How to Grow a Chef’s Garden

An award-winning L.A. restaurant gets more than a third of its produce from an unlikely place—the owners’ tiny front yard

Mike Irvine
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Room for Veggies

When Niki Nakayama was house-hunting in Greater Los Angeles, she had one rule: “If there wasn’t room for a vegetable garden, it wasn’t right,” says the chef and co-owner, along with her wife and sous chef Carole Iida-Nakayama, of the wildly popular restaurant N/Naka. At the heart of their modern take on kaiseki—a traditional Japanese cuisine involving one- or two-bite courses and impeccable plating—are seasonal ingredients. And what could be fresher than food grown in the couple’s own yard?

Eventually they landed on a mid century modern home in Culver City. The back quickly became a playground for their three dogs, but they saw potential in a sunny, 700-square-foot front yard overgrown with hedges and patchy grass. Enter Dan Allen of L.A.- and Oakland-based urban-agriculture design firm Farmscape, who replaced the lawn and ornamental plants with raised beds and fruit trees.

Follow these tips to capture the magic of this chef’s garden, and see their favorite edibles to grow.

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Tip: Greener Fences

A carefully pruned “citrus fence” acts as a screen between the garden and the street, without giving up crop space to fences or ornamental hedges.

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Tip: An Arm’s Reach

For easy harvest, ensure beds are no more than 4 feet wide for arm’s-reach access to the center of the plot.

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Tip: A Little Messy

Don’t force the garden to be neat and tidy, within reason, let plants like kabocha squash run a little wild.

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Grow: Japanese Cucumber

Japanese cucumber ‘Tasty Queen’ thrives on a trellis and has fewer seeds than traditional varieties.

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Grow: Shishito Peppers

“The best representation of shishito peppers are ones you grow at home,” says Nakayama. “They’re sweeter with more tender skin.”

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Grow: Tomatoes

“Homegrown tomato flavor is incomparable,” says Iida-Nakayama. “Plus, all the juices!”

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Grow: Microgreens

“Microgreens are really easy,” says Iida-Nakayama. Her favorite is ‘Rambo’ radish.

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Grow: Passion Fruit

Fully ripe when purple, fast-growing ‘Frederick’ passion fruit is prolific and attractive.

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Grow: Eggplants

Eggplants struggle in the area’s dry climate, except ‘Millionaire’ with its long, slender fruit.