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Growing Home

Growing Home: Stories of Ethnic Gardening

Susan Davis Price
Photograph by John Gregor
Copyright Date: 2000
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    Growing Home
    Book Description:

    This beautiful book brings together interviews and photographs of more than thirty Minnesotans who have imported the style and tradition of their native or ancestral lands into their gardening. Susan Davis Price relates the fascinating stories of these people’s lives as she explores gardening techniques and plants brought from every part of the globe.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-5290-7
    Subjects: Botany & Plant Sciences

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-vii)
    (pp. viii-xi)

    Humans are migratory animals, trooping across the globe in search of food, land, work, adventure, social equality, and peace. What is true of people generally is especially true of Americans, arriving from foreign shores and then traveling westward. Devastation in other countries, from famine to overpopulation, has sent wave after wave of immigrants to try their luck in the United States. For many, Minnesota has been the destination.

    In the Twin Cities, we are especially aware of some of our newer groups, the ones who come in large numbers. The 1970s and 1980s saw immigrants from Asia, and Africa was...


      (pp. 3-7)

      Leave to others the scientific study of gardening—soil testing, Latin names, and the like. Judy Oakes Wehrwein prefers the hands-on method. “I quite appreciate that others like to talk earnestly about the merits of various cultivars,” she said in her gentle British accent. “But that’s not me. I’ll see a flower I like and put it in my own garden, but then completely forget its name.”

      Nor does Judy plot her borders on paper or keep a record of what’s planted. “No,” she laughed, “I wait to see what comes up in the spring, because there are always surprises....

      (pp. 9-13)

      Speeding cars and fast-food restaurants make up the world along Interstate Highway 35 south of Duluth. Just a few miles west, down a quiet lane, the traveler enters another world of clear ponds, white birch, and abundant berries. For Charlie Kiheri, a third-generation Finn, and his wife, Karla, who immigrated eleven years ago, the contrast is far from accidental. Here, Charlie and Karla have created a place apart, a bit of Finland in Carlton County, where they live with their children, Heikki and Selja.

      “The most important trees Finns have to have in the yard,” said Karla, walking around the...

      (pp. 15-19)

      Philippe Gallandat can speak in great detail about the technical requirements of pruning—when to do the work, where to make the cuts, which tools to use. He can explain the horticultural needs of roses and the preferred methods of planting. In fact, Philippe, a native of the French-speaking region of Switzerland, has undergraduate and advanced degrees in horticulture and agriculture. Currently he works in the profession, designing and installing landscapes and maintaining gardens.

      But conversations with Philippe are more likely to concern the satisfactions and aesthetics of gardening than the specific how-tos. Speaking in the soft cadences of his...

      (pp. 21-25)

      “In Turkey everybody is into flowers,” said Hulya Dortay McCaffrey, with a trace of a Turkish accent, “especially in our city Istanbul. The city is bigger than New York, and people are living in huge, tall apartments. But even way up they have gardens. They’re not large, but they have balconies filled with potted plants. So everybody has something in their windows and balconies. You’re surrounded by flowers.”

      Hulya’s verbal sketch of Istanbul could well describe her own garden in Minneapolis, where she and her husband, Michael, are “surrounded by flowers.” On a modest city lot, Hulya has reserved smallish...

      (pp. 27-31)

      “I talk to my flowers,” said Angle Vesel Smith, gently touching the pink petunias beneath her kitchen window. “You’re supposed to talk to the flowers,” she said in the accents of her Slovenian homeland. Perhaps that explains why her gardens look so healthy. Maybe the flowers thrive because she waters them all by hand with a watering can. “The hose is too strong,” she said. Most likely everything grows for Angie because she’s been gardening seriously since she was fifteen and helping in the family gardens even earlier.

      In any case, on this late July day, Angie’s beds of petunias—...

      (pp. 33-37)

      The maxim, “If you would know the man, know the boy,” could have been inspired by nurseryman Joe Braeu of Duluth, who as a boy in southern Germany spent every spare moment in his family gardens. Today Joe and his wife, Debbie, operate Edelweiss Nursery, selling trees, shrubs, herbs, and perennials. Joe has an enormous selection of hard-to-find plants, expanding the choices usually found in northern Minnesota. The business provides a broad range of services for clients, from planting advice to complex landscaping.

      Although Braeu (pronounced “Broy”) enjoys the whole operation, he takes greatest pleasure in designing. His style is...


      (pp. 41-45)

      Walking from high-rise to garden, one passes the all-too-typical urban scene—busy parking lot, unkempt knoll, massive concrete overpass. So the bright green tapestry of thirty-three vegetable plots is doubly unexpected. Clustered together, the lovingly tended gardens are bursting with produce even on this early June afternoon.

      Besides the familiar chives, onions, many-hued lettuces, and numerous peppers, there are low clumps of watercress and rows of Chinese bellflower, harvested for its roots after three years. Americans know the plant as balloon flower(Platycodon grandiflora)and grow it only for the purple and white blossoms. The matte green of wild sesame...

      (pp. 47-51)

      Alida Olson’s friends and relatives would like to see her take it easy. They worry when they see her behind her heavy cultivator, cleaning out the rows in her garden. When she spends all day mowing her big country yard, they ask why she works so hard. “Well,” she replies, “I don’t get tired.” Every year when Alida plants dahlias and gladioli, her friends suggest that she drop such labor-intensive gardening. “You see,” she said with a girlish laugh, “I never get tired of hoeing around.”

      After all, Alida is ninety-five. Most people her age are slowing down. Not Alida,...

      (pp. 53-57)

      “I was born in the wrong era. I should have been a pioneer woman,” declared Kenrie Williams, after describing her gardening, canning, and crafting routines. “I don’t mind doing hard labor all day long rather than sitting behind a desk because then I know I’ve accomplished something.”

      Turning out grapevine wreaths, canning tomatoes, or freezing collards, Kenrie is a lesson to all who claim they have no space or sun. Her small city plot gets “only maybe four hours of direct sunlight, and six to eight hours of diffused light because it’s jammed between two houses.” Still, she harvests a...

      (pp. 59-63)

      In the fall, Clarence Krava always spreads a load of cow manure, “right from the cow barn.” When the ground has warmed to seventy degrees in the spring, he distributes home-prepared compost around all the vegetables. For an extra shot of fertilizer, Krava pours on a “tea” made of fermented fish heads and remains. He raises most of his vegetables from seed and grows his own garlic, dill, mint, and oregano. If bugs threaten the crops, Krava mixes up a potion of detergent, beer, a few tablespoons of bleach or borax, a dash of whiskey, and water. “That’ll usually take...

      (pp. 65-69)

      By the time children are two years old in Uganda, their basic toy is a hoe. “As you get older, they make the handle longer to accommodate you,” recalled Beatrice Garubanda, in the melodious accents of her homeland. “By the time you are sixteen, you have your own patch of garden and can plant anything . . . anything. What you would like to eat and what you would like to see growing. Sometimes you would even find a patch that has a banana tree which would never go anywhere. As long as you like it, that’s what you grow,”...

      (pp. 71-75)

      Even at age eighty-one, Austra Nora remembers vividly the sights, scents, and tastes of her Latvian childhood: the fine meal made of fresh rye bread, a slice of smoked pork from the meat cellar, and the just-picked dill and onions.“Thatwas a good sandwich,” she recalled. When currants ripened, Austra was “like a little girl. Many times I disappeared into the currant bushes to eat. They were so sweet.” In her yard there was a bush that was “very popular in the old country. It smells so good when you touch it, and usually when you cut flowers for...

      (pp. 77-81)

      Tatyana Gendels traveled with her husband, Boris, one hour by train, then continued on foot for forty minutes to get to her garden outside Leningrad. Often the Gendelses toted seedlings or fruit trees on their backs; always they took along food and water for the weekend. Coming back to the city, they carried their harvest: strawberries, currants, apples, potatoes, eggplants, tomatoes, herbs. “We had no car,” Tatyana explained. “If we could not get a ride with friends, we had to carry, carry, carry.

      “For a while some bus drivers decided to make money. But it was a catastrophe because there...


      (pp. 85-89)

      “The only pepper I grow that’s not hot is the Hungarian wax,” said Simeon Okwulehie, pointing to the rows of peppers in his backyard. “See, what I use peppers for, they have to be fiery.” The varieties Simeon plants are definitely ones with bite: the red cayenne, the jalapeno, the Anaheim chili, the Thai, and the habanero (one of the fieriest around). Even the Hungarian wax, which Simeon calls mild, is generally known as a hot pepper. “When you grow up like I did with everything hot, you prefer it,” he said in the cadences of his Nigerian homeland.


      (pp. 91-95)

      “You know,” Ana Maria Saquiy Davis said firmly, “women in Guatemala don’t make the garden, just the men. The women keep the house, care for the kids. My head is different. I like to make my own decisions. I like to make my own garden.”

      On a small tree farm near Hewitt, Ana is doing just that. The weather, the vegetation, and the terrain could scarcely be more unlike her home in Guatemala City. Still, since 1980, a year after she married Peace Corps volunteer Dave Davis, this central Minnesota farm has been home, the place where the Davises are...

      (pp. 97-101)

      Though his garden doesn’t have the fig tree or grape arbors his grandfather’s would have had, Jerry Piazza’s lush vegetable plot and small orchard are a fitting testament to his Sicilian heritage. Long rows of tomatoes and peppers, beans, winter squash, and Italian parsley flourish behind his Golden Valley restaurant, the Piazza Ristorante. ‘Black Beauty’ eggplants grow alongside a Sicilian variety called ‘Mesanissi,’ which Piazza raises from seed sent by his Italian cousins.

      A Sicilian bush basil forms small, green mounds along the rows. “This has a much better flavor than what’s usually grown here,” Piazza explains, plucking off leaves....

      (pp. 103-107)

      People catch their breath when they see Irene Loudas’s garden, and well they might. Its size alone (about one hundred feet by sixty feet) is impressive. “Everybody asks me who helps with this plot,” she said. Except for occasional assistance from her husband, Basil, this is Irene’s responsibility. “Sometimes I spend the whole day weeding, from eight o'clock until dark,” she said.

      “She gets lost in there,” Basil added, pointing to the long rows, “and I wonder where she is. Then once in a while she stands up, I see her, and down she goes again.”

      More noteworthy than the...

      (pp. 109-113)

      “Last year it was better,” said Enrique Zavala, with the typical modesty and high standards of gardeners everywhere. “It’s not good this year for growing the plants. I don’t know if it’s Mother Nature or what.” Despite his disclaimer, on this late June day Enrique was already harvesting cucumbers and zucchini and his cilantro was about to go to seed.

      The season had been a strange one, a warm spring followed by cool temperatures and rain in June. So Zavala’s tomatoes and chili peppers were not as far along as usual. Though his production wasn’t as plentiful as he had...

      (pp. 115-119)

      The sky is big in Pipestone, the earth is flat, rainfall is sparse, and trees are few and far between. The climate and terrain differ radically from northern Laos, where Boun Saeng (Boon Sang) SouVandy’s family grew guavas, coconuts, and tangerines around the house. But after ten years in four different refugee camps in Thailand, the SouVandy’s and their relatives are grateful to be in Minnesota, even if it is a world away from their large rice farm.

      Life was hard in Thailand, explained Boun Saeng without complaint. “We couldn’t garden,” he said. “We did grow vegetables at the first...


      (pp. 123-127)

      For Seitu Jones, gardening is not simply a hobby or a diversion, like cards or tennis. Rather, Seitu sees himself in a long line of black gardeners reaching back to his great grandfather, a slave who fought in the Civil War and then came upriver to farm. The line includes his farmer grandfather; an uncle who gardened in St. Louis; his father and aunt, who grew vegetables and flowers in the Twin Cities; and “all the marvelous, unsung black folks who’ve been gardening for years.”

      It’s a humbling legacy for Jones, who modestly insists he’s just a “novice gardener reaching...

      (pp. 129-133)

      Kevin Oshima remembers clearly his first task when studying bonsai in Japan. “The master came out and handed me a straw, a shaft of wild grass, about this long,” Kevin said, holding his hands twelve inches apart. “‘Go collect these, all the same,’ he told me.” When Kevin asked how many to gather, the master simply said, “Collect them, no questions.”

      On Oshima’s first try, he brought in straws of somewhat differing sizes and was sent out again with the directive, “All the same.”

      “So I went out and collected all day from morning till night, a whole pile of...

      (pp. 135-139)

      Flying home from her sister’s house abroad a few years ago, Maiju (Mayu) Kontii carried rose cuttings in her purse. “My three smuggled roses,” she called them, two oldfashioned varieties and her favorite, ‘Midsummer’s Night,’ a white shrub rose that blooms in late June. The small cuttings have become robust bushes, filling her St. Paul yard with flowers and fragrance, and reminding her of home. “That white rose is absolutely the one. I can’t imagine having a garden without it,” she enthused. “In Finland it blooms at the peak of summer during our biggest holiday,Juhannus,Midsummer Fest.”

      Grounded for...

      (pp. 141-145)

      John Maire is a man on a mission. As director of SODA (Social Organization Development Agency), he envisions his fellow Sudanese immigrants as landowners and farmers. He sees them living in the country, where the children can run freely and the adults can raise and sell crops. The path is long, but Maire has taken the first steps in helping to organize a community-based farm in Elk River.

      “Farming has been a part of African life from time immemorial,” Maire said as he looked out over the one-acre plot of corn, green beans, cabbage, and hot peppers. “This has been...

      (pp. 147-151)

      “Poland is one big flower bouquet,” declared Dr. Danuta Mazurek. “The landscape is gorgeous, and the villages are charming and wellmaintained. You see, these people are working people who take pride in where they live. They are embroidering. They are baking. They are decorating their homes. May be they have a two-by-four-foot garden in front of their little house, but it is full of flowers. We say ‘without music, without flowers, and without our past, we don’t exist, we don’t exist.’”

      When Dr. Mazurek came to Minnesota from the eastern part of Poland in the late 1960s, she was puzzled...

      (pp. 153-157)

      Ludmila Bryskin knows how to propagate her currant bushes by layering—bending a branch to earth and covering it with soil until it forms roots. She has increased her stock many times this way. Similarly, she can multiply her strawberry plants to trade with friends. She has learned that seeds will germinate very quickly if they are kept moist, wrapped in plastic, and carried close to her heart. “The temperature is uniformly warm,” she explained, “and you soon forget they are there. Old ladies know that tip.” She knows that black currant leaves give pickles a nice flavor and that...


      (pp. 161-165)

      In a Duluth neighborhood of conventional lawns, Ben Carrasca’s yard stands out. One first notices the elegant pagoda-like gate at the streetside parking bay. Nearby, the welcome lamp has been fitted with a wooden frame. Ferns and bamboo tubes of various sizes encircle its base. Paths marked off with stones lead the visitor through several minilandscapes: waterfall, pond, look-out point, sand garden. The Asian style introduced at the gate is evident throughout the yard.

      The whole is Ben’s handiwork, a project that started modestly enough seven years ago and now encompasses all his property. “When we bought the house,” he...

      (pp. 167-171)

      As a young girl in Havana, Rosa Garcia-Peltoniemi gardened in a backyard filled with fruit trees. Even now, nearly thirty years later, she can remember the exact placement of the huge mango, the bananas, the small Spanish cherry, the sapota(Pouteria),and the hibiscus hedge. She can recall the way the mango tree branches spilled over the wall from her neighbor’s yard and how the sweetsop tree gave such good fruit. “I loved my garden because it was so secluded and peaceful,” she explained. “The space was very small, but intensely cultivated.”

      It was there, as she planted flowers and...

      (pp. 173-177)

      “That’s the thing about plants, every one has a purpose to it,” said Clyde Estey, pointing to the brilliant yarrow. “You can use these leaves for tea and also rub them on for a bug repellent. The monarda, Oswego tea, here is a good medicine plant. All the mints are really good for stomach problems.” As he walked from bed to bed in his large yard, Estey thoughtfully touched each plant, discussing its uses and horticultural needs with the detail of a scientist.

      At seventy-seven, Clyde has a lot of experience with plants, and it shows. “I learned about gardening...

    • HOT! HOT! HOT!
      (pp. 179-183)

      In West Africa, Toulia Dennis’s life was intimately tied to crops and food production. The Dennises raised pineapples, citrus fruits, bananas, sugarcane, and rubber plants on their farm. At home they grew vegetables, more pineapples, and the beloved soursop tree(Annona muricata),with its tart fruit. There were shrubs on the lawn and “oh, so many flowers, flowers, flowers,” said Toulia in her melodic Liberian accent. “I was on an acre of land in Monrovia, and on an acre of land, you can grow a lot.”

      “In West Africa where I come from,” said Toulia by way of explanation, “most...

      (pp. 185-189)

      Jasmine, bougainvillea, “queen of the night,” honeycreeper—their names evoke a vine-laden paradise, heavy with sweet fragrance. This is the landscape of India, birthplace of Gita and Pradip Kar, where a plant’s perfume may be even lovelier than its form. Here, flowering trees called ‘Flame of the Forest’ (Butea monosperma), ‘Golden Shower’ (Cassia fistula), ‘Pride of India’ (Lagerstroemia speciosa), and ‘Rusty Shield Bearer’ (Peltophorum pterocarpa) light up the countryside with blossoms of dazzling red and bright yellow.

      Here too grow so many varieties of jasmine that the plant cannot be called simply jasmine, as is the practice in America, but...

      (pp. 191-195)

      As a young girl in Laos, Chue Yang rode water buffalo and horses and worked in her family’s fields of corn, rice, greens, and herbs. Today she drives a car to her white-collar job in Minneapolis. Like many immigrants, Chue is a woman with ties to two cultures. When questioned, she will attest to the difficulties of adjusting: “We struggle so much.” But she will also modestly acknowledge that she’s succeeding ably: “We have very good children,” and “I have been promoted four different times.”

      Chue is a thoroughly modern wife and mother with a full-time job and a house...

    • Back Matter
      (pp. 196-196)