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Weed It & Weep: Wendy Kiang-Spray Talks All Things Vegetable Gardening

The author of The Chinese Kitchen Garden spoke with our editors about gardening tips and tricks for beginners, seasoned pros, and all those with (or without) a green thumb.

Wendy Kiang-Spray is an author, mother, and gardening professional who knows a thing or two about a bed of failed vegetables. If you're looking to start your very first garden or are trying a second or third time, Wendy is answering all of your questions. From tips on how to start a vegetable garden, tricks for combating those pesky weeds, and what Asian vegetables she likes to cook with most, Wendy has a hand full of green fingers.

Photography by: Con Poulos

So You Want To Start A Garden?

For our readers who are looking to start their first vegetable garden, what are some of your top tips for beginning the process, such as choosing which vegetables and how to choose a space in the yard, etc.?
One of the best parts of writing The Chinese Kitchen Garden was telling about how to garden for beginners. The book has loads of info for the beginning gardener from how to start seeds, to how to make compost, to how to know when to water, to how to battle pests. It's important to know what kind of soil you have, what the sun situation is where you plan to create a garden, and to know what zone you're gardening in. Then, it's helpful to know about the vegetables you want to grow—what seasons they thrive in, if/how they grow in your zone, how big they get, and other requirements. My first year gardening, I was so excited that I bought seeds for everything I wanted to eat—among it all—artichokes. I put a seed in the ground and expected to be cutting large artichokes all summer. When would they come? Never. Artichokes really need a long season in a subtropical zone. While it's possible to produce artichokes in Maryland if one really wants to, it requires certain tricks far too advanced for a new gardener. There will be successes and failures along the way, and all the failures are learning experiences. There is a popular saying that gardeners love, "There's always next year"!

How does one prepare soil for planting a vegetable garden?
There's a more thorough explanation for how to prepare soil for planting in the book, but I like to think of my ideal soil as "light and fluffy". How we prepare soil to accomplish this ideal might differ according to where we live in North America (or the world). My soil is very clay-like. Soil can also be the opposite, very sandlike. Adding compost is a pretty good panacea for all kinds of soil problems. Doing a good soil test (check to see if your local extension office offers this service) also helps to identify what you might add to your garden to produce a more ideal environment for plants to grow. Home tests are not as accurate, but can be fun to do.

What are your top tips for preventing weeds in your garden?
The top tip I would like to follow more myself, is to spend a little more time in my garden pulling them! For a smaller backyard garden, hand-pulling is labor intensive but often more effective than cutting with a hoe. Mulch is also an important step in preventing weeds to begin with. I think it's also very important to learn about the types of weeds you have. In my garden, I have creeping charlie, which I have to stay on top of because it is VERY invasive and even little bits can take root. Dandelions must have their taproots removed or they'll keep popping back up. I have shotweed which when mature, can shoot a gazillion seeds all over my garden if I barely touch them. I pull those very carefully and ideally before they're ready to burst open. And for wild onion/garlic, I dig with a garden knife so I can remove the little bulbs. Knowing about their growing habits arms you with the knowledge to control and prevent them.

How does your geographic region and climate affect which vegetables to put in your garden?
Planting vegetables that will thrive in your zone will produce the best results. Some plants thrive in tropical weather, some like cool weather. For example, tatsoi, an excellent Chinese leafy green, actually sweetens after it's been hit with a frost—much like how carrots or kale will taste sweeter in the late fall/early winter. Enjoying fruits and veggies grown in the right zone and in the right season is a more natural way to garden and to eat too. A BLT made with a store-bought tomato in December can't hold a candle to a BLT made with a warm, sun-ripened garden tomato. Of course there are always tricks to push a zone or two that gardeners can try if they're so inclined. My friend Grace, an excellent gardener, successfully grows Meyer lemons in a pot here in Maryland by bringing it indoors in the fall before frost.

Is there any way you can make a plant or vegetable grow faster?
Seasoned gardeners have all sorts of crazy tips for making a plant grow faster, taller, more tender, sweeter, etc. It's fascinating stuff and contributes to why gardening can be so addictive. In general, good soil and a natural fertilizer will help plants grow strong and produce faster. I like to use a foliar spray made with fish emulsion (yes, it's liquid fish guts).

What are your favorite vegetables to grow? Do you have any tips on how to cater to them best?
My favorite Chinese vegetables to grow are long beans because they're fast-growing and look cool on the trellis, and gai lan (or Chinese broccoli) because it's the best-tasting Chinese vegetable, in my opinion. I also love kabocha pumpkins because they're tasty and perfectly-sized, and luffa gourds because they grow like gangbusters and turn into scrubby bath sponges that I can give away as gifts! The Chinese Kitchen Garden contains tips on not only how to grow them, but how to use them in your favorite recipes too! Aside from these Chinese vegetables, I love to grow heirloom vegetables that I can't get in stores. I have an established purple asparagus bed that produces ridiculously fat spears of this favorite vegetable each spring. I love growing tomatillos for making salsa verde, and also tiny hot chiltepins that I cook into my friend's mom's best Guatemalan hot sauce recipe. We've also grown many heirloom tomato varieties and love doing end-of-summer taste tests. Our favorites each year running are 'Cherokee Purple' and 'Hillbilly', but we still try new varieties every year!

Planting Your Plate Never Tasted So Good

In your May 2018 Better Homes & Gardens magazine spread, you included a lot of delicious recipes that incorporate your home-grown veggies. What plant or veggie makes the most frequent appearances onto your plate?
I honestly don't think there is one veggie that makes extraordinary appearances over others. However, I will say my mom's master recipe for greens on page 163 in The Chinese Kitchen Garden does make regular appearances year-round. This recipe is so simple and delicious and is something we eat throughout the year whether it is a simple family dinner or more formal holiday banquet. The only difference throughout the year is the type of leafy greens she will use. It might be watercress in the spring, Malabar spinach or amaranth greens in the summer, bok choy or my very favorite—gai lan, in the fall.

How much does your Chinese heritage play into the vegetables you plant and recipes you create?
It was fun to write about these veggies that I've eaten all my life and also to share with people who have never heard of them. Bridging two cultures, it was cool to think about how we traditionally eat these vegetables and then give ideas for how others may use them in their own recipes. I admit that I often think of them as Chinese vegetables first and tend to cook them up in Chinese ways. I'd like to break out of the box a little bit and would really love to hear how BH&G readers are using them in their own recipes! I have a Facebook group called The Chinese Kitchen Garden that I would encourage people to join. This is where I and other people like to share photos, recipes, and links to info about Asian cooking and vegetables. I hope we can expand our community and learn even more from each other!

Do you grow herbs in your garden, and if so—which are your favorite to cook with?
I do have an herb section in my garden. I love growing traditional kitchen herbs such as oregano, thyme, parsley, sage, rosemary, savory, mint (my mint is grown in a pot, sunken in the soil, to prevent spreading). I also like to grow aromatics such as garlic and red onions. When you have a garden, it is so fun to be able to gather all your ingredients for dinner from the garden! My mint is also often used throughout the summer, mostly in cocktails!

For someone who has attempted to build a vegetable garden and didn't find success, what would you say to them if they were to try again?
It's important to note that gardens don't just happen magically. There's no substitute for time in the garden. The good thing is, this is also how a love for gardening develops! It is always frustrating or disappointing when things go wrong, and I promise you they will. But, I guarantee that the gardening bug bites hard and gardeners will be right back at it next season—and with a plan and ideas for making the next garden even better!