Behind the Spenard Motel and the Adults Only store, where four-plexes sag and magpies feast from trash bins, Sun-Ok and Kyong-Ye Yun have teased a weedy lot into a hidden, green oasis.
"It started pretty small," said Sun-Ok through an interpreter on a recent sunny night, standing in a garden that's now the square-footage of many of his neighbors' apartments. "Each year it gets bigger and bigger."
The Yuns, originally from South Korea, have lived in the spot for 15 years, making their home in a '60s-era double-wide. He is 78, a retired dockworker, and she is 69. They always wanted to build a home on the double lot but could never make the financing work, he said. Over the years, they've hammered-together a greenhouse and expanded their vegetable garden into a micro-farm that specializes in Asian produce. It's an institution for elderly members of their church who rely on it for food.
The Korean community in Anchorage numbers as many as 8,000, community leaders say, and has roughly twice the percentage of people over 65 as the population at large, according to the U.S. Census. Among social services that work with the elderly, low-income Korean seniors are a fast-growing demographic.
As food prices increase, fixed incomes don't go as far. Gardens like the Yuns' fill a growing need for extra food, though the Yuns don't see it that way. They are Seventh-Day Adventists. Sharing healthy natural food is part of their faith.
"I just really like to give it to my friends and family," he said through an interpreter. "It's nice for them."
A LITTLE BIT OF EVERYTHING
The main garden is easily 700 square feet. Crops include cabbage, broccoli, squash, red lettuce and Korean greens used for soups and bulgogi. There's pungent medicinal perilla, with spiny leaves that taste of mint and fennel, and garland chrysanthemum, a daisy-like plant with celery-flavored greens. Round pots of bachelor buttons lure bees. An irrigation system sprinkles the whole thing with water.
In another patch, near a sizable plot of giant Korean green onions, they compost religiously, turning wilted lettuce and egg plant skins into the earth. Sun-Ok pulled a clod of brown, rich soil and broke it apart with his hands, letting it fall over the neat onion rows, their stalks squeaking together in the breeze.
The Yuns' yard captures the tattered charm of old Spenard. An old plastic cooler and half-buried jacuzzi tub (complete with its motor and pipes) make raised beds. A rusty chest freezer serves as a storage closet. Tires sprout flowers. Their garden gloves and vintage trowels hang in a row from the clothesline.
The Yuns have planted more than they could possibly eat. Sometimes, in the afternoons, several older women stoop among the rows, pulling weeds and filling wide plastic colanders with greens.
Kyong-Ye works the garden daily, kneeling, picking, watching the tiger lilies bloom and poppy petals fall, exposing fleshy green pods full of next year's seeds. She always gives the credit to her husband.
"I just copy what Mr. Yun is doing," she said through an interpreter.
Sun-Ok most prizes his greenhouse, a low, tacked-together structure covered with plastic in the corner of the yard. Inside, Asian cucumber vines snake everywhere in the moist, hot air. He rigged a soaker hose to the roof to provide just the right amount of water, he explained. He babies the curved, nubby-skinned cucumbers, growing them a foot long.
They hope next year will be good to them, giving them sunny days for their zucchinis to grow thick as men's arms in their little paradise, just a block away from Spenard Road, where the motel fills up and empties out, and day and night the cars rush by.
Find Julia O'Malley online at adn.com/contact/jomalley or call 257-4591.