and vegetables—37 different varieties last year, including chamomile, lemon thyme, peppers, eggplant, and, of course, tomatoes and cucumbers.

But while the pandemic gave the family an opportunity to build the garden of their dreams, the health crisis prevented utilizing the space to its fullest potential. A gathering of 200 people, sitting shoulder to shoulder and sharing a meal, sounds idyllic—but not feasible, especially last summer when vaccinations were not yet available. So Anderson decided instead to hold an intimate feast, celebrating her bountiful garden with just a few of her closest friends.

The party, catered by Caswell Restaurant Group, began with a glass of Sophie James Wine. 

The Napa-based organic winery is owned by another of Anderson’s close friends, and has a philosophy of minimal intervention that allows the wine to express the terroir of the mountaintop vineyard where the grapes are grown, so it seemed a perfect match for a celebration of nature’s bounty.

“The wine was definitely a focal point of the night,” Anderson says, with both rosé and pinot noir on offer. It was the perfect complement to a thoughtful, locally sourced feast. To celebrate gathering together after a long absence, Nancy Batista-Caswell, proprietor of Caswell Hospitality, which operates Brine in Newburyport and Boston’s Oak + Rowan, opted to serve the food family style, inviting chef Brianna Meyers to focus on the garden to inspire the menu. 

“We tried to showcase things that were still growing,” Batista-Caswell says, including nasturtium leaves, herbs, and a cucumber salad all drawn directly from Anderson’s plantings. “It was a lot of garden-translating-to-the-table that day. We wanted to provide the food in its simplest fashion, so it spoke to the true element of what it is. If it was able to be served raw, that’s how we presented it,” rather than pickling or cooking.

To that end, the dinner started raw, with a glistening, freshly shucked Nantucket scallop crudo, followed by a menu of items mostly sourced from Tendercrop Farm, just down the road. Offerings included roasted baby squash, ricotta gnocchi with the first-of-season winter truffles, apple ricotta dumplings, beef tenderloin, warm mixed grains with radish and nasturtiums, baked ciabatta bread, and macaroons for dessert.

The party was lovely—and Anderson says she’s used it as a guide as she slowly allows friends and family to host small gatherings, with safety top of mind. But her long-term vision—as a place to host philanthropic events while also feeding an underserved community, is perhaps still a way off. Anderson hopes the garden will eventually provide a bountiful donation of fresh vegetables to the First Parish Church of Newbury Community Food Pantry—but this rainy summer stymied some of those plans.

“When we embarked on building the garden, one of the most intentional pieces of the design was to grow enough to donate a lot of tomatoes and cucumbers to the food pantry, which is right down the street from our house,” Anderson says, explaining that over the course of the pandemic, the need has become so great that the food pantry went from serving about 75 people a week to more than 300. In fact, COVID-19 pushed the organization to outgrow its home in the church. With a new building in the works, Anderson’s husband Bryce is acting as general contractor—and the family is deeply involved in fundraising.

“What I’m hopefully planning soon, when it feels safe enough, is to invite 100 people to the garden as a fundraising dinner for our community, so they can learn more about [the food pantry]. And then if they feel moved to, they can donate to the new building.”

Then, many more people will be able to experience the joy of her garden, scented with flowers and buzzing with bees, as her small group did last year.

“Everybody was beaming,” Anderson recalls. “Everybody was so happy just to be in a beautiful place, eating amazing food prepared by Nancy and her staff. It was a pretty magical night.”