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Lunch in the Garden

After missing several spring weekends at their country house, a couple found themselves -- and their vegetable and flower gardens -- in the weeds. The remedy? Invite a handful of green-thumbed friends for a productive day of fresh air, weed-pulling, and planting. Their reward? A delicious picnic lunch.

Lunch in the Garden

Radish Dip
Lemony White-Bean Hummus
Spinach-Sorrel Tarts
Grilled-Chicken Salad
Rhubarb Buckle

The idea of a weekend house -- a bucolic idyll where you can kick back on a porch, a frosty lemonade (or something stronger) in hand -- doesn't always jibe with the realities of owning one. Maybe the drive there on Friday night is clouded with the nagging worry, "What's fallen apart now?" Or perhaps the garden -- that small patch of green meant to bring you so much satisfaction and sustenance -- has become overrun with weeds in the time it took to turn your back (a.k.a. miss a weekend). That was the case for photographer Dana Gallagher, who often has a hard time getting away to her getaway house in Columbia County, New York, because of the packed schedule that she; her partner, Steven Miller; and their 4-year-old daughter, Imogen, have at home in New York City. The unhappy result: When she did manage to make it upstate, she had little opportunity to relax. "I spent so much time weeding. While it's mentally therapeutic, it doesn't do my body good being bent over for hours," she says.

Last May, after they skipped several weekends at the house, the situation was especially dire. "We realized we were behind the eight ball and needed help whipping the garden into shape, or else we would miss the growing season," says Gallagher. And that wasn't really an option: Given that the nearest market is a 25-minute drive away, they rely on their 225-square-foot garden for favorites such as herbs, tomatoes, beans, kale, squashes, radishes, and beets. (Each Christmas, Miller finds seed packets in his stocking.)

Inspired by the expression "Many hands make light work," the couple decided to invite friends to spend a day helping. They weren't going for the groomed look of Versailles -- Gallagher and Miller prefer the wabi-sabi style of salvaged fence parts and antique swinging gates -- but still, there was hard work involved, so the guest list was carefully considered. "It's only very good friends who will come pull weeds for hours in the hot sun," Gallagher says with a laugh.

Among the assembled were Danny Bright, a photographer, and Ada Tolla, an architect; Whitney Dow, one of Miller's oldest friends, and his wife, Thomasine Dolan Dow. Kids came, too -- and they swiftly set about playing hide-and-seek in the barn and roaming the yard, which borders an apple orchard.

Realizing that dirty fingernails and throbbing lower backs couldn't be her guests' only enticements, Gallagher planned a lunch-break picnic of foods she mostly prepared in advance. The menu featured some of the overgrown garden's bounty, such as the sorrel in the spinach tarts and the rhubarb in the buckle for dessert. As the day progressed, Gallagher and Miller watched in awe as their tangle of growth "became a beautifully composed garden. It was a miracle," she says. And all thanks to her friends, who, as soon as the work was done, initiated a kids-versus-grown-ups game of dodgeball and then pitched tents in the yard to sleep in for the night (the house is a very small old miner's cottage). Dinner was leftovers from lunch, "so no one had to lift a finger once the gardening was done," says Gallagher. Except, maybe, to toast marshmallows for s'mores.


See more of Gallagher and Miller's garden clean-up party.

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