An introduction to home gardening and plant care with Hotel deLuxe’s Chef Juan Zaragoza.

Veggie gardens are all the rage right now. From farm to table, home gardening is still the best way to get the freshest vegetables right at your dinner table.  With mood boosting benefits of exercise and a down to earth way to connect with the world around us, spending the day in the garden not only relieves stress but creates a sense of community with friends and family.

One of the most important factors to consider when gardening is location. From sunshine, climate, soil richness to precipitation levels, each of these play an important role of the success of your garden. But don’t be shied away! There are so many resources available for beginners – the National Gardening Association and local nonprofits like Growing Gardens in Portland are all here to help you cultivate your own green thumb.

Ask any chef. Fresh produce and herbs are the cornerstone of any carefully curated seasonal menu. Nothing beats the home-grown taste of ripe tomatoes or the crunch of fresh lettuce harvested by local farmers and purveyors, or even from your own backyard.

Here in Portland, Executive Chef Juan Zaragoza not only manages the rooftop planters at Hotel deLuxe, but also his own small-scale garden at home with his kids. Here, he shares his own story and love for the popular pastime at home.


Where did your love for gardening grow from?

I’m not a gardener by trade but my appreciation for it and the farming community started at a young age. My grandfather emigrated from Mexico to California where he began working in the vineyards. He had a little garden where we would help him as kids, learning about planting, weeding, watering and rich, healthy soil. It’s something that has shaped my career as Chef. It’s about respecting the process and the time it takes to grow a fruitful bounty.

And it sounds like you’ve picked up the pastime once again?

It’s something I’ve been trying to pass on to my children who love helping me in the garden. Involving them hands-on in the process from seedling to budding plant, and allowing them to care for each individual plant gives them a unique perspective. It’s a process that doesn’t happen overnight. Getting one green bean may take 50+ days to grow and we mustn’t let what we’ve grown go to waste. My daughter recently completed a school project involving garbanzo beans that sprouted in the process. We planted them and she watched them grow. Proud of what she accomplished.

What’s are you currently growing in your garden at home?

One of the benefits to living in a suburb outside of the Portland city center is yard space. I have room to grow, so to speak! Currently, I’m growing vegetables like zucchini, lemon and English cucumbers, artichokes, swiss chard and onions and herbs. I also have a pink lady apple tree, grafted cherry tree with Rainier cherries, blueberries and a baby olive tree.

For beginners, what are your top 5 veggie recommendations?

If you have the space (and aren’t growing veggies off your apartment fire escape or planter box on a windowsill), try Zucchini. They need the space to blossom out. Swiss Chard is one plant that pops up year after year. Also, green beans, onions (like spring or scallions – grabbing one or two as you need) and peppers. Right now, I have shishito peppers growing in mine. Peppers, in general, are a sturdy plant and low maintenance. If you’re living in an apartment though, green beans might be a good choice (as you can trellis them).

Chef Juan Zaragoza’s Backyard Herb Garden

What herbs would you recommend to our readers interested in starting their own herb garden?

I’d personally go with thyme and rosemary, tarragon and mint (Mojito anyone?). Thyme is a year-round herb and utilized within a number of recipes. Mint is great because it comes back each season without having to replant. And a big one for me – basil. This is a plant you can keep indoors in a planter box on your kitchen windowsill. Pick as needed based on what you’re cooking, cutting down on waste.

Is there a method to the madness?

Each plant has their own set of peculiarities, what they like and don’t like (such as direct sunlight or do they dig the shade). Get to know them. Don’t overcrowd. Plants like zucchini, they need space to spread out.

A good farmer (or planter) isn’t afraid to get their hands dirty. Feel and understand the type of soil you’ll be working with. Lastly, love. Lots of love.

Potted plant from Chef Juan Zaragoza’s garden

Where do I start? What should I plant them in?

For larger yards, planter boxes work well. If space is limited, you can also use glass or ceramic pots. As mentioned above, green beans could be grown in a small space (like an apartment) because they can be trellised.

Where do you go for more information or good resources?

Locally, I look to Milwaukie Floral and Portland Nursery, where they also offer classes in gardening. I try to support local growers when at all possible.

How do you use your gardening skills for the guests at Hotel deLuxe?

I’ll be looking into a mix of seasonal vegetables and fruits heading into spring and summer. Those that have the ability to come back year after year, like swiss chard. For the bar, we’ll plant edible flowers and citrus to infuse and experiment with cocktails. Oh, and our hives! Can’t forget about the honey our hardworking bee community has been producing. We’ll be looking forward to ways we can incorporate this in our menus in Gracie’s and Driftwood Room.