Friday, April 25, 2014

Portraits in a Garden: Rosa Leon and Blaise Delacroix

Loretta Allison, Spade and Seeds, and Christina Wenger, A Thinking Stomach, have set out to find gardeners who can teach us how to live better in our outdoor spaces. Home gardeners who have designed their own spaces—large or small—in ways that feed their homes and their spirits draw us to them. We figure we’re hungry to learn from them, so you might be also. Join us in our occasional series as we explore their spaces.

Text by Christina Wenger
Photography by Paul Delmont
Art Direction by Loretta Allison

Slender Blaise leans back, correcting Rosa. “No, I didn’t think I liked eggplant back then. But, I was trying to impress you, and when you asked me if I wanted us to start seeing more of each other, I told you, ‘I already planted the eggplant.’” Rosa grins. That version of their story works for her. Their garden is their story; their garden is the two of them.

It’s hidden behind an unkempt hedge, their garden. From the street, a passerby can see the pointed corners of an old house spying over the bushes, but not much else. Blaise Delacroix and Rosa Leon have a magical world behind that hedge.

The house itself was built in 1904, but even before the house, the original owners of the quarter acre property built in 1895 a foundation-less cabin to live in while the house went up. The old buildings carry a presence with them that old buildings everywhere do—a whisper of stories, a creak of wisdom. Being there feels like being somewhere I’ve read about in a place far away. Little snippets of Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms echo in the pecan tree branches; the sloping views down the hills evoke descriptions of Rome from James’s Portrait of a Lady. But this isn’t a garden built solely for beauty, in which it is rich, but it is the source of scent, of flavor, of food, of income.

“It all started with an attempt to recycle,” Rosa tells me. She had lost her job as a chemist at a large, local scientific company, and was looking for something to do to earn money. Blaise had come home from working on a special effects film project with gallons of almost pristine soybean oil that he had used to create a moody, darkly reflective set. Yet, now this oil had lost its use for film, and no one wanted to eat huge vats of used soybean oil; the waste inspired Rosa—soap! Her first soaps used up that oil, along with scents, colors, and textures from her extensive herb gardens. Nowadays, Rosa avoids soy oil, and bases her soaps on more local ingredients—goat milk and beer, to name a few—but still relies on her garden to provide much of what makes her products special. She also blends homegrown herbal teas and various other cosmetics. At local farmers markets and soon online, Rosa and Blaise sell what they grow and create under the name Pine Street Products.

Skirting around the front steps of the old house are winter-bare rose canes, fluffed up with crinolines of herbs of all sorts: thymes, Syrian oregano, Egyptian walking onions, nettles. There’s rosemary everywhere. Later in the spring, the yard must buzz with flowers and bees. Throughout the front yard, in no recognizable pattern, grow citrus trees and vegetables in raised beds. Along the side of the house lives a cast of plant-characters: the too-tall pecan tree, fava beans falling drunkenly all over themselves, sharp-elbowed peach trees, and silver-shouldered Calimyrna figs.

In the back are more raised vegetable beds. The couple’s two small dogs mill around our feet and between the beds. One of them, a veggie lover, will crawl into a bed when the carrots mature and start snacking away, if Rosa and Blaise aren’t vigilant. Planted among the vegetables are more herbs for the soaps and teas: feverfew, woad, nasturtiums, and lots of calendulas. Blaise says he’s started seeds for a special variety of calendula, “High either in the calen or in the dula, whatever it is that makes calendula do its thing.” When the flowers bloom, Rosa collects the petals, dries them, and steeps them in olive or almond oil to create massage oils.

While we stand in the sunny backyard, several monarchs flutter through, reflecting the orange of the loaded Minneola tree. We talk about gardens and food. Blaise tells me about the chayote—which he calls mirliton—that grew in his hometown New Orleans. “If someone grows a mirliton on either end of the block and you live in the middle, you don’t need your
own vines—they’ll come to you.” He grew up eating them steamed and sliced sideways, the inside scooped out and mixed with onion, garlic, green peppers, crab meat, and shrimp, the mixture of which was then stuffed back into the shell. Rosa tries to keep to a vegan diet though, so now they’ll stuff them with saffron rice. Or, they’ll substitute young fruit for green papaya in a Thai salad, a recipe they both love. Their current vine grows in the summer over a patio, through a bay leaf tree, and in the peak of its growing season, along an elevated trellis across the yard.

“Every season has a joy,” says Rosa, when I ask what their garden favorites are. Blaise adds, “The star of the season is never what you plan on. It’s always a surprise.” But, then both get specific. “Tomatoes,” says Blaise; “Artichokes,” Rosa. Evidence of her love for artichokes is all over the yard, for the seafoam ballgowns of the thistle relative tower in various corners, ready to make moues at each other behind silver-leafed fans later in the spring. Rosa divides suckers—clones of the parent plant—off the artichoke plants that perform best, and plants them wherever there’s space.  

The couple invites me inside for a slice of Blaise’s king cake, spattered the traditional Mardi Gras colors with berry puree, candied orange peels, and mint leaves. One slice becomes two as we talk at the dining table. Behind me, a large cabinet is full of jars stuffed with herbs, dried chayote leaves, dried citrus rounds, calendula petals, all the homegrown ingredients of soaps, oils, and teas. If a laptop weren’t sitting in a nearby corner, I could be sitting in the house a hundred years ago.

Rosa tells me that Blaise has changed his mind about eggplant. Now, she serves it stuffed with equal amounts of white miso paste and minced fresh ginger, with an added touch of sesame oil, then broiled until a little caramelized. Says Blaise, “It’s really good.”

Takeaways From Rosa and Blaise’s Garden:
  • Pay attention to your irrigation and plan it thoughtfully. Mistakes in your irrigation can cost money and lost plants. Additionally, consider what you can and should spend on water and don’t plant what will require more than you can afford.
  • Use creeping edible herbs as groundcovers among your ornamentals. Tangle up your food and beauty.
  • Don’t bite off more work than you can chew; think carefully about how much time you really have and are willing to spend on maintaining the garden. The garden isn’t a one-shot deal, but needs constant work.
  • Plant by seed—it’s more cost efficient and allows for interesting diversity—but choose local seeds or seeds from climates similar to our own.


       

5 comments:

Nora said...

I'm hooked, so you can't stop now. A lovely combination of plants, people and photos. Calls for a little blackberry wine, I think . . .

Anonymous said...

Thank you lovely story and photos.

altadenahiker said...

I don't know them, but I love the stretch of Pine Street where they live. One short block that's both totally rural and urban at the same time. One of the few streets in Altadena where there's always people outside, mingling. Whenever I walk through to East Altadena, this is my corridor of choice. And there's a place, I believe just west of your friends, that reminds me the Finch house in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Christina said...

AH: Pine Street is awesome. I had a chance to be inside their house--so old and so charming. The living room had a view down into the Los Angeles basin and it was full of light, divided from the dining by a baby grand. Mmm. A delicious house.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

Glad they kept the roses. And glad to see a couple proudly living in a old home. I'm starting to feel a need to rebel against those who are plant purists. Give me my ueks, palms and orange blossoms and then we'll talk about other adaptions.