At Epcot's Flower and Garden Festival, the link between food and plants is stronger than ever

Fresh offerings at the festival include this watermelon salad with pickled onions and feta from Urban Farm Eats.
Fresh offerings at the festival include this watermelon salad with pickled onions and feta from Urban Farm Eats.
Published Apr. 3, 2017

While you're waiting in line for shrimp and grits from the Florida Fresh kitchen at Epcot's International Flower and Garden Festival, it's fun to play Spot the Produce. To your left, you can spy the bright green leaves of sweet potato plants. Next to that, off-white turnips pop up out of the ground. Near the plastic utensil station, almost fully grown pineapples seem ready for picking.

This is no accident.

Eric Darden, who has been with Disney for 30 years as a horticulturist and is currently the festival horticulture manager, said that the placement of what they call "edible landscapes" among the park's outdoor kitchens is increasingly a priority.

The festival, which runs through May 29, has 15 outdoor kitchens this year, each featuring some sort of produce garden filled with plants specifically chosen to complement whatever food is being served. Darden and other horticulturists work with chefs at Epcot to pair the two seamlessly. He said this relationship predates the inclusion of food at the 24-year-old Flower and Garden Festival (the two teams worked together often on the park's Food and Wine Festival in the fall), but that they started getting serious about food plants when outdoor kitchens were added to the flower festival five years ago.

"For several years, it kept coming up. What can we do to make this festival more inclusive? How can we tell a better story? Because we are a storytelling company," Darden said. "And we kept coming back to, if we can add some food plants with the kitchens and tell the whole story, that would be cool."

It's all about the connection between what we eat and where it comes from, something people are more aware of than ever. Darden talks to park guests often as part of his job, and said that for years they have expressed interest in knowing how food grows.

"Any time we do an edible landscape, the attendance at that garden increases dramatically," he said. "It might double or triple the amount of people that come, if you compare a strictly ornamental landscape with one that is edible, too."

As horticulturists, Darden and his team are excited about what they see as a different sort of challenge, adding to the festival's bounty of flowers and plants by incorporating produce and herbs. And as the number of kitchens has increased, the amount of flowers has grown, too, as colorful decoration for the food kiosks.

For Darden, that marriage of pretty flowers and edible plants is also important.

"We almost never do an entirely edible landscape; we like to have flowers everywhere," he said. "And the time is coming, not just at Disney but everywhere, where we are going to stop segmenting our gardening into one or the other. There's no reason you can't do both together."

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The hundreds of horticulturists who work behind the scenes to create elaborate topiaries of Peter Pan and Winnie the Pooh also have grown chickpeas and hops at the park, things you wouldn't normally grow in Florida.

"This was the first year we tried to grow clove," Darden said. "It's a small little tiny plant now, but you might see a clove plant in the festival in five or six years."

One of Epcot's major themes has always been education, as plenty of bored preteens could tell you in the '90s. This is evident everywhere at the flower festival. At the Florida Fresh kitchen, a sign says the Sunshine State is the No. 1 grower of citrus, as other crops grown heavily in Florida surround the walkways, things like radishes and strawberries. Near the Mexico pavilion, there's an assemblage of peppers next to topiaries of Donald Duck's nephews, from serrano to ghost, their heat levels getting more extreme as you move down the line.

That interest in educating guests about growing their own food feels very modern, and an enriching way to go about scarfing down a Chile Relleno de Picadillo.

A standout kitchen this year is Urban Farm Eats, which serves a killer watermelon salad with pickled onions and feta, plus pork tenderloin and a vegetarian "crabless cake," but is even more memorable for its display. There are raised garden beds, rain barrels, a compost bin, an area for "backyard chickens," each prop adorned with tips for doing it yourself at home.

Darden said he thinks it's one of the festival's best displays ever, a concept that developed over time because of feedback from millennial guests in particular. He started hearing from people who wanted to grow produce but lived in an apartment instead of a house with a yard.

"We seldom had young folks asking about these horticulture questions, but that started changing about four or five years ago," Darden said. "They're not interested in gardening like their parents, but they are interested in growing what they're eating. Now we have just as many of them asking how they can grow stuff. And they're not asking about petunias or pansies."

Contact Michelle Stark at Follow @mstark17.