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The Global Garden: A mission that produced a world of edible adventures

The Global Garden started two years ago with the mission of meeting the people and exploring the cultures of Los Angeles through the prism of what we plant. Now as 2013 comes to an end and I close out this series, I've been thinking back on how the experience has changed what I put into my own garden and subsequently what goes onto my plate.

It began with a rooted hoja santa stalk given to me by a gardener from the Francis Avenue Community Garden in Koreatown. I knew the herb with the huge leaves from my travels in southern Mexico and didn't expect it would survive in my east-facing hillside garden in Echo Park.

But that near-leafless stalk has grown into a mini-grove that shades the walkway. When the greens of summer have gone, I still have something uniquely piquant to add to salads, curries and sauces.

I had a similar experience with ground cherry, a South American native I encountered at Wattles Farm, a community garden in Hollywood. The few cherries I planted have produced successive waves of volunteers -- serendipitous new plants that have sprung up around the yard, thick with tiny tomatillo-like fruit that blends sweet and tart and is as juicy as a cherry tomato, perfect in a pie or a salad.

When I put into the ground Jerusalem artichokes bought from the supermarket produce aisle in midsummer, I wasn't expecting much because the plants were going into a raised bed that got only a few hours of afternoon sun. It was simply an experiment to see what the flowers were like. By November the plants were done, the flowers faded. But then I went digging down around the roots, and I found pounds of 'chokes, fat and pearl-white, perfect for a leek-potato bisque. I left some in the ground and used the other space to grow different varieties of bok choy and arugula that will yield successive harvests from now until summer. They both grow fast and are the most reliable cut-and-come-again crops I've grown.

These are my personal favorites, plants I mention whenever people ask me for suggestions. Lemongrass could be added to that list, both for its culinary and ornamental uses, as could pineapple -- so easy to propagate and visually pleasing.

Others have been harder to realize. After attending the Pitahaya Festival in Irvine in August, I started dozens of my own transplants, dreaming of dragon fruit to come. Most did fine, climbing up fences without support, but just a few flowered, and only one flower produced fruit.

I also discovered a few plants that were already growing in my yard, under-appreciated and impervious to my haphazard gardening. There was the healthy kumquat tree planted sometime in the '60s when it was all the rage; at the tree's feet were yards of snaking purslane ground cover. The towering bush in the center of the yard I thought was a freeway plant turned out to be red amaranth.

If I had the room, I would dedicate some real estate to vines, a blend of the chayote canopy covering Horacio Fuentes' backyard in Wilshire Park and the green wall of passion fruit at the Fountain Avenue Community Garden. They grow well together. And somewhere I also would have to find room for goji berry, bitter melon and bottle gourd.

Thanks to local gardeners, I appreciate even more now the polyglot multiculturalism of L.A. that helps define our culinary character. It goes beyond what inventive chefs can dish up in restaurants or on food trucks.

I'm talking about the buckets of loquat hanging from trees on "Loquat Lane" in Echo Park, the thousands of ripe jujubes drying around a backyard swimming pool in Cerritos, the papalo, huazontle and other wild Meso-American greens at the Stanford-Avalon Community Garden in South L.A.

In the Jardin del Rio community garden of Elysian Valley, Korean gardeners harvest their minori most days for a cleansing tonic. On a quiet cul-de-sac in Diamond Bar, L.A. meets Mumbai at the Growing Home, where you'll find holy basil out front, jamun on the side, and curry leaf, kafir lime and fenugreek in the back. A few miles west, the backyard of former Disney animator Janice Kubo is filled with edibles reminiscent of a childhood in Japan: mitsuba, yuki-no-shita, shiso, chrysanthemum.

In this global lingua franca, where everything has a use somewhere, the definition of "weed" is proudly subjective. The seeds of a wild fennel popping up through the cracks of a parking lot can be sprinkled onto salads while the leaves can be soaked to become a natural dye for wool or home-grown cotton. The pruned limbs of a live oak may not go to a landfill but rather become the home for starter plugs of shiitake mushrooms.

L.A. is a city built by immigrants whose cultural roots show up most obviously in their garden plots, eating locally but growing globally. Motivations vary: health, heritage, memory, taste, beauty, religion, economy, curiosity. Whatever the lure, we can find a big wide world out there beyond the lawn, and you don't need a passport to visit -- just some dirt, sun, water and love.


About the photographs

The photos for this series were taken by Ann Summa, who also happens to be writer Jeff Spurrier's wife. Together they traveled across Southern California to capture people and their plantings in pictures as well as words. An archive of the couple's work is at latimes.com/globalgarden.


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Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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