A Chinese Garden in a New York Backyard

Dongkai Zhen in her Irvington gardenAt the end of May, I took my daughter-in-law, Yan Zhang Miller, to see the garden of the newest member of the Garden Club of Irvington, Dongkai Zhen.

Dongkai, left, has lived Westchester County, New York, for 24 years. She and her husband, Dr. Jiyi Wang, are pathologists who work in hospital labs. They’ve raised two children here, Kate, a resident at Stanford University Medical Center, and Kevin, a student at Brandeis University. Their hobby is organic vegetable gardening. But it’s way more than a hobby. It’s a way of life.

My daughter-in-law was born and raised in a rural area of the People’s Republic of China before her family moved to Beijing. Now she and my son Alex live in San Francisco, where she volunteers two days a week at the botanical garden in Golden Gate Park. As soon as Yan stepped into Dongkai’s garden, she said, “A real Chinese garden! For eating. Not for decoration.”

Every year, Dongkai and Jiyi build structures from tree branches on which to grow tomatoes, beans, cucumbers and squash. In beds under the structures, they plant their favorite herbs and greens. Here is the garden at the beginning of the summer with its structures, trellises, and supports in place:

spring structure2

Spring tructure1

spring pots 2

Spring Tomato Net

Most of the plants were grown from seeds and seedlings purchased in Flushing, Queens.

spring pots 1

Here is the garden two weeks ago:

Full Structure

And close-ups of some of the most prized specimens:

Bottle gourd. In rural China, they really get hollowed out and used as bottle, Dongkai says

Bottle gourd. In rural China, they do get hollowed out and used as bottles, Dongkai says

Hot peppers —apsicum annuum ‘Kung Pao’

Hot peppers —apsicum annuum ‘Kung Pao’

Cherry tomatoes

Cherry tomatoes

Bitter gourd or balsam pear

Bitter gourd or balsam pear

Chinese cucumber — Dongkai says it has thin skin, no seeds, and delicious, crunchy texture

Chinese cucumber — Dongkai says it has thin skin, no seeds, and delicious, crunchy texture

White-skinned eggplant

White-skinned eggplant

Amaranth, a Chinese vegetable like spinach

Amaranth, a Chinese vegetable like spinach

Wild yam, which has medicinal uses

Wild yam, which has medicinal uses

I’m ready to learn how to cook with these vegetables. Aren’t you? Next spring, let’s go to Flushing, Queens, to buy seeds and seedlings. And have lunch at one of Dongkai and Jiyi’s favorite restaurants.

About writedesigner

Graphic designer, writer, and gardener Ellen Shapiro is based in Irvington, New York. A frequent contributor to design blogs and magazines including Print, Imprint, Salon.com, Communication Arts, and Etapes, she writes about trends, issues and personalities in design, illustration, photography, and visual culture around the world.
This entry was posted in Food from the Garden, Horticulture, Private Gardens, Travel-USA Northeast and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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