Adding vegetables to the melting pot
The Washington Post
A small blacktop driveway is the only entryway to the two-acre garden that Boc Ngo started some 35 years ago in the old core of suburban Fairfax County, Virginia. Most of the motorists whizzing past on have no notion of the large and exotic world that lies within.
Before local food was trendy, before ethnic vegetables were chic, before urban agriculture took hold, Ngo was transforming the tired suburban model of lawn and foundation shrubbery into all of those things.
Her brick rambler is typical of the detached homes that sprang up in the Washington suburb of Annandale during the years right after World War II, but the vegetable farm surrounding it is anything but typical. Under the warm breezes and limpid skies of early fall, it seems a sort of hanging garden of old Saigon.
Virtually all of the land is given over to growing edibles, and even within the context of such smallholdings, where intensive cultivation can yield great quantities of produce, the rows of vegetables are unfamiliar. There are no stands of sweet corn, leafy clumps of zucchini or rows of Swiss chard.
Instead, the visitor finds a late-season lushness of truly exotic fare. There is a hedge of elephant ears — taro — that is harvested for its leaf stalks.
Elsewhere, a lot of real estate is given over to growing and cutting jute. The same plant that, mature and fibrous, provides the material for burlap is harvested young for a leafy delicacy. Another patch of rich soil is devoted to Vietnamese cilantro, actually a knotweed with a piquant flavor and known to its devotees as rau ram.
Broad plantings of sweet potatoes have small leaves, kept finely textured by their constant harvest as a leafy green. Taking the leaves comes at a cost of the tuber harvest.
The most striking piece of garden architecture is a sturdy wooden arbor that extends around the perimeter of the property for hundreds of feet. This supports a range of Asian gourds and squash.
Loofa gourds are taken young — 12 to 15 inches or so — so they wind up in the pot rather than as the spongelike back-scrubbers they become when left to mature. Ngo also collects baby Asian pumpkins, which are the size of rutabagas, pale green, and used fresh for various dishes. The large winter melon is long and squat and ripens a deep blue-green. Once it develops its white waxy coat, it can be stored for several weeks before using.
All these and more are collected in the field daily and kept in covered boxes under the shade of a central white shelter where the produce is weighed and sold to a small but steady stream of customers, most of them originally from Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East or sub-Saharan Africa. The farm is located at 3251 Annandale Rd., south of Falls Church.
The boxes contain such vegetables as the crunchy-leafed Malabar spinach, the arrow-shaped water spinach (neither of them true spinach) and red leaf amaranth. Bitter melon is grown for both its leaves and knobbly elongated fruit the size of immature cucumbers, and Ngo devotes an entirely separate arbor to its cultivation.
Some things are familiar — mint and cilantro and lettuce, for example, but not much else. I came across a customer from Alexandria, Va., Landai Rees, who emigrated years ago from Vietnam.
“These gourds are food for soup, for saute,” she said, examining the produce. For the past 18 years, she has come here regularly to find fresh ingredients for soups, spring rolls and other Vietnamese dishes. For all Ngo’s customers from the tropical south, these crops offer a taste of home, or at least of childhood.
In the community garden where I grow veggies from my own Western European past, I do the same thing, but with parsnips, gooseberries and scarlet runner beans. Other gardeners around me grow stuff from their native tropics, including bitter melon, shiso and amaranth. Gardens, thus, are the true American melting pot.
Where gardeners gather, there are gripes about the season: too wet, too dry, too cold and the rest. But we should remind ourselves that in the mid-Atlantic we are fortunate in having a confluence of climates. Because Ngo’s garden focuses on the tropical veggies of her native South Vietnam, she will be winding up by the end of the month. But from China, Korea and Japan, there are a host of cool-season Asian vegetables, particularly greens, that enrich and extend the autumn garden (especially if sown a month ago). These are more mainstream than the tropical vegetables. It may have started with bok choy, but we now grow such common stuff as Asian mustard greens, tatsoi and Chinese cabbages. The window on sowing these things is closing fast, but greens that are stunted by December cold can spring back in March.
I recently sowed mustard greens that will sprout quickly and provide salad material until Thanksgiving and beyond, especially if I bother to grow them under row covers.
Luis Marmol, a horticulturist at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, said he just harvested baby bok choy three weeks after it sprouted and that a second crop would be feasible. The nights are cooling, but the soil is toasty warm. He sowed some mizuna last week that he plans to harvest in early November, along with some napa, or Chinese cabbage.
The thing is, why fold your tent in early fall when we could have another eight weeks or so of productive cultivation? That’s the beauty of a gardening life. You never know what’s around the next corner: a balmy autumn or perhaps even a slice of Indochina in the midst of suburbia.
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