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Vickroy: Ethnic gardens feed Southland melting pot

Zach Almattary holds up American cucumbers he grows his vegetable garden as his neighbor Bill Wisnasky checks out his tomatoes

Zach Almattary holds up American cucumbers he grows in his vegetable garden as his neighbor Bill Wisnasky checks out his tomatoes in background in Tinley Park, Illinois, Thursday, August 2, 2012. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: September 10, 2012 12:32PM



America was raised on the backyard garden.

Even today, with supermarkets on seemingly every corner, there are an estimated 43 million households with a food garden in the United States, according to the National Gardening Association.

For centuries, homeowners have customized those endeavors. They’ve planted, nurtured and harvested the ingredients they need to make many of their favorite ethnic dishes.

And so it is with the gardeners whose homes back up to Volunteer Park in Tinley Park.

Zach Almattary, who hails from Lebanon, tends to his mloukhiyeh, a kind of Middle Eastern spinach, his eggplant and his many varieties of Armenian cucumbers.

Nearby, the Basavatias, born and raised in India, grow curry leaves that will be used to flavor many traditional rice dishes.

There’s Emily Wabi, of Polish descent, who already has put up a crop of pickles and served homemade stuffed peppers more than a few times this summer.

The neighbors are united in friendship, crop sharing and a bit of friendly rivalry with Bill Wisnasky, who plants a traditional American garden, replete with tomatoes, zucchini and cucumbers.

Wisnasky and his wife, Liz, donate a portion of their harvests to the food pantry at Respond Now in Chicago Heights and Daybreak Homeless Shelter in Joliet.

Their three grown children carry on the tradition, with gardens of their own, even though Wisnasky said he never pushed the hobby on them.

“People just realize on their own how relaxing gardening can be,” he said.

“I think motherhood is the most beautiful thing in the world,” he said. “Gardening is my way of mothering. I feel close to God when I do this.”

He plants, weeds, prunes and chases more than a few freeloaders from his PVC-pipe-lined plot.

“The squirrels have gotten more cucumbers than I have this year,” he said laughing.

He also wanders freely along the fenceless property, perusing the fruits of his neighbor’s hard work and conducting a spirited race with Almattary each year to see who can produce the first home-grown tomato.

Almattary said mloukhiyeh is hard to find in the United States. So he grows it himself.

“I cook it with meat and chicken,” he said, while stepping gently through his healthy dense plot. Though it appears as lush as gardens come, Almattary laments the crops lost to the never-ending parade of rabbits, mice and opossum.

It’s all a gardener can do to stay one step ahead of the wildlife, he said.

The eggplant gets sliced, sprinkled with salt, pepper and olive oil, and put on the grill. Round squash gets stuffed with rice and meat.

The garden enables him to cook the dishes he enjoyed back in his homeland. It also supplies many of his extended family members with the foods they need to do the same.

Allmattary gardens because he likes to cook. Gardening lets him grow exactly what he needs, whether that’s rosemary and thyme or Grandpa tomatoes.

“I get all my produce from my garden in the summer,” he said. “I don’t have to buy anything.”

This summer has been rough on Nirmala Basavatia, who is recovering from a broken hip.

The Basavatias’ typically jam-packed vegetable garden has been downsized to a few containers of cherry and grape tomatoes, basil and curry leaves.

Next year, they hope, will be better.

For Ram, gardening is relaxing.

“It’s not cost-effective but that doesn’t matter. I enjoy it,” he said.

“To be with nature is spiritual,” Nirmala said.

“Yes,” Ram agreed. “To start with a small, small seed and watch it bloom to life is amazing and fun.”

This year, Wabi added broccoli and Brussels sprouts to the pickles, banana peppers and tomato plants she typically grows. And just for the heck of it, she threw a potato in, as well.

“I’m gonna see what happens,” she said.

Each spring, her husband, Henry, rototills and helps her get the garden ready to plant. After that, it’s her responsibility.

“I find it very relaxing. It’s not about saving money. I like the sense of accomplishment,” she said. “It’s so nice to just walk out to the garden to get your own peppers to make stuffed peppers.”



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