AUBURN – Caterer Carol Segal grows lots of interesting vegetables and flowers in the organic garden she tends behind her Hatch Road home. Then in September, she hosted a Business After Hours event and saw something in her garden she’d never seen before: men in suits.

“I had announced to people that they could pick fresh flowers in the garden, if they liked,” said Segal, smiling. “Then there they were: flowers in one hand, cell phones in the other.”

Segal’s first foray into hosting an Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce event has led to two more catering gigs and created some buzz for her 6-year-old business, Cookin Carol. Not bad for an operation that doesn’t have a business phone and relies on word-of-mouth marketing and a Web site.

“I get a lot of business from out-of-staters who Google ‘Maine caterers’ and find me,” said Segal, who’s lived at the 1878 farmhouse since 1990. “A lot of the chamber members didn’t know about it.”

The farmhouse and its two barns are connected to 24 acres of land that gently slope up Mount Apatite bordered by a small quarry. The garden occupies two acres of the site, still offering fresh vegetables, herbs and flowers in mid-October. A freshly sowed row of garlic will produce multiple bulbs next spring, while nearby broccoli is sending up their cruciferous clusters for more picking this fall.

The garden provides most of the produce that Segal uses in her catering dishes, from the bright pumpkins that make their way into breads and pies to the aromatic mints she uses in tea.

“I’m always trying to get people to eat their vegetables,” she said. What doesn’t go into her catering dishes ends up in one of her four freezers.

That’s plenty of inventory for a part-time business that she balances with her 3-day-per-week nanny job in Yarmouth. Her catering customers range from recent chi-chi revelers at the Danforth Inn to a pair of 80-somethings celebrating their nuptials, and even a friend who flew Segal in for a 50th birthday bash in Australia.

But within five years she’d like to see her catering business provide enough income to sustain her full time and allow her to create an even bigger garden and to market her organic produce and flowers to local restaurants, florists and retailers. Next up: applying for money to buy a tractor.

“Catering fluctuates so much … with the garden, I’m probably breaking even,” she said. “I’ve done about as much as I can afford.”

This summer she invited people via Craigslist to help tend her garden in exchange for free veggies. Four women responded, one with five children who used the garden as their own personal science lab.

“It was great,” Segal said. “They all helped with the garden and learned where food comes from, how to maintain the soil. I’d love to do more with that.”

She’s already pretty ingenious at bartering. For the past 14 years she’s hosted a gala at Mount Apatite Farm in conjunction with the Great Falls Balloon Festival. The musicians who perform are all paid in homemade pies.

“Next year, I intend to extend it for the whole weekend,” she said. The public is invited to spend the day eating, watching the balloonists from the top of the hill and enjoy the music.

Segal loves cooking for a crowd. It comes from the encouragement she got as a child when, as one of eight siblings, she helped in the kitchen. A lot.

“My mother always let me help and never used recipes, so she’d let me cook whatever I wanted,” Segal said. “If I wanted to add a can of cream of mushroom soup to the American chop suey, that was fine. She made cooking fun.”

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