Evolution of the Ching Community Gardens

Monday, July 12, 2021

Today the fruit trees remain but the property is overgrown
Photo by Kathleen Lumiere

By Kathleen Lumiere
Photos courtesy Pam Ching-Bunge except as noted

Evolution of the Ching Community Gardens from bare dirt lot to a neighborhood baseball field, to lush and legendary organic gardens to invasive neglect, and now, perhaps to neighborhood gardens open to all

Note: This article is a follow-up from a previous op-ed piece about a little-known historical treasure, the now-overgrown gardens of some of Shoreline’s very first Asian American residents, and honoring that legacy by restoring the gardens as a community P-patch 

Pam Ching-Bunge, daughter of Joe and Jennie Ching, showed up for our first oral history interview with a bouquet of homegrown flowers and a huge bag of greens. “A Ching family tradition!” she laughed as she handed them to me.

Later she described her father doing the same thing. “Whenever people drove by and would see the front garden, they’d marvel, and slow down.” If he was home, Joe would welcome them to park and take a tour of the garden. After the tour, visitors would leave with an armful of vegetables, fruit, and flowers.

Ed Hume, host of the longest-running garden show in North America, met Joe and Jennie Ching exactly the same way. Joe became a frequent guest on Gardening in America.

“Hume used to come in and do videos and walk around the garden and my dad would demonstrate how he made his compost, mulch, or his natural fruit fly/ wasp traps,” Pam said. 
“He used old plastic water or milk cartons, made a hole and put in honey and vinegar, and it attracted them. So, you know, he experimented and tried new things. He was creative.”

“He was curious. He’d always read up and he'd make notebooks, just notebooks full of gardening articles and golfing notebooks and fishing notebooks and recipe notebooks. He wasn’t college educated but always tried to find out what's new regarding fighting garden pests, weeds, boosting fertility and crop yields, etc. And he'd try everything, experiment.”

Pam described some of those experiments, using old wool carpeting to keep weeds down, growing potato towers, shredding paper to add carbon to kitchen scrap compost, as well as the coffee grounds from Canlis, where Joe was something of a celebrity chef for decades.

But that’s getting ahead of the story.

Joe Ching
The Ching family moved from Honolulu, where Joe Ching had been working for Peter Canlis. Peter was opening a fine dining establishment overlooking Lake Union and wanted Joe as the executive chef. After living in the Leschi area for a few years, when an eight year old Pam saw someone stashing drugs in the bushes near their home, her mother said it was time to move.

With three kids, the great reputation of Shoreline schools drew the family. Also, Joe liked to fish, and that opportunity beckoned nearby. Because of red-lining, in 1957 Asian Americans and Blacks could not secure bank loans to buy property in Shoreline, a suburb designated for whites only. Peter Canlis asked the Greenwood neighbors if they’d be okay with an Asian American family living next to them. Incidentally, those neighbors, the Guildmets and Lindjords, became close family friends.

Pam recalls, “When we moved to this property in the 50s, the lot was weeds and hard dirt. The first year, we--meaning kids, friends, family--spent literally most of our free weekends removing weeds and clearing rocks, thousands upon thousands. If I could only have a penny for every rock I tossed. And so it went, on and on. I'm sure if you dig down deep enough, there'll be a lot of rocks.”

After augmenting the soil and planting the front yard, Joe Ching made a baseball field in the back of the 0.65 acre lot, again, no small task. “The backyard was used as a dump long before we moved in. Old car axles, engines, etc. had to be removed by hand.”

Kids from blocks around came to play in the ball field. “There just weren’t any fences back then,” Pam reminisced. “There was just a free flow of kids.” Their freedom extended across the street and beyond. “That was all Boeing property before it was developed into the community college. And yeah, it was a great place to grow up. It was fun.”

Over time the Ching family transformed a patch of weeds and chalky soil into a chef’s paradise.

Joe favored vegetables and bright, showy flowers, like godetias and dahlias, perhaps in keeping with his expansive personality. Jennie preferred roses, chrysanthemums, and irises which worked well in ikebana -- traditional flower arranging -- which was part of her Japanese heritage, and something she loved to do.

Pam said her father cultivated numerous varieties of dahlias, carefully digging them up and labelling them for storage in the basement over the winter.

In the midst of vibrant colors, Joe built an exquisite, meditative spot by the front porch, a waterfall and koi pond. Pam’s favorite place was “sitting on that little bridge looking at the fish. And the water was just very soothing and very peaceful.” Today the bridge and the little pagoda remain, as does the empty pond, buried in a thicket of blackberries.

Koi pond, pagoda and bridge

In the back, as “the kids grew up and weren't coming anymore, my dad started planting trees, fruit trees. But my younger brother said he remembers playing football between the fruit trees.”

In 1967 Pam returned to Hawaii. The vegetable garden, she said, was still small at that time. On her yearly visits home “I was always amazed. In its final form, it was huge.”

“The fruit trees were dwarfs but with high yields…. varieties of apple, peaches, pears, asian pears, varieties of plum. The largest tree, and most beautiful was the Shiro golden plum in the middle of the back garden. These plums were the most sweet, juicy and irresistible! I think the tree may still produce after decades of neglect. … The soil!”

“Grape vines gave delicious fruit, and it appears are still growing, and are prodigious producers. The vegetables were incredible,” Pam said. “There was always more than we could use, so he gave lots away.”

Gorgeous black bamboo stands bordered the property, kept in bounds by digging and potting them up for Sky Nursery.

In the vegetable garden, now gone, Joe grew every vegetable and fruit possible in the Pacific Northwest, including exotics like kohlrabi (for a German friend who couldn’t find it in the local groceries), kiwi, and persimmons.

“We all helped with the harvest,” Pam said, “but my mom was probably the most active because she would be putting up everything, whether it was making jams or pickling green beans.” In 2014, when the property was sold, her children found some of their mom’s preserves in the basement on shelves their father had built.

The decline of the gardens was gradual. As they got older, Joe and Jennie were unable to do the demanding, daily labor of maintaining the plantings to their standards. Their kids helped, for a time splitting the heavy upkeep between the front and the back. Neighbors leased garden patches, had the benefit of the extraordinarily fertile soil, and kept some weeds in check.

After Joe and Jennie passed away, it made sense for the remaining Ching family members to sell. The land has lain fallow for many years.

A welcoming wave of godetias along the Ching’s front sidewalk

The bones of the property are good. Fruit trees are still varied and abundant, and grapes and kiwi vines drape every close bush and tree. In the late fall, orange persimmons glow in an otherwise grey/green landscape. Roses flash red through mounds of rampant green spring growth.

This recent pandemic gave the author and many others time to appreciate what is closest to home. Having a window onto the secret garden of the neglected Ching property, and learning about its multifaceted history were unexpected gifts of this time.

Also tangled in this present moment and history are the tragedies of racially motivated attacks against Asian Americans. Motivated by the desire to do something meaningful and positive, a group of neighbors have been inspired to honor Asian American heritage in our community by creating a space to grow together.

The idea of purchasing the property, of restoring the land and making a p-patch resonates with the wider community as well. 

GROW, a registered non-profit organization whose mission is to “build healthy and diverse communities by advocating for, managing and funding organic community gardens and orchards, urban farms and green spaces” has agreed to be the fiscal sponsor of the Ching Community Garden project. Among other vital assistance, it means all donations will be tax deductible. (https://www.grownorthwest.org/)

Additionally, Diggin’ Shoreline, whose mission is to “foster a healthy urban environment and sustainable food system by educating, networking, sharing resources, and creating community gardens,” has generously offered to provide expertise and organizational support. 

If you too would like to contribute to this effort in any way, please contact Kathleen Lumiere at chinggardens@gmail.com.

Some quotes in this article have been condensed for clarity.

Updated 7-15-2021


Anonymous,  February 7, 2024 at 5:16 PM  

I went to school with Pam Ching. Nice to know she is still around.
I don't think Shoreline was ever redlined. In Seattle there were those housing practices but in the 1950's Shoreline was regarded as a backwater. Many of the roads were unpaved and their were horse pastures everywhere. My principal at Paramount Park used to ride his horse up to school as he owned several acres of pasture on 155th. We did have fellow Asian and black students but their numbers were small. Much of Seattle considered Shoreline rural and far away. This was before the freeway.

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