Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Portraits in a Garden: The Kubos

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

Raised beds hold garlic, onions, burdock, tree collards, carrots, and strawberries. 
In February, as I step out of Janice Kubo’s back door, I encounter a series of raised beds where once had been a concrete-paved driveway turn-around. A quick scan of the garden tells me this place is beautiful, and it’s full of food. Right now, midwinter, these beds near the sliding door are lush with chard, lettuce, garlic, and bok choy, all in elegant rows.

Janice is showing me around her yard, and for a moment, her mother steps out to join us. We haven’t made it far out the back door, because I have lots of questions, but her mom stops near us and shows me how in the evening she pulls weeds from the beds and lays them in a small pile for pill bugs and slugs to hide in. In the morning, she takes the weeds, pests and all, and tosses them, away from where they can cause any more damage to the garden.

Janice and Tim Kubo and Janice's mother, Yoshie Mitsuhashi, in front
of their kumquat and orange trees.
This garden is a team effort, directed by Janice and her mother, supported by the labor of Tim, Janice’s husband, and driven and inspired by the need for healthy, organic food to help counteract the many food allergies Tim and Janice’s son experiences. Though the focus of the garden is food and herbal medicines, the garden is beautiful and clearly influenced by the family’s Japanese heritage. Janice tells me she’s proud of how her family has rallied together to build this garden, and that each of them “gets it,” how they’re working together for each other and the planet. She tells me “growing food is a joy” and “it’s fun to harvest what you grow, put it on a table, and eat it.” More than she expected, she’s happy to have inspired her friends and neighbors to grow more of their own food.

One bed in this area is taller than the others, and when Janice waves her arm around the garden as a whole, I can see a few others are taller as well. These beds are raised higher than the others because the family is experimenting with hugelkultur, a permaculture strategy in which a bed covers a pile of wood and brush debris. As the wood decomposes under the soil, it works as both fertilizer and a means of water-retention in our dry climate.

 Edible Saxifraga stolonifera serves
as an attractive ground cover under 
perennial tree collards.
A garden pathway passes
under a loquat to where a food-providing
pond will eventually be.

As we move around the satsuma tree to another part of the garden, Janice shows me more beds and fruit trees. One hugelkultur bed is full of fava beans tumbling over its edges. In full bloom, the black and white fava blossoms smell sweet and buzz with bees. Another bed has a multistory crop of tree collards with red-veined, crystalline-haired, strawberry geraniums (Saxifraga stolonifera)—commonly found as a houseplant, but in Japan used as a food plant—embroidering the deep shade of the collards. Along the side edge is a bed inhabited by a lone chayote vine, small now after winter die-back, but waiting impatiently to twist and pull itself up its trellis, covering the whole garden wall during the growing season. Two-gallon pots form the edge of this bed; each pot holds strawberry plants that will fruit in the spring. In this back corner is an old, unknown-variety fig tree that predates the family’s tenure here. With branches weeping like a trained bonsai, the tree naturally dwarfed tree produces loads of large, black fruit at the end of short-noded branches each year. Also along the back wall are a kumquat, a lemon, and a navel orange.

Ficoide glacial, aka Ice Lettuce, started from a 
cutting Janice took at a restaurant.
We’ve reached the graceful center of the garden, where a pond used to be, now filled in with a bed of garlic and lettuce. The spot is still, and though no water reflects the large paper-lantern-like oranges hanging above, it somehow maintains the peaceful sense that water features add to gardens. Janice and her family are currently studying acquaculture, with the plan to rebuild the pond here and stock it with carp or bluegill, edible fish that succeed in our warm summers and cool winters. Around the edges of the smallest puddle of lawn are large, low pots that hold perennial medicinal plants, mint, mugwort, and dokudami, all of which could be invasive if planted in the ground. In pots, the plants are safe from taking over the rest of the yard and provide visual interest. Branches naturally mosaic-ed in brown, bone, and bronze, a white guava tree grows behind us.

Janice grafted a scion from my Golden Russet apple
to a tree in her front yard; the scion has "taken" and
is leafing out healthily.

Janice and her family keep this food garden lush with lots of work—when Janice isn’t at her job, she spends at least six hours a day in the garden—and with composted waste materials from their kitchen and garden. Though the back yard is the most productive and most beautiful part of the garden, the family is working to convert the front yard too, where more fruit trees (an avocado, a persimmon, an apple, and a couple peaches), a few fruiting bushes and vines, and perennial vegetable and herb crops grow in several beds that frame the lawn that is left.

Readily reseeding red orach grows in the
front yard, providing the salad bowl and
the neighbors a pop of color.

The lot is a fifth of an acre, houses a 1,900 square feet house, and grows so much food already, with the potential for much more. Janice tells me she hopes one day the whole lot is food-producing: “food everywhere, with just stepping stones or small paths to move around on.” The Kubo family is already well on the way towards this goal. And if beauty is food for the soul, they’re creating plenty of that, too.

Takeaways From The Kubo’s Garden:
  • Chayote is a trouble-free, vining perennial crop that matures in the autumn and can be used similarly to zucchini, or, as Janice does, in a tasty, tasty chayote kimchi. 
  • If you want to start with an easy-to-grow crop that requires little effort on the part of a beginning gardener, grow green onions.
  • Fava beans—a perfect crop for our mild Southern California winters—once dried, can be soaked, their skins removed, and cooked and sweetened to make a paste similar to red bean paste for use in mochi.
  • Don’t avoid growing quickly spreading perennial plants that may be hard to remove from your yard; instead, grow them in large, pretty pots that will contain them, but also add to the garden’s beauty. 
  • Some fruit trees are architecturally and texturally interesting, and can serve as focal points in a food producing yard: a fig tree and a guava tree do this in the Kubo's yard.


Michelle said...

What a beautiful and inspirational garden. Thank you for introducing us to the Kubo family and their slice of paradise. I love the fact that they garden as a family. I love to garden but it's a solitary pastime for me, my husband has zero interest in participating, but he has endless enthusiasm in the results. Now I need to read up on hugelkultur, sounds fascinating!

Christina said...

Michelle: I hear you! The outside is my domain. E enjoys being out there manning the firepit or the bbq, or just hanging out with the dog, but the planning, working, etc is all me. As for hugelkultur, I've been experimenting with it a little at my house, too. Most of my veg beds are sunken to deal with drought, but I do have one raised bed, and late this winter, I dug out all the soil, laid down scrap wood and termite riddled branches, soaked them with water, added a layer of manure and soaked that, too, then replaced the original soil. When my eggplants were ready in late April, I planted them in there, and boom, I can already see the difference. I've been thinking about how I can use this strategy effectively in other parts of the yard.

Janice said...

Thank you for featuring our little corner of the world! Your blog is always fascinating to read, and I glean new knowledge each time I stop by!

If any of your readers care to look, they can stop by our FB page as we continue our journey towards greater self-sufficiency.


Sarah S. said...

beautiful garden. I was interested to hear the Kubos are growing chayote. I want to grow that if it will survive my winters.