As the wife of a career diplomat, Wanpen Ordonez has gardened around the world. In places as different as Micronesia (warm and wet) and Saudi Arabia (hot and dry), she has learned a powerful lesson about cultivating her herbs and vegetables: You have to work with nature, but you don’t have to follow the local horticultural conventions.
I stepped into her backyard vegetable garden in Northern Virginia on a recent damp, chilly day to find a garden that would have been unusually precocious in a normal spring. To see fruiting tomatoes, flowering potatoes and blooming beans in the midst of a May gripped by rain and chill seemed almost miraculous.
The tomato vines had reached six feet high, which was 13 inches taller than the gardener, and many were flowering. One had a truss of small fruit that was beginning to turn red. This is a scene from late July, so how did she achieve such a feat now in a suburban detached house in Vienna, devoid of any greenhouse?
The clue was the partially sunken, three-gallon plastic pots at the base of each of the half-dozen vines. The ripening tomatoes started life late, seeded in July so that they were bearing fruit in the fall. They spent the winter indoors, much as a tender hibiscus might, marking time by a west-facing window.
By early April, they were raring to go: She took the pots outside, bringing them in when nighttime temperatures were forecast below 50 degrees. By late April, it was safe to leave them out, even if temperatures remained below normal under gray skies.
The vines share a bed with 17 smaller tomato transplants and 16 eggplants, all started indoors in early spring, all ferried in and out of the house on cold April nights, and all now protected against cutworm damage by sunken plastic pots. Other beds hold pepper plants, beans and more conventional spring fare: greens, radishes and potatoes.
Don’t ask her what varieties she’s growing. “A mix” she says, meaning a potpourri of saved seeds from last year’s crop, which may have come from the year before. She can’t remember the last time she bought a packet of seeds.
Ordonez is a true gardener, which is to say inventive, intuitive, thrifty and guided by trial and error. It’s mostly practice — three hours a day — and little theory, which may be why her garden is so endearingly idiosyncratic. If you don’t at first notice the spring tomatoes, you do catch the meticulously crafted bamboo fence that protects the central vegetable garden from deer. Behind it you see the living screen of bamboo on the property line. Some people have nightmares about rampant bamboo; here it is tamed by the builder.
Outside the fenced area, she shows me other beds where overwintering onions and leeks are growing, and where cucurbits are a month ahead of schedule, growing out of piles of compost and leaf mold formed on the lawn, or over the driveway, which is a loose gravel layer atop rich subsoil. The driveway is full of sesame seedlings, which will be gathered and grown on. Virtually everything in this one-third of an acre will end up on the table. “It’s not about saving money,” she said when I asked about the cost, a vulgar thought. “It’s about healthy living.”
Ordonez acquired her green thumb growing up in an isolated village in northern Thailand, where everyone worked the soil to sustain themselves. Now 56, she goes back occasionally to visit her mother and other family members who would not have dreamed of the kind of peripatetic life that would take their daughter to such countries as India, Samoa or Morocco, as well as various parts of the United States. By the time she met her husband, Michael Ordonez, who was then in the Peace Corps, she had left the village to go to school in the city of Chiang Mai, itself an act of fortitude. Earlier, she had found herself in her grandfather’s rice fields, staring at his herd of water buffalo, and realized she couldn’t live the rest of her life there.
The Ordonezes moved to Vienna (Virginia, not Austria) in 2010 and then spent a couple of years in Micronesia before returning to settle, finally, in Northern Virginia.
Surrounding yourself with plants has to do with creating a sense of home, perhaps more important when your life has been nomadic. The scenery changes, but the verdant world of a Southeast Asian childhood echoes through the years until it comes to rest in a suburban yard. In the village, “I learned the lifestyle, the farming, what you had to do to survive,” she said. “How to go hunting for mushrooms, for fish, bamboo.”
In harvesting her bamboo today, Ordonez selected older culms because they last longer than newer ones, she said. Those she doesn’t build with, she eats. This stand has met its match.
She spent seven full days in March building the enclosure, using a hand spade that her mother had passed down to her. It is a simple tool, well-worn, but a powerful token between a mother and her daughter that spans decades and continents.
Such talismans make anything possible, even tomatoes in May.