Tuesday, October 6, 2009

If You Want to be Happy Forever, Make a Garden

Written by a friend of Project Grow, the following piece tells the story of some of the gardens and gardeners to be found at our Clague site. Transplants themselves, the gardeners have found a taste and feeling of their former homes and histories in their new country.

They aren't called "community gardens" for nothing. Large shared plots are little communities, enclaves where friendship and social harmony flourish as surely as fresh, nutritious food. And Project Grow's Clague Community Garden is one of the best: a mini-Eden of health and happiness, though non-Asians might not recognize most of the produce.

"This is a luffa gourd," said Xianfang Xu, 77, gently reaching into a six-foot tangle of gargantuan vines and leaves to cradle a shiny baby fruit. "It looks like a zucchini, but it's spongy inside," Xianfang said. "We use it for soup. We like Chinese food because it's good for health." (Mature luffa - or luffah - fruit can be dried to make kitchen and bath sponges.)

Like many communities, the Clague gardening community has changed over the years as old “residents” have left and newcomers have taken their places. Located at Clague Middle School, on the city’s northeast side, the garden was first planted in 2005 by three families. Then two years later, Quansheng Xu, a resident of the nearby Parkway Meadows Senior Apartments, was out walking and spotted his dream garden.

“I saw this beautiful garden at the entrance to Divine Shepherd Lutheran Church,” said Quansheng, 74, a retired engineering leader at a textile factory. “The plots were much larger than the plots at Parkway Meadows, where I had planted a small garden for four years. So I entered the church and asked about it and they told me about Project Grow.”

He defected to Clague and by the 2008 growing season had recruited a small contingent of other Chinese seniors, including his wife, Bing Xian Zhang, 72.

“In 2007, there was one Chinese man -- me,” said Quansheng, smiling. “Now, there are seven Chinese families and four American families here.” The garden has become a “cultural exchange between America and China,” Xianfang added.

“The families share vegetables and gardening knowledge. We enjoy each other. We see each other and we see what we’re each growing.”

What the American families see is a parallel universe of exotic produce: Chinese celery, which is leafier and has skinner stalks than the more familiar European variety; Chinese long beans, the freaks of the bean world, which make “normal” green beans look like haricot verts; Chinese lettuce, which grows high instead of low to the ground and is topped with seeds; Chinese amaranth, a purple-and-green plant so pretty it could be a houseplant, whose tender leaves are sautéed in oil, like spinach. There are Chinese varieties of chives and garlic as well as Chinese eggplant, Chinese cabbage and Chinese “hollow vegetable,” a lushly tall, dense grass with hollow stems whose long, narrow leaves are eaten raw, in salad, or steamed and wilted.

Everything is organic, which is a big hit with the Chinese gardeners children, who emigrated earlier than their parents, most of whom left China or Taiwan after they retired and speak very little English.

“My children like to eat the fresh, organic vegetables,” said Bing Xian, speaking through an interpreter, Helen Bucklin, the daughter of fellow gardener Hsien-Wen Fang, 81.

But their parents have embraced organic produce, too, reading up on the nutritive content of various vegetables and fruits and treating the garden with near reverence, as if it were growing traditional Chinese medicines.

“This cauliflower started as only a tiny seed!” said Hsien-Wen, whose scientist’s curiosity serves him well in the garden. Born in China, Hsien-Wen moved to Taiwan in 1949, when he was 21, after the Chinese Civil War. In 1963, he moved to Ann Arbor and earned a PhD in biochemistry, returned to Taiwan to teach, then moved back to Ann Arbor in 1982 to become a UM researcher.

“Now, the cauliflower is huge!” he said in early August, when the compact plants were still weeks away from being ready to harvest. “I started them in my home garden, and transplanted them one by one here. Now, I eat the leaves. I found in the literature that the leaves have even more nutrients than the cauliflower, different kinds of nutrients. Previously, I steamed them, but the literature said you lose many nutrients that way. So I’m eating the leaves raw now. I put them in salad with vinegar, sometimes even yogurt, and salt and olive oil.”

All the Chinese seniors are thin and seem extremely fit and limber for their age, bending over to care for their plants and crawling around on their hands and knees to pull weeds.

“This is physical labor!” said Xianfang. “We all use a lot of mental energy, so this helps us balance (the body and mind). For example, I have high blood pressure. If I work in the garden, my blood pressure goes down. I come here to relax.”

As if she were at a party, Fang offered a visitor a container of homemade Chinese canapés: fried slices of Chinese eggplant; chunks of a Chinese chive omelet; Chinese zucchini pancakes; Chinese bean noodle buns and tomato-and-cucumber salad. They were delicious, balancing an American visitor’s physical and mental energies by transporting her back to China and her own memorable stay there in 1985.

The Clague garden is so devotedly tended and explosively green that it’s hard to imagine any failed experiments. But there have been a few.

“In Southeast China, we have a longer growing season because it’s warmer there,” said Zhikun Zhou, 75, a retired elementary school and piano teacher.

Zhikun is the group’s master gardener, credited with knowing the most about how to water plants, dig ditches and ventilate soil. Like several of the other gardeners, he’s from Wuxi, near Shanghai. Like all of them, he learned to garden as a child out of necessity.

“The first year here, I failed -- I planted seeds in March and April, and they all died of frost!”

At Clague, an old Chinese proverb seems to hold true: “If you want to be happy forever, make a garden.” The Chinese gardeners can’t seem to spend enough time there, walking over daily from their apartments just a short block way.

“I come here every day, at least twice, sometimes three times,” said Guishan Wang, 76, a retired medical school professor. His wife, Guiqin Jiang, 79, wears pearls with her gardening clothes!

“I like the soil and the land,” she said.

Guiqin and the others have reaped so much more from the garden than just produce: deepened feelings of independence and belonging in their adopted country; pride, improved health, peace.

“I like to garden because first, I have nothing else to enjoy,” said Zhixian Jiang, 70, who moved to Ann Arbor because her son had settled there. “Second because watching the vegetables grow every day makes me happy, gives me a sense of accomplishment.

"From the end of June to the end of November, we don’t need to go to the store to buy vegetables,” added Quansheng.

Perhaps Xianfang expressed the group’s attachment to the garden best: “We think of these vegetables like our kids and grandkids. We watch them grow up.”

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