Homegrown in an urban garden

Watarun Ebihara, in his garden.

Watarun Ebihara poses with Japanese cucumbers in his garden. photo courtesy of Wataru Ebihara

When I was a young kid growing up in my Ohio hometown, I remember how hard my grandfather worked in the garden — shoveling, hoeing, weeding and watering. On a typical humid summer evening, he would leave his muddy shoes outside the door, come inside the house all hot and sweaty, sit by the fan without a shirt, and drink a cold beer from the refrigerator. He would seem very happy and content, though.

Now I live in the concrete matrix called Los Angeles. There isn’t as much space for farmland, but there are still backyards, rooftops, patios and balconies where people live. Ten years ago, my personal venture into “home grown food” started with a small rosemary plant purchased from Home Depot. The plant sat on my sunny apartment balcony where it flourished. We’ve cooked some delicious rosemary chicken with it. But the big idea that started to ignite in my brain was that it might be possible to grow food for a small family even in small yards and containers.

There have been times when I wondered about the quality of the food we eat, and how it affects our overall health. There are contaminants and pesticides; genetic modification to the plants we eat, and I often wonder if even organic is “really” organic. It’s hard to do much about it, though, including the food prices. But if we eat the food that we can actually grow ourselves, that can give us some reassurance.

An Organic Oasis
Today in our modest backyard, we’ve allocated about 100 square feet to our edible organic garden — instead of growing grass. We’ve set up two four-by-four foot raised garden beds, and we’re gradually improving the quality of our soil by amending it with compost. Our yard and kitchen waste goes into a compost bin. I even collect coffee grounds for composting from my workplace that would usually get thrown in the trash. Once, my wife gave me a birthday gift of “rabbit poop” donated by a pet rabbit at the local school. And this went into the compost bin, of course.

We’ve planted a small peach tree, a couple of dwarf Satsuma tangerine trees, a blackberry bush, a variety of herbs — including basil, lemongrass, garlic chives, sage, thyme, oregano, spearmint and peppermint. And yes, our now 10-year-old rosemary bush still grows. We’ve grown romaine lettuce, wild arugula, carrots, bok choy, spinach, broccoli, peas, green beans, strawberries, peppers, cherry tomatoes, Japanese cucumbers, cantaloupe, gaya melons, Japanese eggplants and kabocha (Japanese pumpkin).

During productive months, we can eat salad and vegetables every day entirely from what grows in our backyard — with enough food left over to give away to friends. Last summer, we had a steady stream of cucumbers and tomatoes that lasted well until January. (Yes, this is California.) And our fresh herbs have added flavors to our cooking and anti-aging antioxidants to our diet.

Fresh, Healthy and Solar-Powered
Home gardening provides us with food that’s fresh, healthy, organic, solar-powered and practically free. And to reduce our global carbon footprint, the food is locally grown too — like 30 feet away! You go out there; pick it, and eat it. It’s easier than having to drive to a market for a plastic-packaged food item. Gardening is a simple idea, but somehow many urban dwellers seemed to have acquired a mindset of dependence and passive consumerism, instead of being growers and producers, too. The simple act of gardening is empowering, and provides us food independence, in addition to other benefits.

Child Development Tool
Our backyard garden has been a child development tool and nature school. When our son, Hikaru, was born, we spent a great deal of time at home. From an early age, Hikaru learned where food comes from — in addition to the lives of earthworms, bees, lizards, and other small creatures that inhabit our small ecosystem. He learned about composting and waste recycling, too.

These are often difficult experiences for children living in urban areas. And when a kid can eat a sweet red ripe tomato freshly picked off the vine, there’s less convincing required for a child to eat the fruits and vegetables on his plate. One can’t put a value on the importance of lifetime habits like healthy eating.

Building Community
Gardening and food also forms community. We happily exchange fruits and vegetables with our neighbors. The previous year, our neighborhood created a “green gardeners group” where we exchange seeds and seedlings, organic garden tips and socialize. The group has future plans to be involved with the local community food bank, and projects to educate others about gardening.

I now feel that I understand my grandfather, and why he enjoyed his garden. His enthusiasm left an imprint to a future generation (me), and I wish to pass it on. There’s a personal sense of joy, satisfaction, and accomplishment — even small. When I return home from a stress-filled day working at the office in downtown, I often go out to our backyard garden that’s buzzing with life. I feel the wonder and gratitude to all that this Earth (our home) provides for us. A garden can put it all in perspective.

Wataru Ebihara lives in Los Angeles County with his wife and 6-year-old son. When he’s not in his backyard, he is the IT systems manager at Little Tokyo Service Center.

 

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