Tyler, growing Nira and family

I am a Japanese American and almost graduate at OSU in bioresource research. I conducted my research with Gail Langellotto in the Garden Ecology Lab. 

My journey towards gardening.

I grew up in Boring Oregon. It’s very rural, with a lot of farmland. My neighbors had all sorts of animals. I grew up around gardening. My father was a big gardener. My mother, as well. And then we moved to the city (Portland, OR), and I went to an environmental middle school, where gardening was just a big part of the curriculum. We did around 20 hours of gardening in a week. Every Thursday, we would go to places for eight hours, like Johnson Creek Watershed. We would do water sampling and learn about native plants. On Wednesdays, we would go to a different place, like a community garden, and work for the community. We learned about native plant ecology, and how to build things out of cob. We’d still have our homeroom classes, where we learned things like math and English, reading and writing. But the big majority of [school] was community service, learning how to garden, and getting out there in the environment. It was very much a hippie culture, very untouched by gentrification in Portland, which wove really nicely with my Japanese culture. It was the best school. I highly recommend it.

One thing that I’ve developed and learned about Japanese culture is Shintoism, which is one of Japan’s oldest religions. It stems from the belief that nature is the start, is our creator. So like respect to everyone and respect in nature. Which is another reason why like I talk to my plants. It’s not scientifically proven, but I definitely believe it, waking up in the morning and walking around and checking on everyone.

My relationship with gardening, today.

Gardening is definitely a huge part of my life now. I’m moved away from my family and budgeting my money a lot more. So dinner isn’t provided by my family, or my mother more specifically. I needed to learn how to grocery shop. And grocery shopping really wasn’t doing it for me. So gardening really filled that niche of being able to get fresh produce on days that I wasn’t able to go to the farmer’s market.

Do you have cultural traditions that you integrate in your gardening?

I don’t think I have any cultural traditions that I integrate into my garden, necessarily. It’s just how I’ve been raised around my mother in Japanese culture. It’s shaped how I garden and how I feel. It’s kinda hard to describe. I definitely feel that I like to look at plants like, “Oh, what can I make with that in this Japanese recipe that my mom used to make?”.

The plants that are of significance to my cultural traditions include: 

Shishito peppers. I love those. They’re used in tempura and pickling. And then there’s also different greens like the Choi greens. Purple shiso and green shiso leaves, which I’m growing for the first time. They’re perennials, and very hard to start. I found the (shiso) seeds at Nichols Nusery. When they moved to Philomath, they were like five minutes away from me. So I was like ‘Oh my gosh. I have to go.’ And they had both kinds (purple and green shiso). They had a few other culturally significant seeds, not for Japanese culture, but just in general.

And then the hardest ones that I had to find was nira, which is also known as Chinese chives. I bought nira for the first time a couple years ago, and I tried to use them in stir fries and was never truly happy with how the dish was coming out. The smell and the flavor wasn’t right.

And that was one thing that I learned is that the nira that’s available in Corvallis isn’t actually nira. It’s Chinese chives or American garlic chives. So it’s kind of something that’s been deemed similar, even though it’s definitely not. The smell’s not the same. Neither is the flavor.

I found real, actual nira, kind of by random. I found it because I belong to this gardening Facebook group. It’s a wonderful community that trades and barters. I offered up bay saplings, because we have bay trees on the property. So I dug them out, and then I posted on the Facebook group. And this Chinese lady asked to come pick up like six of the saplings. And in return, she gifted me all these plants: chamomile, mugwort, irises, lilies. But one of them was nira. And it’s not like the stores’ Chinese chives. Its actual nira where the leaves are a lot thinner and softer. And it was just this one little plant that looks like a little onion start. But now it’s like an actual plant that grew through the winter and survived. 

One of the things that I really remember is making the pot stickers or gyoza with my mom, like since I was a kid. She’d make this huge bowl of ginger ground pork and nira. And it’s kinda like that green eggs and ham thing where there’s this big bowl of green.

And as a kid, I thought it looked so strange. But you grab a little ball and you wrap it up in the gyoza paper. And I would do that with my mother all the time growing up. And that smell was very distinct and something that’s not the same from the nira that I purchase at the grocery store.

So having real nira in my garden is really special. I’m taking this wherever I go. And I just want to reiterate that having moved to college, not having my family making the food is why nira has been so significant. Because it is that connection to family, especially during the pandemic.

Nira in Tyler’s garden. Nira is hardy in zones 4-9.

What’s your #1 gardening tip for growing nira in your garden? 

Creating microclimates. This is something I learned about more this term, in Lloyd Nackley’s greenhouse class. Using other plants as a sun barrier or wind barrier. Keeping one corner of the garden different, which is how I was able to keep my nira plant over winter. And it didn’t die over the winter because I had kale growing around it, and it made the shield around and over the nira. And I was really happy about that.

Three words to describe nira:

  • I definitely feel ‘connection’ or ‘family’ should be one of the words.
  • ‘Culture’ could be another word, or ‘significance’ but that seems almost too on point. But it really is significant to me and to my culture
  • ‘Valued’, ‘rare’.

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Thanks so much for sharing your story and the delicious sounding recipe for gyoza. My husband lived in Japan for a while and gyoza is one of his favorite things so I may have to round up a Nira plant myself someday to make it more authentically. I had no idea there were special Japanese chives. I’m glad to know…

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