They found the home listing in the PennySaver, of all places. Todd Porter and Diane Cu barely glanced at the interior of the run-down three-bedroom, two-bathroom house when they arrived for a walk-through, and instead they headed straight to the sprawling backyard overgrown with brush and suffocated by a giant pine.
“We looked at each other and said, ‘This is it,’” Porter recalled.
The Costa Mesa backyard wasn’t neat or squared off like Southern California yards are supposed to be. Instead, the 11,000-square-foot lot was a jagged, oddly shaped U. It was perfect for the couple’s plans: To carve out a quiet oasis where they could live a garden-to-plate lifestyle.
They didn’t know it then, but that decision made a decade ago to grow what they eat and eat what they grow transformed not only that neglected backyard but their careers as well.
The couple — he a former restaurant manager from Oregon, she a Vietnamese immigrant with medical school aspirations — have since become professional food photographers. They also write the popular food and gardening blog White on Rice Couple, which started as a creative outlet to document their DIY backyard adventures.
The blog also led to their new cookbook, “Bountiful: Recipes Inspired by Our Garden.”
“We weren’t looking for this career, it found us,” Cu said.
The couple regularly entertains, often hosting food bloggers from Los Angeles and Orange counties and beyond.
“What I love about it is getting involved in the process,” said Jaden Hair, the Steamy Kitchen food personality and cookbook author who recently visited from Florida. “You go into the yard and pick the herbs, the vegetables, and then come into the kitchen and help. Everything is so fresh. They make you feel like family.”
After much trial and error, the backyard has become a meditative collection of raised planters and garden beds, trellises and archways. Porter said he had to allow the flow of the yard to reveal itself, based partly on how people naturally gathered during parties. In the early planning stages, he used hoses as stand-ins for stone pathways and kept fruit trees in pots so he could shift the layout until it just seemed right.
In summer the garden has two dozen varieties of tomato plants and at least six kinds of chiles — a kind of instant salsa garden. This time of year, the harvest begins to shift toward beets, onions and turnips that should be ready for plucking in January and February. More than three dozen fruits trees and vines tend toward the exotic: three varieties of dragon fruit. Star and passion fruits. White peaches, Nectaplums, Pluots and pomegranate. Citrus trees abound: yuzu, Oroblanco, Satsuma, blood orange, Meyer and Eureka lemon, and Buddha’s hand.
The garden’s bounty dictates the menu, starting with cocktails dreamed up on the fly, accented with slivers of fruit still warm from the sun. The couple entertains at a weathered wooden table set out on the grass. Guests never leave empty-handed, taking home a handful of cherry tomatoes, a just-plucked plum — whatever is bursting with flavor at that moment.
“There’s something special about being able to grow what you eat and share it,” Cu said. One thing they cannot seem to grow? Avocados.
“We’ve killed off four trees,” Porter said. “We’re on our fifth one now.”
There’s no sense of frustration, however. Just a gardener’s curiosity.
“Anytime we’re struggling, we’re learning,” he said. “It’s a puzzle to solve.”