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Community gardener Ling Zhang shares her love of growing food and family ties

In celebration of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month, we are hosting a series of profiles and stories to amplify and honor people, businesses, organizations, and projects connected to the history of Seattle’s AANHPI community.

What is your ethnicity and generation in the United States?

“I am Chinese, born in Beijing. Very typical, we had tall buildings filled with apartments. My family had a two-bedroom condo, and we grew little plants in pots on the balcony. I came to U.S. for grad school in Minnesota and after graduation my husband got a job at Amazon, so we moved to Seattle in 2005.”  

How long have you/your family been gardening at your P-Patch?

Ling’s father and daughter check out a large turnip.

“I’ve been gardening at Picardo for nine years. I registered when I was expecting my daughter. My original idea for having the garden was to have fun for my kids. My parents were here when my daughter was born. They would put her in the stroller and come visit the garden, so the whole family was participating. Before she was old enough to walk, they put her on the ground sitting next to a turnip that was as big as her head! That was to show the evidence that she was growing with the garden. We have too much fun! My son Roger is now three and a half, he was born with the hope of helping out at the garden. Indeed, he is a quite a helper, he was planting fava beans when was under one and he was helping grandpa spread the wood chips when he was two, now he enjoys digging potatoes, watering, weeding, and a lot more. Because of COVID my parents could not go back to China in the past year, so my dad enjoyed gardening at the P-Patch and at home, it’s his playground.”

Is there a vegetable/plant you like to grow that connects you to your family heritage?

“The first year I came to US, I went to the store and maybe 80-90 percent of the produce were like what we have in China, but there is one thing I can’t tolerate and it’s the cucumber here! When I got my P-Patch plot I was excited to grow my own cucumbers from China. They are long and about the size of the English cucumber but prickly. In China, the cucumbers on the market always have flowers on top so you can see how fresh they are. They are very juicy and sweet, and the skin is thin. So, I always grow 3-4 plants and I share the starts to my Chinese friends so they can grow them at home. The other special vegetable would be the napa cabbage. There are no fresh vegetables growing in Northern China during wintertime. So families relied on the napa cabbage for winter dinner. Every family would know 10-15 different ways to cook it. I remember as a kid the market selling napa cabbages in a big field filled with many small mountains of napa cabbages. Each pile would have 200-300 pounds [of napa cabbage] that’s per family! I recall my dad would wrap individual cabbages in newspaper and store them in the hallway for those months. Over here fresh vegetables are readily available, we never had to store them. Maybe because I ate too much napa cabbages as a child, I don’t crave for it as much as cucumbers, but I do grow some just to show my kids and use them in dumplings.”  

How does growing food help you maintain a connection to your heritage?

Ling’s son helps weed her garden plot

My dad is from a rural area. My grandma and grandpa lived in the rural area outside Beijing. In their fields they grew corn and cotton. They also had chickens and a small pond with ducks. I enjoyed playing over there in the summer where I would try to find the duck eggs in the mud! It was super fun trying to treasure hunt all the hiding spots of the chicken eggs too. I think my dad has naturally a green thumb growing in a farmer’s family. Because I live in the big cities, I’m always interested in something much closer to nature than going to the park because you can get your hands dirty. With my kids I like them to have exposure to this type of fun childhood like digging dirt, watering, snacking on sungold tomatoes, strawberries, raspberries right off the plants. I would say this love of growing own food might be in my genes.”