Posts tagged gardens

Our backyard, from about a year and a half ago, lush after the autumn rain. Photo: Gregory Han

The concept of the garden has loomed heavily on my mind lately. This is in no small part because my wife and I have been working diligently in reshaping and remediating our minute slice of Los Angeles land from the serpentine invasion of ivy, grasses, and the unabating appearance of Ailanthus altissima (anything but a tree of heaven in my book). Dreams of reconstructing an interpretation of something closer to the original landscape that once blanketed Mt. Washington guides every swing of the mattock, advises each planting, directs every placement of rock. We’ve collected a small library dedicated to gardening respectful of the existing environment and ecosystem, attempting to learn how to work with the land instead of against it. It’s a humbling process of perpetual attempt and failure…heavy on the failure.

Every stone and rock pulled from our backyard is reused to create paths or protect erosion. Photo: Gregory Han

Musings about the garden also weave in and out of my daily thoughts in due part to a healthy dose of online series like the Nowness Great Gardens videos, NHK’s At Home with Venetia in Kyoto, and books like Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher’s Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change. Even my playlist has been seeded to provoke botanical action. If all those fail to tempt, the views from my home office glimpsing out toward our side and backyard hillside are always enough to remind me there’s work to be done.

Gardening in our hillside section of Mt. Washington is regularly an archeological affair, with remnants of previous generations revealed within the dirt.

With sandstone and rock and embedded like nuts in nougat, our steep clay soil hillside provides a difficult challenge, the stingy canyon sunlight even more so. Erosion is perpetually a concern, the invasive species relentless, and the sunlight passes with a speed that results in tall plants with supermodel stalks. Even so, work in the backyard is always satisfying, constantly educating. Where navigating a mouse and pecking at a keyboard barely registers as activity, swinging a pick axe, shoveling dirt, shouldering rocks, and arranging plants with hand in soil feels like a sort of homecoming, an earthly pleasure satiating the innate desires to shape, nurture, and move.

Our greatest successes reveal themselves when our efforts result in the appearance of more life local to Los Angeles. Native and migrating insects, birds, the occasional foraging mammals, and even rarer amphibian all play a part as friends or foes to our plans. Connections between flora and fauna unfold at every corner, more exciting than any Game of Thrones episode (with equal likelihood of sex and violence to witness).

“We have increasingly less and less control of what is going on out there, and in our gardens we can make the sort of world we that we wished lived in.” – Anna Pavord, author of The Tulip.

A path along the Cedars Sinai Plaza Healing Gardens designed by AHBE Landscape Architects. Photo: ©

In Rebecca Solnit’s “Wanderlust: A History of Walking“,  architects Charles W. Moore (who worked on my favorite residential stretch of California coast, Sea Ranch (1963) with landscape architect Lawrence Halprin), William J. Mitchell, and William Turnbull’s express a poetic affinity for the garden path: “a thread of a plot, connecting moments and incidents into a narrative. The narrative structure might be a simple chain of events with a beginning, middle, and end. It might be embellished with diversions, digressions, and picaresque twists, be accompanied by parallel ways (subplots), or deceptively fork into blind alleys like the althernative scenerios explored in a detective novel.”

It’s a comforting thought, one I try to remember as I wipe away the sweat while extracting yet another large sandstone from the clay soil – a barbaric dentist armed with gardening tools. Slowly a garden path is forming, this personal novel of our backyard being written. But where writing an article, poem, or novel eventually concludes with the final page punctuated with a period, the pages of a garden disappear quickly to be rewritten again with every passing season…a lifetime of writing chapters, with unimaginable pages and stories to spring forth, most we’ll never be around to ever read.






As a child of Southern California, I used to envy those Americans who were able to spent cold, snowy winters inside by a fire, thoughtfully combing through seed catalogs and planning for their spring season planting. Our family would also wait to plant in spring, but in typical temperate climate Southern California fashion, we’d seed our garden with our usual tomatoes and strawberries that always provided plentiful summer harvests.


I find it comforting seed companies still print and mail out their catalogs via the old fashioned United States Postal Service. I enjoy the color catalogs filled with photos of beautiful vegetables and herbs. These days, I imagine the recipes we could make using the fresh bounty of produce promised within these seed catalog pages.


Currently growing in our four raised kitchen beds: 3 puny French tarragon and thyme plants, a healthy low shrub of rosemary, and some seedling snap peas I have on hacked supports (i.e. an inverted tomato cage with a right-side up tomato cage). The herbs are perennials, while the snap peas are what I imagine as the flavorful embodiment of spring – fresh, crunchy, earthy. My large pomegranate shrub stands bare (see: grenadine recipe), while our Dwarf Meyer Lemon tree –shown on the right – is laden with fruit, perfect for making homemade limoncello!

Our ten-year old daughter voiced a request for us to plant artichokes, one of her favorite vegetables. As glad as I am for her affinity for veggies, artichokes are large plant that result in only a few edible pieces. I decided this was an unsound choice for our kitchen garden, considering the limited real estate of our four 3’ x 8’ raised bed gardens. My goal is for high yield, small footprint plants so we can grow many plants of produce that we really enjoy eating, including zucchini, tomatoes, and peas. Decorative plants such as sunflowers and pumpkins are also welcome, but they really need to have high aesthetic or nostalgic value to go in with the edibles.

After combing through this year’s seed catalogs, I am inspired to plant the following plants: jack-o-lanterns of different sizes for a varied Halloween display; small cucumbers for pickling; crimson, magenta, and gold sunflowers for their floral beauty and the food they provide for both our family and the local wildlife ( last year a dozen birthday party guests witnessed a squirrel scampering up some large sunflowers we had grown to eat through the stalk and cart off the seed head!); hot colored zinnias for their lovely hues; garlic and shallots for menu flavoring; zucchini for pancakes (see recipe below) and old fashioned zucchini quick bread; kale for green juices; and as many different types of tomatoes that will fit for a variety of tasty treats in late summer!


Depending upon the success of our spring plantings, we’re hoping to enjoy the bounties of our garden with the following recipes in a few months:

BX0214_zucchini-pancakes_s4x3Ina Garten’s Zucchini cakes: an easy recipe which only takes 20 minutes from start to finish, requiring only 4 minutes cooking per pancake (the recipe yields ten 3-inch pancakes).

Tomatoes with salt

  • Pick warm, ripe tomatoes off vine on a hot summer afternoon.
  • Rinse off with a small amount of water from the garden hose.
  • Slice tomato and sprinkle cut surface with salt.
  • Devour. Lick up juices from chin and try not to grin.

Sugar snap peas

  • Remove ripe seed pods with stem from vine.
  • Rinse off with small amount of water from the garden hose.
  • Devour pod and peas. Savor the taste of spring!

The San Bernardino mountains as a backdrop of the once expansive citrus groves of Southern California. Image: David Boulé, The Orange and the Dream of California

The San Bernardino mountains as a backdrop of the once expansive citrus groves of Southern California. Image: David Boulé, The Orange and the Dream of California

Edible gardening has been a lifelong passion. I distinctly remember the sweet smell of citrus blossoms and the resulting fruit grown in my grandparents’ backyard in San Bernardino when I was a child. Every summer my parents cultivated homegrown tomatoes in our Orange County suburban backyard, and when I left California to study landscape architecture at the University of Washington in Seattle, my master’s thesis was about the landscape changes created by, and for, the once expansive citrus groves in Riverside, CA.

My passion for edible gardens continues on. We’ve planted citrus trees in our yard which we enjoy all year long, and we’ve cultivated various edible plants, including herbs, veggies, and fruit, in our raised beds. Our most prized plant is a Dwarf Meyer Lemon my parents gave us when we purchased our house.

As a pragmatist, I love that edible gardening provides so many benefits: flowers for nectar for the bees and hummingbirds, shade for birds trying to beat the heat, and of course the edible fruit, leaves, or vegetables for our enjoyment and consumption.

Photo: Jennifer Salazar

Photo: Jennifer Salazar

adam_and_eve_xlargeOne of my favorite plants is currently in season: the pomegranate. Punica granatum is a large, multi-stem, spiny sprawling shrub with origins in current day Iran. The name is taken from the Latin term pomum, or “apple”, and granatum meaning “seeded.” Lore has it that it was this plant, not the apple as is popularly believed, which was the true forbidden fruit eaten by Eve in the biblical Garden of Eden.

Pomegranate leaves grow opposite, or subopposite in arrangement, while the shrub’s flowers are bright red and tubular. But it is for its incredibly wonderful edible fruit (technically a very large berry) that the plant is most coveted. Inside, hundreds or more delicious tart seeds are enclosed within each fruit.


Extracting the seeds requires pounding on the skin of a halved section of the fruit with a wooden spoon until the seeds are dislodged, ideally, but never predictably into a large waiting bowl. Another technique is placing the cut fruit under water, carefully prying the prized seeds from the bitter white pith that holds each piece securely. Of course, no matter the technique, pomegranate juice stains everything, so a quick wipe up is necessary in the kitchen after each errant squirt of juice! Not an easy process, for sure, but the delicious reward always makes the efforts and mess worth the trouble.


Besides using the seeds on a salad with goat cheese and sunflower seeds, my favorite pomegranate recipe is from Kevin West’s cookbook, Saving the Season. Grenadine is the sweet liquid made from the seeds most famously used in making a Shirley Temple mixed drink. The beloved favorite beverage of my own childhood is now a favorite of my own young daughter. Here’s bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s 4-ingredient recipe:


  • 2 cups fresh pomegranate juice (approximately two large pomegranates) or bottled 100% pomegranate juice
  • 2 cups unbleached sugar
  • 2 oz pomegranate molasses
  • 1 tsp orange blossom water
  • Heat juice slightly, just enough to allow other ingredients to dissolve easily. Stir in remaining ingredients, allow to cool, and bottle.

I also want to try using the grenadine in other ways. Seems to me like the rich syrup of my favorite autumn fruit would be a good substitute for balsamic vinegar in some recipes. I will need to give it a try…

A month ago I posted how my wife and I use water gathered while waiting for the shower to warm up to feed our front yard vegetables garden. I wanted to share as an update that my garden has successfully produced several zucchini casseroles and way too many tomato salads. In other words, our bath water was used well.

However, there is one garden feature in the backyard that is exempt from bath water for refilling: our birdy bath. We give ourselves permission to fill up our bird bath using potable water once a week, all in the hopes of attracting the local bird population for us to observe. My wife has been a bird lover since her childhood in Hawaii, and needless to say, our garden is filled with an assortment of wild bird attractors. Bird feeders, bird houses and our bird bath all together make for a fun way to observe all sorts of wild bird species, including finches, hummingbird, sparrows, doves, and even the scorned pigeons and crows. We even get an occasional blue jay when we put out peanuts. But our bird bath is a reminder how precious water is to life, whether winged or not.

Kazuaki Okitsu teaching at his natural farm in Shikoku, Japan. Photo: Patrick M. Lydon

Kazuaki Okitsu teaching at his natural farm in Shikoku, Japan. Photo: Patrick M. Lydon