Produce business sprouts from an unlikely patch in Rainier Valley

Garden coordinator Julie Bryan talks with gardener Kim Ball Der about the vegetables he and others are growing at the New Holly development in Southeast Seattle. (DEAN RUTZ/The Seattle Times)

New Holly Market Garden, started 20 years ago by immigrants and refugees on an unused basketball court in Southeast Seattle, is now one of two city P-Patches selling organic produce by subscription.

A hazy sun glows through tender new lettuce leaves and bright green peapods at the New Holly Rockery Market Garden. It’s rush hour and the clanging of the light rail on Rainier Avenue South occasionally drowns out birds chirping in shade of a cluster of fruit trees.

But it’s exactly that contrast — of a working garden in distinctly urban setting — that makes the New Holly Market Garden special. It’s a swath of food growing right in the middle of the New Holly Housing Development in Southeast Seattle.

And this food could end up on your dinner table.

New Holly Garden is one of two plots within the city of Seattle’s P-Patch Community Gardening Program that produce food for sale through CSAs (short for Community Supported Agriculture), a system where customers subscribe to a service that provides them with locally grown food each week.

New Holly Rockery Market Garden partners with another P-Patch in West Seattle to produce 20 weeks worth of organic produce. The program is in week one of this year’s season, and they currently have 43 subscribers. If you’re interested, it costs $300 for a half share, $500 for a full share.

But this garden wasn’t always a business.

Twenty years ago many of the residents of this neighborhood were immigrants and refugees from Asian countries — some who came from farming cultures and were eager to grow their own food. So eager that they started garden plots in backyards where lead paint from old buildings threatened to contaminate the soil.

Garden Coordinator Bunly Yun — himself an immigrant from Cambodia, where he worked as a farmer — has known this garden from its inception. He saw it transform from an unused basketball court (“just broken glass and tires”) to a garden where the community could work in clean soil and then, in 1997, to a source of organic food for New Holly and beyond.

“People like to grow what they need,” says Yun, adding that many farmers were also motivated by the desire to grow produce and herbs they couldn’t find in grocery stores.

On cue, gardener Kim Ball Der, originally from China and a former cook, shoves a small cluster of soft leaves in my hand. They’re purple with a fringe of deep green.

You can’t find these in Seattle,” he says pointing at what it turns out are amaranth leaves. Apparently they’re delicious when lightly fried and served with meat. The garden also grows three different kinds of bok choy, “Shanghai small cabbage” and “Vietnamese spring onion.”

But to successfully market their CSAs to a broader Seattle, the gardeners at New Holly conducted a little survey, determining that they needed to include more European vegetables.

Beets in particular, a vegetable Der says is rarely eaten in China, have been very popular.

Outreach is key to the goals of New Holly Garden. They don’t have the resources to deliver their CSAs so subscribers have to pick them up on-site (though there is an additional pickup location in the North End) encouraging people from all over the city to visit their neighborhood.

But they also want to be sure to serve their local customers. In 2009 they opened a “Farm Stand,” and once a week during growing season they sell produce from the garden to people in New Holly.

Through interacting with the community, which in the past decade has grown to include many arrivals from East Africa, they’ve again adjusted their crops. Now they grow lots of chard, a green that is popular with Somali shoppers.

So what about the challenges of producing food out of a densely populated, super-diverse urban neighborhood?

Last year Yun says someone stole some carrots and lettuce from the garden. If it happens again they might have to put up a sign. Though he assures me it will be “a nice sign.”

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Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at