By Haley Sawyer
Edwin Tomyoy is of Chinese descent, was born in Trinidad and now lives in South Pasadena. He speaks English, Spanish and Cantonese, but can understand bits and pieces of nearly any language. He’s been a teacher, a chef and a solar panel salesman.
At 76, Tomyoy is many things, but above all he is a gardener.
“Maybe 120 containers or so,” said Tomyoy of the size of his home garden. “It’s not huge. It’s a backyard farm using all the space that I have.”
Tomyoy’s garden sits atop a hill in South Pasadena, which, when he looks back on his life, seems worlds away from his birthplace.
He was born in 1944 and came to America in 1961 to pursue a college education, a move that sowed the seeds for a long adventure in the states. He enrolled at USC, but made a stop in New York City before flying to the West Coast.
Trinidad and Tobago has a population of 1.39 million. New York City’s is 8.399 million.
“I came from a small country and New York was just, like, a huge metropolitan country,” Tomyoy said. “Just beautiful and exciting to be there for the first time and just the pace, the very fast pace of everybody, was kind of mind-blowing because I’m from a quiet country.”
When he reached California, he began as a business major at USC but transferred to Cal State Los Angeles (“It was a lot cheaper,” he said) and began studying geography. He had some family in California before he started school and as he continued, his parents decided to emigrate.
After graduating, Tomyoy pursued a teaching credential, further cultivating his desire to explore other cultures. Teaching was put on hold, however, when his parents went into the restaurant business in 1968 and needed a chef.
From 1968-1984, he cooked in his parents’ Chinese restaurant, from which, Tomyoy said, Panda Express copied its identity.
When the restaurant closed, Tomyoy resumed his teaching career at Pilgrim School in downtown Los Angeles, but cooking remained in his life.
Tomyoy supplied home-cooked food for school events, and parents were so enthralled with the dishes that they encouraged him to host cooking classes. So, on Sunday mornings during the school year as well as after summer school, he showed parents and teachers how to create some of his best meals.
“That was very enlightening,” he said. “It was nice to be able to share the experiences and the cultures through the food and meanwhile, I was always into gardening, so I would use things that I grew in the garden, herbs and things like that.”
Although he doesn’t host formal cooking classes anymore, Tomyoy doles out recipes from memory to customers at the Atwater Village Farmers’ Market, where he sells vegetables he grows in his backyard farm.
He sells his produce alongside Mike Wood, who manages Huarache Farms, a farming co-op.
“Edwin is the type of person where he works from morning until night both gardening and cooking, but I would say mostly cooking,” said Wood. “I’ve always been very inspired by how inspired he is about what to do with what you’ve grown in the garden. He’s really creative in how to use everything. He’s also really creative about composting and how to use what’s left over in the kitchen to go back to the garden.”
The Atwater market is still operating with COVID-19 precautions and Tomyoy has had to alter his routine as well. He arrives on Saturday mornings before the market opens with his harvest for Wood to sell. He helps Wood set up for the day, then leaves for the duration of the market’s hours to avoid exposure to the virus and later comes back to help close.
“It’s a little hard now because many of the weeks I’m by myself,” Wood said. “I do have some volunteers and workers that come with me that are part of my urban farm, but Edwin was always kind of like this really great person to be with at the market. So it’s really too bad that he’s not with me like we used to have it.”
Tomyoy himself isn’t there, but his famous arugula, which sprouts leaves of up to a foot long, is. He grows mostly Asian vegetables like bok choy, Chinese mustard and Chinese kale. All the plants are in elevated containers, which are easier on Tomyoy’s back and help him avoid possible gopher problems.
His garden has been on the South Pasadena Garden Club tour twice and has even received one of its Golden Arrow awards. Tomyoy’s plot has produced beautiful plants and vegetables, but it also serves as a fountain of youth.
“It has a lot to do with attitude and having something to look forward to,” Tomyoy said. “There’s a purpose in life. And that keeps you going.”