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How Does Your Garden Grow? With Lots of Devotion

Lillian Otani commutes at least twice a week between her home in Canoga Park and her broccoli in Van Nuys.

The last of her cauliflower has been harvested, as has the second planting of cabbage. But her broccoli is just coming into its blue-green own, and the Brussels sprouts must still be deep-watered religiously if they are ever to plump out.

Otani, 32, has tangible proof of her essential optimism. She has a garden. Indeed she cultivates almost 1,000 square feet of admirably friable soil, heavily perfumed with horse manure, in a community garden near the Van Nuys airport.

“I usually have something in the ground year-round,” says Otani, who cans her excess jalapeno peppers and makes catsup from plum tomatoes she has raised from seed.

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Otani knows the value of her verdant plot, but she doesn’t delude herself about its cost.

“It’s definitely not a money-maker,” she says, fully aware that Silver Floss produces sauerkraut far more cost-effectively than she can. On the other hand, it’s not clear that Silver Floss gets the hoot out of the process that Otani does.

She and her boyfriend occasionally go to the garden together and share such cheap thrills as playing in the water as they drench the summer squash. She even likes the muscle-testing task of tilling the soil. As Otani, who is a slim five feet tall, explains, “I’m not that big, and the Rototiller has a tendency to pull me around, but it’s fun.”

Otani discovered the community garden three years ago, when she lived nearby in a house where horses and dogs in the backyard precluded the possibility of tomatoes. She continued to rent her plot (it costs only $30 a year) after she moved to Canoga Park. Some things, she reasons, are worth commuting for, notably fresh-picked corn and a place to go when other people begin to bruise and you want your hands to be busier than your brain.

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Right now, the plants to be featured in Otani’s summer garden are completing their gestation in her backyard greenhouse. She will have bell peppers, tomatoes chosen for their thin skins and small seeds as well as their flavor, basil, cilantro and other herbs, and several varieties of squash.

So far, she hasn’t started any zucchini.

Otani doesn’t actually malign zucchini, a squash so prolific that many of us regard it as the ultimate argument for vegetable contraception. She says only, “I haven’t got around to it yet.”

But Otani has been tending her bean rows long enough to know that you can never grow too little of the stuff. Let even one plant take root, and you soon find your loved ones holding up their crucifixes, trying to ward off your frenzied attempts to get them to eat just one more slice of zucchini bread.

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Otani understands that the garden is a jungle, albeit a Lilliputian one, and doesn’t shy away from the use of force. In the past she occasionally resorted to pesticides to keep tiny food burglars at bay. She thoughtfully stopped that practice when she discovered that a neighboring gardener keeps bees on his plot. Now she uses only natural means, including assault and battery, to counter pests.

Of snails, for example, she says, “If you know where to look for them, you can usually hunt them down and squash them before they become a problem.” (Look under any available cover, she advises, since snails tend to hide out during the day.)

That may sound harsh to someone who has gardened only in the pages of a seed catalogue. But worldly-wise gardeners such as Otani know that the seed catalogues’ airbrushed photos of voluptuous, backlit vegetables bear as little resemblance to real life as centerfolds do to actual females. In the real world, tiny green things with compound eyes on their backsides chomp on your rutabagas and Peter Rabbit does unspeakable things to your Swiss chard.

It only has to happen once, and you find you’re willing to do vengeful things to the intruders that would embarrass the Charles Bronson character in “Death Wish.” But then he never pulled back the husk of an exquisite-looking ear of corn only to find it riddled with corn borers.

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Which is why Otani sets traps for the gophers. “It was hard at first,” she recalls. “But when you know the gophers are there working, and you see all your own hard work going down the hole, it gets easier.”

You bet. Or as we gardeners say, “Farmer MacGregor was right.”

Otani finds herself turning to the garden whenever she’s had a difficult week (she works in the greenhouse at a Northridge nursery). There is something inexplicably curative about kneeling in front of your young plants and narrowing your concerns to the methodical elimination of each weed. The salve of the sun on the back of your neck feels very fine.

As a friend observes, “You find very few suicides among gardeners. If you’ve planted something, you wait for it to come up.”

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That’s the part that Otani likes best. You plant something in the ground that looks like a little rock. And you start to harvest hope long before you get the cucumbers.


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