My father loves to garden and my mother loves to cook. I enjoy both as they pretty much go hand in hand. However, I have to admit that I pretty much neglected my garden for most of last year. We hired a nice man named Ricardo to help us keep things tidy but his construction skills were underutilized by the simple tasks that we asked of him: weeding, trimming, and spreading mulch. He went on vacation, promising to check in with us when he returned. Alas, he never called. We got the message. Ricardo let us go as clients.
That said, my husband and I realized that we needed to reclaim our yard ourselves, like we used to back in ... 2011! We spent a couple of weekends filling our greencycle bin and then I attacked my little vegetable garden. It’s nothing fancy, just about 4 feet by 8 feet wide and constructed as a raised bed when we redid our backyard. Every year I plant Asian herbs and a few summer vegetables. After preparing the bed, I went shopping for plants. Isn’t shopping the reward for lots of hard work?
Local nurseries and home improvement centers – I’ve found the darnest plants at our independent, local nurseries as well as places like Home Depot and Lowes. With the large big box stores, it helps to shop at one located in an area with a sizeable Asian community. I bought a Thai Kaffir (Makrut) lime tree at Home Depot twelve years ago. The Chinese garlic chives purchased 8 years before continues to be a stalwart, volunteering in various places.
People who garden love to tinker and try new plants and this year, I was rewarded by lots of chile plants. They seem to be hot these days. (Ha.) I basically shop by name – like Thai Dragon and Super Chile, then I read the fine print to see whether or not they’re actually hot. Some, despite their Asian provenance, lack spicy heat. This year, I planted 5 kinds of chiles just to see what would happen. We lack consistent hot temps in coastal Northern California so my back up is buying chiles from the Hmong farmers and freezing them for the long haul.
Note that common herbs such as mint and even sorrel are employed in Asian cooking. Those seedlings may be available at mainstream nurseries and garden supply shops.
Farmers’ markets – Small nurseries sell starter plants at our farmers’ markets, and I mine their stalls for interesting plants. In Santa Cruz, for example, Upstarts Organic Seedlings always has new varieties to explore.
Last weekend, I chat with Sarah, the owner, about growing Southeast Asian long chiles and she suggested trying Joe’s Long Cayenne. She also had starters for rau ram (Vietnamese coriander), Thai purple basil (rau hung que) and Mrs. Burns basil, which she said seems to be easier to grow in our climate than Thai lime basil. I’ve had problems with Thai lime basil so I’m switching to Mrs. Burns. I’ll keep checking back with Sarah because later on this season, she’ll have Thai holy basil.
Asian Markets – One of my favorite places to source Vietnamese herbs is a tiny market in San Jose called Thien Thanh. The man who tends to the makeshift nursery speaks little but his plants are always healthy.
My Vietnamese balm (rau kinh gioi) didn’t reseed this year so I started with a new plant. I always need a new purple perilla (rau tia to, an earthier kin of Japanese shiso). He promised me that the black chile plant was spicy hot so I bought one. The fourth plant I purchased from him was a rice paddy herb (rau om), that I have to keep in a plastic bag where things will sweat to mimic super humid growing conditions. Prices are not marked but I was charged about $4 or $5 for each. What a deal. What a steal!
Indian grocery stores are also a great source of plants. Five years ago, I bought a curry leaf plant for [gulp] $35 from Bharat Bazaar, a somewhat sad Indian market in Santa Clara that happened to sell the plant. The Indian customers asked me why I was buying it because the market sold the leaves by the bags for about $2. I was curious, I said, and want a super fresh supply at my home. The $35 investment was a baby, no taller than 12 inches, but look at it now – a bona fide little tree on my patio.
Berkeley’s Tokyo Fish Market is an excellent source for Japanese seedlings, as well as seafood and groceries. The market displays the plants right outside the doorway. Eggplant, shishito peppers, various kinds of shiso, are among the seedlings I’ve seen there. They often sell Asian seed packets too.
You don’t need much space to cultivate a few herbs to enhance your cooking. Yes, you can buy the stuff but growing even a tiny bit of your own food is immensely rewarding and tasty to boot.