Feed the Soil: Former news anchor Wendy Tokuda’s passion for restorative agriculture

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Former KPIX-TV News anchor Wendy Tokuda, working on kale. photo by Kristen Murakoshi

Former KPIX-TV News anchor Wendy Tokuda’s planter box includes the starts of seeds, showing part of Tokuda‘s process of growing from seed; these starts will later be transplanted to beds or containers. photos by Kristen Murakoshi

OAKLAND, Calif. — If not for the concrete driveway leading up to her house, one might mistake Wendy Tokuda’s garden as part of the native Oakland, Calif. landscape. It’s a quiet community of coyote brush, Ceanothus, coffeeberry and flowering currants beneath stands of Redwoods and bay laurels. Monkeyflowers nod and drifts of poppies move with the breeze, their satiny petals shimmering.

By the standards of most American yards, Tokuda’s garden might be lacking — there are no expansive swaths of green lawn set off by exotic flowers. Tokuda is most familiar to the Japanese American community as a beloved Bay Area anchorwoman, renowned for a 30-year news career, but her choice to plant an exclusively native California yard and raise vegetables organically has not only made her a garden outlier, but an impactful and knowledgeable steward of the land.

Tokuda has long been a fierce water conservationist, running a garden hose from the upstairs tub outside to water the ornamental plants, and advocating to always feed the soil. This belief in building strength below the surface extends to the ways in which she cultivated interpersonal relationships. Even after retiring from anchoring the nightly news from KPIX-TV, she continued mentoring in profoundly deep ways by co-founding the nonprofit television program, “Students Rising Above,” supporting children from high-risk upbringings with scholarships and other financial aid.

Tokuda grew up in Seattle, the daughter of a pharmacist who spent every moment of his free time either on the water fishing, or in the forest, foraging. She vividly remembers walking softly through forests, searching the duff for prized matsutake and chanterelle mushrooms and fiddlehead ferns. Or harvesting young sweet coltsfoot (fuki), which was soaked in water with baking soda to remove the plant’s astringency, before eaten over hot gohan (rice). Summertime meant gathering native blackberries, picking watercress, and digging for clams, collecting mussels and netting crawfish.

As early as childhood, Tokuda saw evidence of the ecological damage humans were wreaking on the wild spaces that were sacred to her. One year, they might return to a favorite blackberry patch only to discover that someone had built a subdivision over it, or witness how overharvesting clams would decimate an entire population of the shellfish.

As a young woman, Tokuda moved to the Bay Area and plunged into her work. She got married and had two daughters, but always found herself watching the skies for familiar birds. It wasn’t until she and her family had settled in Berkeley that she was able to rekindle her relationship to the Earth. She committed herself to an organic garden, shunning pesticides and herbicides, mulching extensively with lawn clippings and leaves, rigorously composting, and planting cover crops to add nitrogen to the soil. Tokuda uses practices like blanketing the beds with nitrogen rich, alfalfa hay to retain moisture in the soil, composting, employing a gray water system into the roses, and diverting rain gutters into the garden.

“After a storm, you can see the water rolling off other people’s hardpan soil, soil that’s dead,” she explained. “You’re feeding the soil. The soil needs to be porous, like chocolate cake, full of organic matter and able to absorb water.”

Globally, soils constitute a carbon repository nearly three times larger than the amount of carbon stored in all the plants on Earth. Understanding the importance of healthy soil begins with understanding that soil isn’t an inert matter, but a diverse community built of billions of microbes which can digest carbon on a steady diet of compost, mulch, and plant roots, and store it beneath the soil’s surface. With climate change, she notices that gardening is not as predictable as it was 10 or 20 years ago. “We always grow tomatillos, but last year these big plants grew but it never properly fruited. We had small tomatillos the size of marbles. One week we’re frying, the next week, freezing.”

Once her children had grown, Tokuda’s dedication to restorative agriculture and ecological restoration spilled out of her garden and into the surrounding hills.

“There are misconceptions of wild land,” she says. “That it will take care of itself. Stewardship of the land is never ending.”

Former KPIX-TV News anchor Wendy Tokuda, working on kale. photo by Kristen Murakoshi

To that point, she has become a certified California naturalist, partaking in week-long courses through the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources. Her restoration work focuses on removing exotic species in areas where high concentrations of native species persist, “or as my daughter Mikka calls it, ‘weeding the forest.’” She volunteers for the Friends of Sausal Creek’s work parties in East Bay regional parks to haul trash and remove French broom, Algerian ivy, thistle, poison hemlock, in part to restore native ecology, but to also clear dense plant growth that create terrifying fire hazards.

As she prepares her vegetable beds to transition from winter to summer crops, the garden is radiant. Her shungiku chrysanthemum and nappa, grown from Kitazawa Seed Company seeds, are thriving, young Walla Walla onions thrust up from the Earth, and bees swarm over the Meyer lemon tree, a froth of intoxicating blossoms and ripe fruit.

“Gardening and restoration work is an affliction, a meditation, you lean into it.” she says. “There are no heavy thoughts, I just move with the rhythm of the earth, become one with it. I lose track of time when I’m out pulling invasives and don’t realize how long I’ve been out until I get a call from (my husband) John. ‘It’s dark. You need to come home.’”

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Composting 101:

An off-the-ground composter
photo by Kristen Murakoshi

Kitchen and food scraps and yard waste together currently make up 30 percent of what we throw away weekly.

For the beginning composter, it is recommended to get an off-the-ground composter that is contained and rat proof.

A rotating composter mixes everything up easily and gets air into the decomposing matter.

It’s good to have a balanced ratio of green matter (kitchen scraps) to get it going and brown matter like dead leaves to absorb liquids.

Once the compost has achieved the right balance and temperature, it should break down very quickly, producing garden ready soil.

 

Tokuda’s recommended gardening resources:
Kitazawa Seeds for Asian vegetable seeds
https://www.kitazawaseed.com

Friends of Sausal Creek for restoration
https://www.sausalcreek.org

“Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants,” by Doug Tallamy
https://www.workman.com/products/bringing-nature-home

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