Auburn’s College of Agriculture’s partnership with hotel yields herbs for restaurant

AUBURN – Guests at The Hotel at Auburn University and Dixon Conference Center are sure to notice the beautifully landscaped pool area. What they might not notice is that the area is actually a bountiful herb garden providing the hotel’s restaurant with the freshest herbs every day.

Prepared and cultivated by Auburn’s College of Agriculture, the garden is one of the latest partnerships between the hotel and the university.

Parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, basil, mint, oregano, chives and a bit of lavender are among the cornucopia of aromatic herbs that flourish against a backdrop of muscadine and scuppernong vines in the garden, which is filled with the soothing sounds of a flowing fountain.

Most every morning from late spring through fall, John Hamme, executive chef of Ariccia Italian Trattoria inside the hotel, visits the herb garden. With scissors in his hand, he starts snipping, not stopping until his large wicker gathering basket is all but overflowing with a medley of fragrant herbs.

In Italy, it’s a culinary custom to use the freshest ingredients, and at Ariccia – named after the ancient town of Ariccia, Italu – Hamme honors that tradition by growing some of his own ingredients and by purchasing as many farm-fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and other ingredients as possible from producers across the state through community-supported agriculture partnerships.

About four years ago, Hans van der Reijden, managing director of operations at the Auburn University-owned hotel and conference center, decided that, given the restaurant’s focus on freshness, Ariccia should have an on-site container herb garden, located in the luxury hotel’s pool area, where the chefs could gather herbs one minute and have them in the kitchen the next.

There was just one problem.

“Of course, the garden must be extremely attractive and healthy and well maintained at all times,” van der Reijden says, “but we have no gardeners on staff.”

This is where, in late 2006, the College of Agriculture entered the scene.

The obvious prospective collaborator on the herb garden project was the College of Ag’s horticulture department. Van der Reijden enlisted the help of Cynthia Channell-Butcher, an academic program administrator in the college’s horticulture department who’s also an avid gardener and grows, among other things, herbs.

Channell-Butcher, in turn, recruited Jane Hoehaver, director of the college’s Plant Science Research Center. Hamme, Hoehaver and Channell-Butcher work together to make the garden a success. Hamme specifies the herbs to be grown, Hoehaver gets the plants started in a greenhouse at the research center and Channell-Butcher takes things from there.

In spring 2007, Channell-Butcher planted the first crop of herbs. That fall, van der Reijden brought in a landscape architect who designed a beautiful garden space, running the length of the brick wall parallel to the pool, filled with raised beds and enclosed by a knee-high wooden fence.

Channell-Butcher and her brothers completed the space by donating a fountain to the garden in memory of their father, retired NASA engineer and 1963 Auburn alum Dewey Bowes Channell of Huntsville who died in 2005. A plaque at the fountain’s base identifies it as a memorial to Channell, given by his three children.

Another plaque, displayed by the wrought-iron gate to the pool area, notes that the herb garden is a collaborative project of the hotel and conference center, the College of Ag, the horticulture department and the plant research center.

The garden has been a success. In mid-April, Channell-Butcher and Hoehaver planted this year’s garden, and Hamme is once again harvesting fresh, fragrant herbs.

Contact: Jamie Creamer, (334) 844-2783 (creamjs@auburn.edu), or
Mike Clardy, (334) 844-9999 (clardch@auburn.edu)