How a Barrington Man Transformed His Lawn Into a Bountiful Garden
Daniel Penengo shows off his beautiful yard and shares a homegrown cast-iron eggplant recipe.
Tucked into Barrington’s Bay Spring neighborhood is a modest house where almost everything in the yard — from the tomatoes, cherries and potatoes to the blackberries, corn and rye — is edible.
This lush vision in green is the work of Daniel Penengo, who in just two short years has transformed a 3,000-square-foot yard into his vision of paradise called “Little Uruguay,” a nod to his native country and to an easier, more sustainable way of life.
“Everybody likes to eat food. But very few people are interested in growing it,” he says. “Having a garden makes you really appreciate the work that goes into growing food. Especially in these smaller homes, like these 5,000-square-foot lots, it’s amazing what you can grow.”
The journey began in July 2020, when Penengo purchased the house, where he lives with his six-year-old daughter, River, his partner, Margarita Robledo, and her son Daniel, fifteen. It was your stereotypical suburban home with the requisite lawn.
At the time, Penengo was transitioning away from his twenty-year career in education, most recently teaching literature at St. Andrew’s School in Barrington.
“I just couldn’t be in the classroom anymore, especially during COVID,” he says. “Here, I was outside all the time, and this garden was such a remedy.”
He started by laying pieces of broken fencing over the lawn to kill the grass and planting elderberry shrubs near the back fence.
He found seeds anywhere he could: Hungarian pepper seeds came via the Providence Seed Library, a lending library for seeds at the Community Libraries of Providence. Potato and leek seeds came from someone he helped with composting. Italian hot pepper seeds came from friends, and the garlic is all his own — he’s been growing the bulbs for more than a decade.
In a pile of sand that had once been a cesspool, he planted the three sisters: corn, squash and Cherokee black beans, plants traditionally grown together by Native American tribes.
By summer 2022, Penengo had planted more than eighty types of vegetables, fruits, herbs, trees and cover crops on his plot of land. Most of the bounty is used for family meals, pickled, conserved, turned into tinctures and sauces or left at the side of the road for lucky neighbors.
River’s favorite are the golden raspberries that nearly burst in your mouth they’re so full of juice.
Along the way, Penengo founded Digging Education, where he designs and builds edible landscapes and gardens for homeowners, businesses, schools and municipalities. He also coordinates the education and wellness programs at Johnston’s Gather Farm, where he’s known as Farmer Dan.
He’s a big proponent of using regenerative methods in his garden; nourishing the soil naturally instead of using chemical fertilizers and insecticides. He also tries to capture as much water as possible to put back into the soil. In fact, during last summer’s dry spell he spent a month in Spain with his family, with no one tending to or watering the garden.
“We came back and it was like a jungle,” he says. “I was actually a little worried.”
But that’s what happens when you care for a garden organically, he says:
Crop covers provide shade and nourishment, and the plants all work together to create a sense of harmony.
But that’s not to say everything is a success. Penengo keeps detailed drawings and journals about what thrives in the garden and what doesn’t.
“My garden is like a test. I do a lot of trials of plants and seeds and planting things in different locations,” he says. “This looks nothing like it looked like last year. So you switch it around — everything’s always in a state of motion.”
His goal is to teach homeowners and landscapers about all the possibilities a home’s yard holds. Right now, he says, yards are mostly an afterthought — mostly something sprinkled with a whole lot of grass and a few plants.
Garden-wise, he’d also like to add some chickens and ducks into the mix, as well as asparagus. That’s the only vegetable he can think of that he’s lacking.
One thing he doesn’t miss is the nine-to-five grind. Having his feet in the dirt, growing food to nourish his family and community, and teaching others to lead a more sustainable way of life is his passion.
“I don’t want to work all day in an office. I want to be outside — I want to grow food,” he says. “You can make it work; you have be resourceful, frugal. It was a big shift for me from having a consistent paycheck, health insurance and all that kind of stuff. But at the end of the day, doing what you love is so important.”
Here’s just a sampling of the eighty-plus items Penengo has grown in his yard.
Red Russian kale | Green Globe artichokes | Winter Bloomsdale spinach | Snow peas | Cilantro | Curly parsley | Basil (Genovese and Thai) | Oxford Heart tomatoes | Poblano peppers | Thai green eggplants | Heirloom radishes (daikon and salad) | Red Cored Chantenay carrots | Arugula | Bok choy | Leeks | Cipollini Borettana onions | Heirloom garlic | Heirloom fennel | DiSicilia violet cauliflower | Marona bush beans | Bantam sweet corn | Minnesota Midget melons | Buttercup squash | Cherokee black beans | Sunflowers | Elderberries | Thornless blackberries | Golden raspberries | Blueberries | Apple, pear, plum, cherry and peach trees | Lemon balm | Eucalyptus | Spearmint | Sage | Lavender | Bee balm | Marjoram | Oats | Rye | Clover
(Cooked over an open fire)
Penengo uses his garden’s bounty to make this hearty and simple dish.
4 tbsp olive oil
2-6 garlic cloves, minced
1-2 onions, diced
1-2 carrots, diced
1-2 potatoes, sliced
1 eggplant, cubed
2-4 peppers, hot or mild,
6-8 cherry tomatoes
3-6 basil leaves
1 stem of thyme leaves
1 stem of marjoram leaves
Salt to taste
Heat pan on medium to medium-high heat. Add olive oil, garlic, onions, carrots, potatoes, eggplant, peppers and cherry tomatoes. Cover. Stir every few minutes until potatoes soften.
Add herbs, leaves and flowers and stir.
Add condiments as desired (half a lime goes well with this dish) and salt to taste.
Total cooking time: 25-35 minutes.