The first house that my parents bought had a sizeable backyard planted with six to eight pine trees. The trees were mature and covered the sloped yard with about a foot of crunchy long brown pine needles. One summer, I decided to ‘clean up’ the needles to see what was underneath. I filled up bags and bags of pine needles and didn’t seem to make much of a dent. It was a 1950s home that we bought in the late 1970s. There may have been a good decade’s worth of pine needles to gather. It was tedious but I discovered that I like goofing off in the yard. It’s kind of mindless but also meditative and rewarding. There’s patience and surprise in gardening. You can say that I got the gardening bug (I wasn’t aware of fighting bugs at that age!).
I was curious about plants and over the years, my dad began showing me how to grow stuff. Among his various careers in Vietnam and America, he owned a landscaping business. He often discussed his projects as well as collaborations with Riuchi, a Japanese man who’d worked in Kyoto’s imperial gardens. I had no aspiration to position rocks for zen gardens or perfectly trim bonsai, but I did like to experiment with plants. You never know what will grow, is my dad’s motto.
That explains the lemongrass in the jar at the top of this post. My lemongrass plants died last year and I’m trying to start new ones. Long ago, my father said that if you want a lemongrass bush, put a fresh stalk into water and let it root. The ones I’m currently working on are from our local natural foods market so we’ll see what happens. I’ve bought lemongrass grown from seed and they were lackluster for some reason.
My dad and I share gardening tips like my mom and I share cooking information. Last week, after he read my post about finding Asian plants, he emailed some gardening tips he’s gathered from personal experience and his network of Viet-American seventy and eighty-somethings.
How to grow your own papaya: Keep the seeds next time you eat papaya. Wash them up little bit, dry on a paper towel and then put a few seeds in 3 or 4 holes. Papaya trees need male and females to make more papayas. Position the papayas couple along a fence, for example, with about 1 1/2 yards (a good meter) between each.
If something grows, keep two of them. In about 2 years you'll probably will have fruit. There will not only be fruit to eat, but the whole leaves and stems too. Those parts of the plant can be used for medicinal purposes in liver cancer treatment. It’s suppose to be pretty effective. They are selling papaya leaves extract in the U.S.!
Another way to grow rice paddy herb (rau ba om): Just keep the stems in a jar with water right on the kitchen counter. Make sure there is some sunlight. They will grow and you'll always have fresh herbs for you canh chua ca (Vietnamese tart seafood soup). So no mini hot house or aquarium needed!
Grow your own ginger or galangal: If there’s a little fresh looking nub or growth on ginger or galangal that you buy, cut it off and put it into the ground, nub facing upward. Like potato eyes, it will sprout something.
I’ve tried growing the ginger/galangal trick and it’s nifty. The trick is finding the super fresh stuff that hasn’t fully dried out. Sun is your friend in cultivating it. My galangal sprouted but I didn’t have enough warmth to keep it going. But it was really neat to know that from a small piece of galangal could grow leaves and stuff.
What I love about my dad’s gardening tips is that he’s just using what he sees around him. One plant can beget another. You never know what will grow until you try.
Happy Father’s Day!
More advice from my father: