By Robert O'Malley, Globe Correspondent, 10/07/99
When Liang Hao arrived in America four years ago, she brought with her a little piece of China. Almost as soon as she moved into her daughter's house on a quiet street, she planted a vegetable garden reminiscent of the ones she used to cultivate in her homeland.
A lifetime farmer in a village in Guangdong Province, the 61-year-old Liang now spends much of her time transforming the backyard of her family's home into a lush rural landscape.
Spreading along the side and back of the house, Liang's vegetable plants climb homemade lattices and cling to fences; they trail out of tall plastic containers and even wrap around an abandoned swing set in the backyard. Liang plants many of the vegetables typically found on the Chinese dinner table, including bok choy and winter melon, fuzzy squash and bitter melon, cheng choy and Chinese eggplant.
With vegetables a mainstay of the Chinese diet and freshness an essential ingredient of Chinese cuisine in general, many local Chinese residents have taken to growing their own vegetables to ensure a steady supply of fresh produce for their dinner tables. In the Wollaston section of Quincy - where the Chinese population has been on the rise for more than a decade - vegetable gardens are everywhere, climbing over fences and meandering around garages. In a front yard near the Wollaston T station, a vegetable garden spreads along the length of a chain-link fence at the front of a house, creating a landscape as lush and attractive as a flower garden.
But while gardening provides many families with a fresh supply of Chinese vegetables, it also gives many Chinese elders a sense of accomplishment and a palpable connection to the homeland they left behind. Activities such as gardening and caring for grandchildren give many elders a sense of purpose in a country that can often seem isolating and perplexing because of their limited knowledge of English and local customs.
''They don't have jobs, and it keeps them busy,'' says Liang's daughter, Theresa Zhang, who adds that her mother took care of all the farming on the family's plot in China.
An animated woman who is quick to smile, Liang beams when she describes the role the garden plays in her life now. ''I like it very much,'' she says. ''I started the garden as soon as I came here.''
Liang says she starts some of the plants inside the house, then transfers them to the garden once they've begun to grow. She waters the plants frequently and feeds them store-bought fertilizer once or twice a week. While Liang uses some commercial pesticide to protect the plants from insects, she tries to limit its use, applying it only in the early stages and only to obvious infestation. Her daughter says she asks her mother to apply the pesticide only around the plant rather than on the plant itself.
Everyone is a gardener
If you ask Chinese gardeners where they learned their skills, most will laugh at the question, explaining that everyone in China - a country where the majority of the people lives in the countryside - knows something about gardening.
''You don't need anyone to teach you,'' says Liang, who has been gardening all her life.
Zhang, who learned her gardening skills by working in the fields with her mother, says that students at the school where she taught in China also used to learn basic gardening skills in the school garden.
Gardening is pervasive in Chinese life. In the cities, many people cultivate plants on the balconies of their buildings, while in the countryside most people depend on farming for their livelihoods. Travelers passing through rural China may sometimes feel as though they're passing through a huge garden that extends from horizon to horizon.
''You learn it from your ancestors,'' adds Charles Ho, who cultivates a large garden in his yard on Ellington Road in Wollaston. ''Every Chinese in the village plants vegetables.''
Like other gardeners in the neighborhood, Ho gardens for pleasure and to supply his dinner table with fresh Chinese vegetables. Born in Guangxi Province, he migrated to Vietnam with his family at the age of 4 and departed from his adopted country by boat in 1979, when the Vietnamese forced many Chinese from the country.
Ho and several other gardeners say that while local Chinese markets (and some mainstream markets) sell most of the vegetables they grow, the produce in the stores isn't as tasty as their homegrown vegetables.
''The market is expensive and it's not fresh,'' says Ho. ''But it's also better if we do it ourselves because we really like doing it.''
Like many of the neighborhood gardeners, Ho has built elaborate lattices to give his melon and bean vines places to cling. To make these structures, the gardeners use everything from scrap wood and branches to strips of cloth and plastic twine. If the yard has a chain-link fence, many gardeners let their plants trail along the fence.
Ho and Liang both say that successful gardeners need to observe the weather and learn from experience how much water and fertilizer to give the plants. It's important ''to pay attention to the garden and take care of it,'' says Liang, who carefully inspects and straightens her plants as she talks.
Also important, say the gardeners, is the fertility of the land. Liang, for example, believes that the ''muddy'' land in Quincy is probably more fertile than the ''sandy'' land she used to cultivate in China.
The gardeners point out that getting their plants started this year was a challenge because of a spate of cold spring weather. Ho says his first planting of winter melon was destroyed by the cold, while his second crop was planted too late and started off poorly. Liang says she had the same problem with her plants, explaining that she planted this year's winter melon three times before she finally got it to grow. Liang also says her winter crop isn't doing well, but she attributes its poor performance to the summer's persistent heat.
While feeding and watering the plants appropriately is important to the success of a garden, the gardeners say that obtaining quality seeds is also critical.
''Lots of the [Chinese] vegetables I really miss,'' says Ho, who grows many of the same Chinese vegetables as his neighbors, as well as tomato, garlic, and pumpkin. ''I can't find the seeds. No one gets them.''
Although many Chinese vegetable seeds can be purchased in local Chinese markets, several of the gardeners say they prefer seeds from China. If gardeners come across especially good seeds, they often pass them on to their friends.
The gardeners say they also collect seeds from the vegetables they grow. ''You look at all the vegetables and you save the biggest one,'' says Liang. ''Hopefully it will give you the best seed for next year's garden.''
Liang observes that many non-Chinese gardeners in the neighborhood grow flowers rather than vegetables. ''American gardens are very beautiful,'' she says. ''They have a lot of flowers. We don't know how to plant flowers, so we plant vegetables.''
Her daughter, however, disagrees. ''We know how to plant the flowers,'' she says, ''but we just don't have enough time to take care of them.'' Raised in a culture in which food plays a central role in daily life, many Chinese families prefer vegetables to flowers because they can eat them, says Zhang, who adds that homegrown vegetables ''taste better than those in the markets, for sure.''
Yet, not every neighborhood gardener is solely intent on eating what she grows. Alice Wen, whose mother cultivates the family vegetable garden in the backyard of her home on Oxenbridge Street in Wollaston, says her mother sometimes becomes so attached to her vegetables that she is reluctant to pick them.
''She doesn't want to eat them,'' she says, laughing. ''She wants to see them and let everybody else see them!''
This story ran on page G01 of the Boston Globe on 10/07/99.
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