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Homegrown Heritage

Adding outdoor elements reminiscent of your homeland can reconnect you to your ethnic roots

En español | Like her Spanish ancestors, Loretta Fresquez, 61, and her husband tend a farm in northern New Mexico. Not only does gardening connect her to her ancestors, who arrived from Mexico in the 1600s, it also revives childhood memories. In her father’s orchard, Fresquez says, “When the cherries started just taking on a little bit of tint of red, we’d be yanking them off the tree.”

See also: 10 Tips for Photographing Your Garden.

lush garden

Photo by: Tim Street-Porter/Getty Images

Adding outdoor elements reminiscent of your homeland can reconnect you to your ethnic roots.

Less sweet are her husband’s early memories of gardening. “When I was growing up, it was just a survival thing,” says David Fresquez, 66, who remembers having to sell wild asparagus and other plants as his father struggled to put five children through Catholic school. Only when he neared retirement, from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, did his thoughts wander to his own garden. “I like to just grow things,” he says. “I like nature by itself, just being out there and enjoying the fresh air. It makes me just feel real happy inside.”

Whether yours is a farm of many acres or a small concrete square, you can turn it into a haven that makes you happy. And digging up your emotional connection to the land can lead you down the perfect garden path.

The Lay of the Land

Get to know your landscape by sketching it out, suggests Andres Mejides, who teaches organic gardening at Miami Dade College in South Florida. “I have students bring me a drawing of their property and show me where different structures are, like the house itself, walls, and existing trees, so that we can mix tropical fruit trees with vegetables they’re interested in, consider where the sun’s going to be [strongest], and things like that.”

Then list the elements you have available. Is the yard made mostly of brick or other patio material but has at least two borders that could become sheltering walls? If so, the inviting charm of a hacienda-style courtyard with potted plants, rustic wooden tables, and iron candelabra might be a better fit.

With a sketch in hand and knowledge of how the sun crosses your land, you can note areas that remain in the shadows and sheltered from wind and rain, and places where plants might be exposed to extreme temperatures. Once you have the lay of the land, you can dig deeper and consider soil type and moisture retention, perhaps seeking input from a local gardening center.

Next: Spice up your garden.>>

Spice up your garden

Variety truly spices up life when it creates a space where Latin flavors thrive. Consider hot peppers. While some Spanish-speaking countries still boast unique peppers, plants were often traded across borders and given new names. Ají cachucha, an aromatic pepper Cubans add to black beans, thrives and can even grow into a tree in the Miami area. But Puerto Ricans and Dominicans call it ají dulce and say it’s perfect for flavoring sofrito (sautéed garlic and onions).

Cuban oregano, Mexican oregano, and Jamaican thyme are all the same thing. Yet “it’s not even an oregano,” Mejides notes, “but it tastes like oregano, it smells like it, and it makes a nice house plant for northerners. You can use it to flavor any kind of chicken dishes, or pork or beef.”

For those of Cuban descent intent on a tropical garden, Mejides recommends butterfly ginger, the island’s national flower, which does well in South Florida and can grow in large planters farther north when taken indoors during winter. And it can do triple duty, he says. “It’s a very beautiful flower, it’s very fragrant, and the roots can actually be used like ginger.”

When choosing your plants, keep in mind how much time you’ll have to tend them, says Andrea DeLong-Amaya, director of gardens and growing at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin. She recommends starting with just a handful of plant species. “It may not be as interesting [at first],” she says, “but that’s when you grow your garden along with your time commitment and level of interest.”

Add the Simple Touches

Once you’ve got the plants in place, add furniture and other design elements to complement the theme. Gone Caribbean? Try hammocks and bamboo or rattan furniture. For a hacienda-style garden, invest in leather sling chairs and a central or wall fountain. Tight budget? A pond lined with brick can provide a less-expensive water feature. And instead of period furniture, invoke the hacienda-inspired idea of painting garden walls in oxblood red, yellow ochre, or other traditional colors.

Now you’ve created tasteful, colorful memories to come home to.

You may also like: The art and science of composting.>>

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