Our culture is reflected in our gardens. The food we eat, what we grow and how we grow it are related to our heritage. I grew up eating broccoli in small-town Wisconsin. When I started working with community gardeners in Milwaukee, I met gardeners who were not familiar with broccoli. They planted collards, a crop I had never seen before. They grew turnips and ate the leaves. Unlike my family, these gardeners had traditions rooted in the South.

Last summer I was tickled to find a vegetable I didn’t recognize growing in a bed alongside the Chowder House in east Fairbanks. It looked similar to broccoli. When I inquired as to what it might be, I was told the gardener spoke only Chinese. Across the street in the ornamental plantings at the AK Buffet, were other unfamiliar plants that I thought might be edible.

There’s a strong connection between plants and people. Gardeners often bring along plants with significant meaning when they move to Alaska.

Community gardens provide an opportunity to learn about new plants and gardening techniques from others.

“We eat Hmong food,” a Lao community gardener once told me.

He was referring to the mustard greens his family grew. The seed was brought to Alaska by Hmong gardeners. I had to agree that these mustard greens tasted better than any of the other varieties I had grown in trials. Unfortunately, I could find no commercial source for the seed. The seed was passed from one gardener to another.

Sooyoung Kang and her husband II-Sang Ahn grow a type of perilla called kkaenip. I see it in most Korean gardens. The scientific name of kkaenip is Perilla frutescens. It is sometimes called sesame leaf. I asked Sooyoung why she grows perilla.

“I love the taste,” she told me. “It’s a bit bitter and grassy. I wash it and eat it raw with rice and meat or fish. You wrap cooked rice with it and add some Korean red pepper sauce called gochujang. I also make a kimchi with kkaenip or pickle it with soy sauce and another secret sauce recipe. The leaves can be cut lengthwise as a topping for any dish or like salad.”

Sooyoung told me there’s nothing difficult about growing kkaenip. She purchases her seed online and sprinkles it into the garden.

I once had a Master Gardener volunteer of German descent who grew a full row of lovage in his garden. Lovage is a big plant.

“Werner,” I asked, “How can you possibly use this much lovage?” “It’s for the soup,” he told me with a grin.

Deborah Webb is also excited about growing lovage. She recently learned the perennial overwinters in her plot at the UAF Campus Community Garden. Deborah told me that lovage was a staple in her grandmother’s cooking.

“She used it in soups, stews and salad dressings. “Once a week she usually made a ‘Maerit Sueppli’ or ‘Market soup.’ She would buy a few handfuls of mixed herbs sold specifically for soup at the farmers market. There was always a lot of lovage in that mix.”

Heritage influences which vegetables and herbs a gardener grows but also influences the culture of that crop. Note the double meaning here. In addition to customs, culture can also mean the techniques used to cultivate a crop. In Milwaukee, African American community gardeners pulled up their mustard greens and replanted as soon as they noticed any sign of flowering. Hmong gardeners ate the expanding flower shoots and left some plants in the garden to produce seed. Same plant, different cultural practices.

Planting in solid blocks is now a common technique used by urban gardeners. But I first noticed this type of planting in the gardens and fields of Hmong gardeners who were new to this country. It’s likely their ancestors grew their food on hillsides in terraced plots where arable land was at a premium.

In traditional row planting, seeds are spaced, or are latter thinned, to be equidistant apart. When I see a garden with a lot of space between seeds planted in groups of three, I wonder if the gardener has been transplanted to Alaska from the South where this style of planting is more common.

Horticulture is related to human culture. We each have our own horticultural heritage and the gardens in our community reflect the diversity of those who live and grow here.

Julie Riley is horticulture agent with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service. She can be reached at 474-2423 or jariley@alaska.edu.