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The Gardens – at Dancing Bear Lodge
Chef Shelley Cooper

Mother and son Gardening Super-Duo, Sharon Oldham (Boss Lady) and Houston Oldham are the master keepers and Gardening masterminds at Dancing Bear lodge. Together they “toil in the soil” from season to season and bring bountiful gifts of fresh, organic produce to Chef Shelley Cooper and her culinary team at the Dancing Bear Appalachian Bistro.
In fact, during your next visit to the Bistro, many of the key components of your dish probably arrived only hours earlier that day, freshly picked from our property gardens!

To be able to provide the kitchen with these bountiful gifts, preparations must be made early in the year for the best possible harvest. Of course, each and every growing year is different, and the Oldham’s must contend with a variety of weather conditions here in East Tennessee and adjust accordingly.

We asked Houston Oldham, who benefits and draws from his formal education in Sustainable Urban Agriculture, What preparations have already happened behind the scenes this year to encourage a healthy harvest?

“Way back in January, the Rocky Top garden had half a dozen raised beds of Kale and Lettuces planted. In the coming weeks, we will put down corn, okra, and other heat loving plants like Asian Melon.

This year, we use using two methods to retain and grow the bionutrient density in the soil. Winter cover crops are a straightforward way to hold soil in place while enriching it with biomass once the grasses and grains are tilled under. This week, we’ve seen a few flowers, like red clover, pop their heads up from the remnants of the winter cover crop that weren’t fully tilled under.

In the Rocky Top Garden, we prepared the soil by adding more compost and topsoil then planting hundreds of bush peas that help replenish nitrogen. The peas were then tilled under 2-4 weeks before planting. Finally, we used ground cover like cotton materials and bales and bales of straw when our seedlings go in the ground to discourage weeds and encourage water retention.”

Houston Oldham

Grilled Mushrooms

“Everyone loves tomatoes. A perfect summer tomato in the final weeks of Spring is a novelty. The Dancing Bear Gardens began its preparation in January when the first tomato seeds were added to peat pots. These seedlings are ready for planting in late March (typically!! What a bad year for early planting 2020 has been!)

We quickly follow with pepper and squash.

Within these three vegetable types, we will grow a dozen or more varieties. So make sure to stop by the Boss Lady Garden behind the Dancing Bean Coffee House and check out our bean tunnels where long beans, green beans, and Asian Melons will be hanging all summer long! “

Sharon Oldham

”My personal appreciation of homegrown foods began in very early childhood with having the exposure to the bounty of the Mississippi Delta and the Blue Ridge Mountains. My grandmothers, aunts, and uncles on both sides of my family were avid organic growers and amazing cooks either out of necessity or sheer passion or both and if they couldn’t grow it they knew who could. Each family member had their specialty, uncle Billy had the best tomatoes, aunt Nancy grew the best eggplant, and so on. So between all my relatives I was always eating fresh, homegrown foods that were tenderly cared for and prepared with love. Thus, I’m fortunate enough to say that my entire life, with few exceptions, I have only eaten high-quality foods. 

This way of living and eating is all I’ve ever known, passed on to me from my ancestors and I realize now that I was so blessed to inherit the God-given gift of my craft. 

When I met Sharon more than 7 years ago it didn’t take long to fall in love with her. She brought a load of tomatoes, squash with blossoms, zucchini, green beans, cucumbers, and freshly laid chicken eggs from her home in Nashville to our new restaurant Terra Mae in Chattanooga. I was overjoyed with the absolute physical beauty, smell, and the taste of perfection. 

Sharon’s calm, gentle demeanor was, even more, a reason I was in awe. She was a super humble, organic gardener that had no idea of the effect the fruits of her labor had on me. Immediately I was taken back to my roots, my childhood, my ancestors. As a chef, it’s deeply humbling and soul-satisfying knowing that I am privileged to create dishes with ingredients that have been so carefully procured by her skilled hands.

“Boss Lady Garden” at Dancing Bear affords me the most precious jewels for my culinary creativity. 

It truly is a labor of love.”

– Executive Chef Shelley Cooper

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