Kha Dang says he wants to be the Johnny Appleseed of hollyhocks.
Perhaps he’ll go down in Tucson lore as Kha Hollyhock.
“It’s my favorite flower because there are so many colors,” says Kha, his English thick with a Vietnamese accent despite his 55 years in the United States. “There’s deep red, pink, yellow. It’s like a painting.”
His eclectic home garden in the midtown Garden District Neighborhood is full of tall hollyhock stalks. At this time of year the flowers are spent, but in the spring and fall each stalk explodes with several wide, papery blooms.
Kha collects the hundreds of seeds the plants generate and gives them to neighbors, friends, even people he’s just met. He brings them to seed exchanges and will mail them to people.
He’s strewn them along walkways and between homes. He also has hollyhocks growing at the GD2 Community Garden that he helped start in 2010.
“I love flowers,” says Kha with a toothy grin that lights up his whole face, laugh lines and all. “I love nature. Every morning I have a cup of coffee and see my garden. I’m so happy.”
His garden in the front yard is a riotous collection of pots and other containers with flowering plants, a smattering of cacti, one okra plant “for fun” and herbs used in Vietnamese cooking. Most of it is shaded by a mature mesquite.
Kha initially got the herb seeds from fellow immigrants who brought them from their homeland. The plants include an Asian cilantro, lemongrass and the two-toned version of Japanese hojiso. He likes to use his regular mint in mint juleps.
He says that while he can often buy the herbs at Lee Lee International Supermarket and other stores, there’s nothing like having fresh seasonings for meat stew, seafood dishes and Vietnamese soup called pho.
Vietnamese cooking calls for adding fresh herbs just before eating the dish as opposed to mixing them into the preparation.
Growing his own herbs means Kha can harvest only what he needs at any moment. For instance, “this morning my sister made soup, cut some herb, put it in and we ate in the garden,” he explains.
Often, he says, he ends up throwing away much of what he buys in stores.
Kha is an enthusiastic gardener at his home and the community garden, but he wasn’t always so. In Hanoi, where he was born, “my father was a very good gardener,” he remembers. “But I was young. I don’t care.”
He migrated to the United States in 1960 to study political science at a Minnesota college. A friend had given him a potted flowering plant that Kha liked to care for.
He then made his way to Tucson in 1971 with his then wife, Sharon Kha, a former television reporter and former University of Arizona spokeswoman. By 1986 he expanded his computer consulting business to building personal computers and moved to his current house.
“The reason I bought this house was because of the (nearby) Tucson Botanical Gardens,” he says. “I started learning from them.”
As a botanical gardens volunteer and a former employee at the butterfly exhibit, Kha spent and continues to spend many hours watching the plants grow and learning how to care for them. He captures their seasonal beauty with photographs that he posts in social media and allows gardens staff to use.
He learned one big lesson from the gardens’ “Nuestro Jardin” (“our garden” in Spanish) exhibit, which depicts a Mexican-American barrio garden. There, a variety of unusual containers such as a discarded tin can are is to grow plants.
The exhibit shows that resourceful Mexican-Americans tended to use what they had for plants instead of buying new pots.
In Kha’s garden, flowering plants grow in upended mail boxes, in the center of car tires and in wheelbarrows, including one he saved from a neighbor who was going to throw it away because it had a hole in it.
He likes to keep his front yard garden near the street so that joggers and dog walkers can get a close look at how things are growing.
As one of the founders of the Midtown Neighborhood Association, which was later renamed the Garden District, Kha encourages his neighbors to grow gardens that beautify the neighborhood.
“This area needs to plant a lot of flowers,” he says of his neighborhood. “I started working to plant a lot of flowers.”
John Niemela, who lives across the street from Kha, was infected with Kha’s enthusiasm. He built tiered plant stands that sit on either side of his front door. On them are pots of wandering Jew, marigold and petunia.
“I did it because of his plants,” says Niemela, who admits he never gardened before. “When he told me about the Garden District, I was really intrigued about it.
“I planted because we live in the Garden District.”