It’s that time of the year again when I wish I had a garden. Little pots on a fire escape give me regular sprigs of thyme and shiso and, if I’m feeling ambitious, I might harvest handfuls of Sweet 100s. It’s nothing, however, like watching tiny pea shoots unfurl into astonishing vines or digging up a stash of potatoes from beneath a dried-up stem.

I actually don’t like dirt (or, as my gardener friend keeps correcting me…”soil”), and I’m not one of those people who will ever trade my life in the City for a quiet, hard-won existence among fields. Yet, it’s impossible to forget the landscape of my childhood. My mom tries to assauge my asphalt fever with photos from her own garden, where she manages to transform a Midwestern blink of a growing season into a year of food for her family.

In my fridge right now: my mom’s apple butter, dill pickles and gooseberry jelly.

Her plot, which measures roughly 75 yards long and 25 yards wide, is no Victory Garden. Martha Stewart would immediately break out in hives if she ever saw my mother’s casual approach to organizing her plants. The fence that fails to keep out the rabbits looks like it’ll fall over with the next gust, and her compost pile would qualify as a public menace anywhere else. She stakes her plants with odd bits of lumber, letting rusty nails add a bit of thrill to picking tomatoes. She leaves the weeds in peace.

A helpful note on the back of the photo for her city-slicker daughter: “tomatoes in center (8 ft tall), on the right bitter melon (kho qua) on the left hot & green pepper and pumpkin (only one).”

Just like her document files (a pile of important papers kept in an old suitcase with a broken latch) and her refrigerator (where only the brave in my family venture), the rows and patches of growth in my mother’s garden have no sense of apparent order. Yet, she knows eactly where to dig for her horseradish, where this year’s mint will probably spread, where to push past the ragweed and buckhorn to find the garlic. To me, it looks like one giant jungle. To her, it’s as clear as it needs to be.

A late summer batch laid out in preparation for making kimchi.

The ground is still frozen where she lives, but she’s already planning for the summer ahead. When the frost has finally left, she’ll push the banana plant outside for a few months of fresh air. She’ll consider ordering some chicks from the local hatchery, or she may decide that this year, she’d rather buy fresh eggs and chicken than worry every day about hawks and racoons. She always overdoes it with the tomatoes, but who can blame her? There’s no such thing as too many ripe beefsteaks when you have friendly neighbors and plenty of room for quart jars in the basement.

Showing off the day’s catch with her “see what your mom can do” expression.

Between us stretch five wide states, three time zones and a cultural gap that often leaves us both befuddled. She’s trying to prepare herself for retirement, while I try to prepare myself for a family of my own. But food still connects us. I decided long ago not to fly home during winter holidays. Instead, I schedule my trips for pies from my mom’s prickly gooseberry bushes or dumplings from her squat apple trees, huge pots of sweet-spicy canh chua simmered with catfish from her pond or the tenderest of baby mustard leaves for banh xeo. Every morning that I’m home, I wake to the sound of her watering her plants before she heads off to work, and every evening we enjoy the fruits of her labor at dinner when she returns. We have an easy arrangement: she grows, I cook.

And we both eat.

This month, the row of plants on my kitchen windowsill include a carrot top sprouted in water. No harvest, but a growing reminder of my mom’s food.

Cultivating one’s garden 11 March,2007Thy Tran

  • shuna fish lydon


    This post has created salty tears on my cheeks. Thank you so much for an evocative piece redolent of spices and emotions familiar and bittersweet. Gorgeous, grand, generous.

  • robynn

    This post makes me want to hide in your luggage on your next visit!


Thy Tran

Thy Tran writes literary nonfiction about food, the rituals of the kitchen, and the many ways eating and cooking both connect and separate communities around the world. She co-authored the award-winning guide, Kitchen Companion, and her work has appeared in numerous other books, including Asia in the San Francisco Bay Area: A Cultural Travel Guide and Cooking at Home with the Culinary Institute of America. Her writing has been featured in The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Fine Cooking and Saveur. A recipient of a literary grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission, Thy is currently working on a collection of essays about how food changes in families across time and place.

Though trained as a professional chef, she works on cookbooks by day, then creates literary chapbooks by night. An old letterpress and two cabinets of wood and lead type occupy a corner of her writing studio, for she is as committed to the art and craft of bookmaking as she is to the power of words themselves. In addition to writing, editing, teaching and printing, Thy remains active in local food justice and global food sovereignty movements. Visit her website,, to learn more about her culinary adventures.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor