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The magic of weeds

Hannah Beier

When Tama Matsuoka Wong first started gardening, she tried for a picture perfect yard. She followed the traditional advice for flower and fruits and vegetables and she says she failed miserably. Again and again, almost everything except the weeds in her yard just died.

"So after I tried to plant things and they either never came up or I planted things that were alive but they died, then I started looking around at like well, what’s there anyway, that I didn’t kill? And I started to notice like the plants that did perfectly well without having to do all these things that you had instructions on, and the more I learned about them, the more kind of layered and curious and beautiful I found things were."

So Tama gave up on traditional gardening and instead started learning the names and stories of every plant she found already growing on her land, identifying them and getting to know them one by one.

"And I had cataloged maybe 200 plus plants that were growing in my backyard. And so these friends of ours said, oh, we're going in to eat at Restaurant Daniel, which is like Michelin multi, multiple Michelin starred restaurant, and we're going to eat there for, you know, our anniversary or birthday or something. And so we want you to go there and bring in your plants."

At first Tama refused, she said — I can’t go in there and tell them to cook these plants for your dinner. But her friends were regulars and insisted the plants would be well received. So she went ahead and picked some anise hyssop — one of her favorites.

"Which at the time is not so readily available as a cultivated herb as it is now. And I brought it in in the, in the morning and I showed them a picture of my meadow so they knew it didn't come from a garbage dump or something. And they called down to the to the kitchen, and they happened to get the guy who is their chef de cuisine as kind of their flavor savant guy, Eddie Leroux, and he's like, “Oh yes, we make something.” And so then he and the pastry chef Dominique Ansel, who has gone on to be the guy that invented the cronut they made it into that evening for, like, these two extra dishes. One was an Iberico ham, melon and annise hyssop, and the other was in anisse hyssop sorbet."

So Tama sat with her friends tried the dishes which she says were amazing and then after dinner, the chefs called her down again to the kitchen:

"And Eddie Leroux said, so what else do you have in your meadow, Mrs. Wong? And I was like, I have like 200 something plants. What are you looking for? And he's like, bring me everything I pay you. And I was like, no, I just want recipes. And I think we both looked at each other like, this guy’s just going to give me free recipes? And he was like, she doesn’t want money, she just wants stupid recipes? And so that’s kind of how it started."

Leroux and Tama worked together trading knowledge in an exchange they simply called The Project. Tama found herself bringing garbage bags of stinging nettles to Le Roux on the subway and foraging plants like Japanese knotweed and chickweed, which her own Japanese relatives recognized and appreciated when they came over as not just invasive plants, but food. Slowly, Tama’s thinking about gardening — this activity where she’d once seen herself as a failure — completely changed. And today, she’s written a book, advocating for a different kind of approach to plants.

"The let it be way of gardening, which is I mean, there is stewardship, but I think we don't have to we can kind of relax a bit. We don't have to. We don't have to push the pedal so hard and be so perfectionist. I think that's what I'm trying to get about in my, you know, in my book Into the Weeds, that if you start to take a second look, instead of just trying to get rid of and rip out the things that you didn't plant. I think that people can kind of drive themselves a little crazy by that, and we don’t have to have a garden be so ornamental either, we can have it as a place that is alive and that we can enjoy and that we have a relationship with."



Tama's website:


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An avid locavore, Elspeth lives in Wellfleet and writes a blog about food. Elspeth is constantly exploring the Cape, Islands, and South Coast and all our farmer's markets to find out what's good, what's growing and what to do with it. Her Local Food Report airs Thursdays at 8:30 on Morning Edition and 5:45pm on All Things Considered, as well as Saturday mornings at 9:30.