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The Seattle Times | Pacific Northwest
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Plant Life Valerie Easton

An Edible Invitation

Thanks to a delicious garden, coffee lovers can eat, drink and be merry

Build something cool and they will come. This could have been Des Rock's motto when he conceived Useless Bay Coffee Co. in Langley on South Whidbey Island. The first time I crowded through the sliding barn-like door with what seemed like half the rest of the town, I was amazed to see European-clad knitwear babies in the arms of women in leather pants, the likes of whom I've never before seen in laid-back Langley.

Rock collaborated with local talent, including architectural firm Flat Rock Productions, metal worker Tim Leonard, artist Buffy Cribbs and landscape architect Ken Philp to make his dream of an original coffee café come true. He asked his team for an aesthetic that was industrial but not cold, funky but not cluttered. He wanted the building to look as if it had stood right here for at least 50 years. The popular little place's attractions drape onto the sidewalk along Second Street, with a luscious edible garden that laps around pathways and patios and out to the street.

The town waited with eager anticipation for the place to open, beguiled by stories of Rock's quest for the BMW of artisanal coffee roasters. Using European brokers, he tracked down a sleek 1950s-era red and silver German roaster that holds pride of place in the little coffeehouse. This is where Rock lovingly roasts the beans, whose grounds he distributes to customers in return for herb and vegetable starts.

It'd be hard to run an errand in Langley without catching the scent of lemon balm or lemon verbena from the burst of plants that spill over a split-rail fence. Passersby on their way to the neighboring post office and library slow down to admire the red Shirley poppies, carpet of lavender-blooming thyme, dill maze and towering corn and sunflowers. When you see the complexity and exuberance of this little garden you realize how rarely we see commercial landscapes with such character.

On a recent visit, it was hard to get to the front door because a little girl had plunked herself down in the midst of the path to taste and smell and pick. Rock hopes customers will taste red currants, pinch a sprig of rosemary, snack on the blueberries. "I encourage people to pick things," he says, adding with a grin, "I took all the rhubarb myself."

Garden collaborator Elaine Michaelides grows most of the plants from seed, including a dill spiral and a flock of furry clary sages that look more fauna than flora. New this spring were fava beans along the fence, where their black-and-white blossoms attracted attention. People stop in their tracks to exclaim over the gigantic silvery cardoons. "Des lets me play out here . . . he encourages me to keep going with it," Michaelides says. She's always wanted to create an ornamental landscape you can eat, and although it does require quite a bit of maintenance, she loves how everyone, especially young people, asks about the plants.

"The garden isn't a fringe thing or an adornment," says Rock. "It's key to what we're doing here." He picks parsley, chives, sage, basil, oregano and mint to use in herbed aioli, arugula for salad and panini. The gardens are trimmed in hedges of lavender and chives, or with rows of purple, green and speckled lettuces.

Rock is surprised at the impact his edible garden has in a town where public landscaping is an art form, and the alleys are full of vines and flowers. It's almost a shock to recognize the changeable beauty of berries, vegetables and herbs growing along the sidewalk. The garden is a sensory pleasure to be enjoyed every day as you drop by the post office, visit City Hall or stop in to grab a coffee.

A customer comes by, shakes Rock's hand and says a heartfelt, "What a blessing you're now open on Sundays!" Rock hurries back to his coffee roasting, tossing his take on the coffee shop's garden over his shoulder: "If it's not a tree, you can eat it."

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "A Pattern Garden." Her e-mail address is valeaston@comcast.net. Jacqueline Koch is a freelance photographer and writer based in Seattle.

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