Scott and his husband Dave garden in Corvallis. Scott documents their experience gardening while connecting with other gardeners on Instagram at @thegardendaddies
What was your gardening journey?
We moved to Corvallis in 2016 to start working at Oregon State University and began thinking about gardening almost immediately. We had done a little bit of gardening when we lived in Davis, California when we were both learning and working at UC Davis. When we got here, it was sort of like, “oh there’s so much possibility!” So we started very small, and dug up a square of grass and planted some chard in it. And it’s grown to what you see now.
That was sort of the journey but if I think a little farther back, I’m so lucky to have two grandmothers who were and are incredible gardeners. My grandma Joanne was an incredible gardener in Ohio and always kept beautiful flowers. My grandma Kay, who immigrated from India to the US, always had—and continues to have—beautiful gardens. One of my really strong garden memories is when she lived in India, and I actually had a chance to live with her and my grandfather for a period of time, she had this beautiful garden on a terrace and grew ginger, turmeric, vegetables and flowers and all sorts of things. I think it seeped in that you can grow a lot of good and nutritious food in a small space, so that’s been something we’ve carried with us.
I’ve tried to grow ginger and turmeric. We grew ginger last year and this year we had a little turmeric experiment that didn’t go as planned but I’m going to try again. We do have other herbs that are unique that maybe you don’t find everywhere, like is Rau Ram and chilies that are indigenous varieties that aren’t typically grown in the United States. We try to think of the different cultural traditions in the foods we grow.
How would you describe your relationship to gardening today?
For me, and for us, especially this last year, the garden has become a place of calm. I use the word sanctuary both because it’s a great word and because it describes this place where we can put our hands to work and put our minds to work but in a very different way than we do in our day jobs.
The experience of growing your own food is really special, even if it’s just 2 or 3 carrots or a couple of tomatoes, just having the chance to see something grow from a small seed or start is really incredible. We’ll have meals almost entirely made from our garden, “this is amazing!”
How do you see your cultural identity intersecting with gardening?
I’m a strong believer in connecting our identities to food and the foods we eat. I identify as multi-racial and the fact that I can maintain a strong connection to my Indian identity, my south Asian identity, through the food that we grow is important to me. That means that the food we grow we get to cook and eat in dishes that I grew up eating that my mom and grandmother made. I think that’s important. It creates a continuity in identity that’s unique and special. And I think a lot of people do that.
I think about friends that grow vegetables that they can’t find anywhere else. They’re able to grow them and share them with others because they can grow them. I grow a couple of variety of Indian eggplants that are very small. The variety that I have is called Udumalpet; you just don’t find it except at some specialty Indian grocery stores. Last year I grew a type of squash called Bhopla from seeds my grandmother gave me from India. Our climate isn’t quite right to get the squash, but even just seeing it and having it range all over the yard was special. That creates a through line: the plants we grow, the food we grow, all help me to connect to my own sense of cultural identity.
You’ve been exploring eggplant this year: tell me more about it?
There are so many different kinds of eggplant. We use it in subji (mixed vegetables), people often know this dish as curry. We also use the grill a lot for eggplants. I’ll roast them and cut them up, and then cook in sauces that have garlic, onion, spices and tomatoes.
Eggplants are really underrated. We’re just used to those big spongy versions. This year we’re growing Udumalpet, Tsaloniki which is a Greek variety, Shimoda which is a Japanese variety, Thai long eggplants, and there’s a variety called Annina which is just beautiful. It’s fun exploring them.
What’s your number one gardening tip for growing eggplant?
Eggplant is hard to grow in the Willamette Valley because it needs consistent heat. We also have what I’d call a non-optimal gardening spot. We have huge 80-foot trees behind us cutting off the sun at about 2:30 or 3 every day, but we have lots and lots of eggplants that are growing.
The key for us is that we start all of our warm weather crops under low tunnels. The tomatoes will be in the ground late March/early April under tunnels and the peppers and eggplants will follow 3-4 weeks afterwards. In some cases, we put seed starting mats inside the low tunnels to provide some warmth on the ground. This allows them to get some heat and start putting in their roots. Then we will get eggplants by July instead of September.
All of the eggplants this year were grown from seed. We’ve been transitioning to starting more by seed. Tomatoes, eggplants, peppers are all inside the house to start—Dave is very patient with me putting up seed racks in the house. And then cool-tolerant crops like lettuce and brassicas we start in our garage. I really need to pace myself. If I had my druthers I’d start tomatoes in January, but that’s a little too early.
You grow a lot! What do you do with it all?
We give a lot of it away. We show up at our neighbors’ doors. We have friends across the street who don’t have a garden, but they have apple and plum trees, so we trade. Our neighbor Nora grows Asian pears and apples, and she comes by and we’ll send her on her way with collards and tomatoes.
We take the quickest route to preserving. With tomatoes—we’ve canned—but we’re lucky that we have a chest freezer. I take whole tomatoes, wash them, dry them, freeze them completely whole, and stick them in a paper bag or container and just put them in the freezer. And then take out one or two, not even defrost them, and throw them into a soup, stew or daal, and they disintegrate. We do a lot of freezing. We blanche the greens, shock them in cold water, make softballs out of them, and freeze the softballs. Those greens go into everything, but mostly pastas and soups.
All photos by Scott Vignos