Photography by Karen Bonar
A Salina gardener demonstrates the rich, tasteful possibilities found in a simple backyard garden of an ordinary Kansas neighborhood
In the back yard of a residential neighborhood of Salina, Kamila Dandu’s garden features plants and vegetables from around the world: pencil-thin Thai long beans; spiky lime-green Asian gourds; purple, lavender and white eggplants from various countries; waxy sweet peppers from Hungary; and Italian ribbed red tomatoes mixed with an array of colorful flowers and lush green plants. Pots and plots of fragrant herbs join the mix to create a polyculture, a diversified agricultural system.
Dandu believes that with the right care and attention, the Kansas soil of her garden—which her husband has named “Danduland” as an homage to her ability to turn the lawn into an agricultural oasis—can support all sorts of plant varieties and cultures. She transplanted some moringa oleifera (a long, slender plant often called the “drumstick tree”) from seeds mailed to her from a fellow gardener in Arizona. One winter, she threw Spanish peanuts into a container, then harvested and roasted the peanuts the next summer. She says even tropical and subtropical plants can be grown in Kansas if given plenty of water, brought inside during the winter or grown as an annual.
Gardening is therapy for Dandu. She says it clears her mind, creates a feeling of peace and allows her to connect with nature. “Sometimes I spend so much time in the garden that my family forgets I’m out there,” she notes. More than once they’ve locked the house, departed, and left her stranded. Now, she hangs a warning sign on the sliding glass door: “Please do not lock this door! Otherwise there will be no dinner!”
Gardening also connects her with the past. “I was as young as four when I began helping my father in our garden plot in Ružomberok, Slovakia.” Planting pea seeds and onion sets taught her about spacing and hole depth. As she helped create compost from table scraps and grass clippings, she learned about natural gardening and how to garden on a budget. Her dad also taught her the importance of early morning watering, a regime she continues to follow.
Dandu does not have a greenhouse or any fancy equipment. She builds her own trellises, gardens with a spade, waters with a hose, and often uses seeds she saves from year to year. Sometimes she buys 19-cent seed packets but will splurge on rare seeds.
Scrapbooks full of gardening information, such as frost dates and planting times, also include handmade tables created to track the what, when, where and how related to former plantings, along with figures that indicate the percentage of sprouted seeds. Sketches of previous garden plots provide insight on the location of perennials and help Dandu design her next garden plot. She likes to rotate crops and adds, “I always include a few new vegetables each year.”
As adept at cooking as she is at gardening, Dandu has mastered European, Asian and American cuisine. She’s as likely to turn a loaf of homemade marbled rye into Reuben sandwiches, full of corned beef and oozing Swiss cheese, as she is to create an international dish. Her cooking style is a creative combination of recipes from her Slovak heritage and husband Raju’s Indian culture mixed with what’s readily available in her garden or in supermarkets. For example, she adds Indian bottleneck gourds and Thai long beans to her mother’s white bean-based Slovakian soup (Tekvicovo-fazuľková polievka) and finishes it off with spicy homemade Turkish pepper paste.
Her “waste not, want not” approach to cooking leads to very little waste. Excess tomatoes and peppers are turned into pastes or purées that are portioned and frozen for later use as flavor-packed additions to winter soups and stews. Veggies are used to create Indian dahls that are frozen in lunch-size containers for quick meals. Herbs are mixed into breads, creating elaborate loaves such as her herbed garlic pull-apart bread. Grated zucchini is used in fritters while beet greens go into stir-fry dishes. Excess radishes are pickled, chive blossoms are added to vinegar, and butterfly pea flowers and lavender create flavorful teas and lemonade.
Kamila Dandu believes that the following gardening techniques can improve any garden in our state.
- Soil Preparation: Add a combination of homemade and purchased compost to the soil as it is prepared each spring.
- Planting: Know when and how to plant each item in the garden. Some plants should be started indoors beginning in January or February; others are planted directly in the soil. Place cold-weather vegetables (such as kale, spinach, peas, chard, onions and early varieties of beets) into the ground around the middle or end of March. Plant warm-weather vegetables (tomatoes and peppers) after the last frost. Late summer is the time to replant spinach and other fall crops.
- Fertilizer: Place kelp (dried seaweed meal) into the holes where seeds or seedlings are to be planted. Mycorrhiza, a natural plant nutrient, can be put under individual plants as they are set in soil. Dandu also mixes a nontoxic Epson salt concoction that adds magnesium to the soil.
- Natural Pest and Weed Control: Edge vegetable beds with flowers (specifically marigolds and zinnias). Plant basil next to tomatoes and eggplants to help control bugs. Use mulch to control weeds.
Recipes: Roasted Eggplant & Spicy Yogurt // Spicy Basil Pesto
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