A PATCHWORK QUILT of green blankets Aun Neov’s P-Patch garden plot. Forgoing tidy rows, Neov plants wherever there is space. Bright green lemon grass mingles with corn and garlic stalks. Yams mix with squashes. Potatoes and bean vines bursting with little red flowers spiral up trellises made from backyard branches.
On one edge, the long heart-shaped leaves of taro plants droop toward dark, wet soil. Growing taro herself allows Neov to also harvest the stalk — not just the root — for cooking traditional soups.
“I don’t see it at the grocery store, only the root, but we also eat the stalk,” Neov says.
The New Holly Power Garden, where Neov’s P-Patch is located, is one of 89 community gardens run by the city of Seattle. The plots provide urban gardeners the space to grow. For many Southeast Asian immigrants, it’s also a chance to raise food from their homeland. Growing crops in a new place comes with challenges, but sometimes it’s the only way to keep these tastes in their lives.
The sun kept growing stronger as Jojo Tran, a fellow gardener and interpreter for a work party, weaves through the New Holly Youth and Family P-Patch.
He tears off a tiny leaf and places it in his mouth. Rau má, he proclaims immediately.
“I’ve never seen it in a P-Patch,” he says.
Not only that, he hasn’t tasted the traditional Vietnamese drink that is made from rau má since he left the country two decades ago.
“I haven’t had rau má for many years,” Tran adds. “It’s very rare to find.”
The locally rare herb was plucked from Kha Tran’s plot, growing in a Styrofoam box. Usually the seeds for the swamp-growing plant come directly from Vietnam. Several other hard-to-find Vietnamese herbs in containers lined Tran’s plot.
A few plots away, Nguyêt Ngô, who also grows rau má, twists bean vines around stakes.
“We can grow year-round in Vietnam, but only in the summer in Seattle,” she tells me through an interpreter. “Growing here is more difficult, because if we grow too early it will die.”
A rau tần ô, also known as an edible chrysanthemum, sits in a back corner of Ngô’s garden across from several kale plants. In between grows bí đao (a white winter melon), mồng tơi (a type of leafy green), bầu (a long pale green squash) and đậu qu (a long bean).
“Working in the garden reminds me of home,” says Sow Poo Saephan.
Saephan’s garden, at Georgetown’s Marra Farm, reflects her hometown, high in the mountains of Laos. On one edge, bean vines and climbing yams wind around stakes, reaching for the next branch. Potatoes mix with squash and flowers with no obvious pattern. Hidden among the leafy green mix are kale and zucchini — new transplants to her garden.
After a string of hot days early in the growing season, Saephan arrives early to her P-Patch, taking advantage of the cool morning. Delicately and quickly, she removes weeds from around her growing vegetables, leaving what she pulls to give her squash something to climb on as it grows.
Packed full of P-Patch plots, the sprawling Marra Farm in Georgetown stretches 5,600 square feet. Every few minutes, overhead planes track long shadows through the garden like fast-moving clouds.
“I’ve tried many things from my country; some grow, some don’t grow,” Saephan says.
An experiment to grow black and sticky rice failed fast.
It grew about a foot, she explains, hovering her hand about 12 inches off the ground.
“Then it died,” Saephan says with a laugh.
Success did come for Saephan with a type of white corn she had grown back in Laos. By mid-July the stalks tower over the petite Saephan, purple and white tassels blowing in the wind. In September, Saephan will harvest the little white ears of corn, bringing home to her family, including a handful of grandchildren, not just a taste but a continued connection to Laos.