SANTA YNEZ, Calif. — In recent months, there's been a new farm in town with the enigmatic name the Garden of ..... and an almost mystical reputation for superb quality. From lettuce to potatoes, everything that the owners, Shu and Debby Takikawa, have offered at the Altadena and Mar Vista markets has more than lived up to the buzz.
Shu, who has the radiant smile and fierce purity of a Zen master, emigrated from Japan in 1983 when he was 26 and apprenticed at several farms before marrying Debby and starting his own farm. They now grow 16 certified organic acres in Santa Ynez and until recently sold only at their local markets in Santa Barbara and Solvang, where Shu is as revered for mentoring young farmers as for growing pristine produce.
"Our approach is to grow food that people normally eat but to grow it in a way that makes it extraordinary," says Debby.
The Takikawas' specialty is lettuce, which is as crisp and succulent as any I've tasted. Their potatoes have the tender skins, sweetness and clean flavor of just-dug spuds. Whether it's beets, zucchini, kale or carrots, all approach the ideal in appearance, freshness and flavor.
Their Charentais melons, coming in August, have won the taste contest at the very competitive Santa Barbara market. Shu prides himself on his old-fashioned yellow corn, which is sweet rather than super-sweet (the modern industrial kind), meaning that the kernels are tender and have real corn flavor rather than being pumped up with sugar for shipping and shelf life.
A visit last Friday to their farm revealed many explanations for the excellence of their produce, starting with their growing area, close to the Pacific but separated from it by mountains. It is hot in summer but cools off at night, giving plants time to respire and develop full flavor; this makes it as ideal for vegetables as it is for the celebrated local wines.
Over three decades, Shu has experimented with hundreds of varieties before selecting the ones best adapted to individual seasons at his location, and he constantly strives to improve. He carefully regulates irrigation to maximize flavor and says he can detect, by a slight bluish tinge on the backside of leaves, when lettuces are stressed and won't taste good; these he insists on plowing under. Everything that he and his wife bring to market is ultrafresh and beautifully displayed.
Shu learned much of what he knows from Ken Ito, a Ventura County farmer who is now retired, whom he calls, in his fractured but evocative diction, "the legend of the legend." Shu in turn has served as mentor to several illustrious young farmers market growers, including Jacob Grant of Roots Organic Farm and Shawn McMahon of Fairview Gardens.
McMahon, who has considerably improved the quality of Fairview's offerings since he took over as farm manager, says that Shu is "a master farmer who believes that quality and artisanship are essential. What makes him so special to me is his willingness to share ideas and give assistance so readily."
Debby grew up on their home farm, 24 acres purchased in 1953 by her father, Howard Young, a theatrical producer on Broadway and in California. Her mother, Charlotte, planted most of the property with wine grapes, which are leased to the Qupé winery; the Takikawas currently cultivate 4 acres at home and 12 at two nearby sites.
Debby, who worked for many years as a chiropractor, met Shu in 1989 when he brought in a friend as a patient. He now admits that he had fallen in love with Debby's picture in the Yellow Pages. It was love at first sight for her too, and they married in 1990. She also opened a nonprofit clinic specializing in bonding and attachment therapy for infants and families, and in 2004 they released a documentary film, "What Babies Want."
She, like Shu, is now focused on doubling their farm's production and sales in order to pay the tuition for their own baby, Ky, now 19, who will study guitar at Berklee College of Music in Boston starting in August. Meanwhile Ky, who looks a bit like Sean Lennon and has his father's sly, catlike smile, helps out on the farm and at markets.
The Takikawas chose their farm's intriguingly elliptical name, followed by exactly five dots, so as to let their customers complete it according to their own desires. At a soon-to-be-set date in midsummer they will fulfill another wish by holding a special dinner at their farm for their new Los Angeles clientele.
Tips of the week
Blenheim apricots from Michael Cirone (See Canyon) of San Luis Obispo, at Santa Monica Wednesday (for several weeks starting June 20). Cot-N-Candy white Apriums from Frog Hollow of Brentwood, at Santa Monica June 20 only.
Snow Queen white nectarines from Ron Cornelsen and Art Lange (Honey Crisp) of Reedley at Santa Monica on Wednesdays (June 20 and 27) and Beverly Hills (June 24); from John Hurley and Truman Kennedy next weekend (June 23-24).
Persian mulberries from John Tenerelli of Littlerock have just started, although supply is always erratic, at Hollywood and Beverly Hills on Sundays and Santa Monica on Wednesdays. Circle C of Lake Hughes should have them at Hollywood soon; this Sunday (June 17) they will also bring their very small harvest of Montmorency tart cherries, which are vanishing from local orchards.