Her favorite plot
'ER' star slims down thanks to home-grown produce

By Barbara De Witt, Staff Writer
Photos by Tina Burch, Staff Photographer


Yvette Freeman, best-known as nurse Haleh Adams on the long-running TV drama "ER," is now promoting gardening as good medicine.

The actress, who shed more than 100 pounds after enrolling in a special UCLA weight-loss program, is keeping herself in shape with the help of a steady harvest of vegetables and herbs from her own back yard.

"When I was told by my doctor that I was on my way to Type II diabetes, I started planting fewer flowers and more vegetables," said Freeman as she gave a tour of some of her favorite plants, which grow at the foot of a gently sloping hill overlooking the swimming pool of her Glendale home.

In the garden

Among them are budding eggplants, lilac peppers, collard greens, red onions, kale, tomatoes, zucchini and watermelons, which are still producing after a long, hot summer. Herbs, including rosemary, basil, oregano, mint and thyme, are grown in containers in a shady nook near her kitchen.

The backyard garden is at the heart of Freeman's weight-loss regimen, which includes regular walking, kick-boxing, light weight training, swimming and golfing. She also keeps track of the food and calories she consumes.

Here are some tips from Yvette Freeman for beginning vegetable gardeners:

• Get a good basic vegetable gardening book, and good soil.

• Get some plants that have already sprouted from seeds. This way you will have some instant gratification to see how the plant is growing -- radishes grow fast -- carrots take longer. This is the season for tomatoes and peppers, so you might get a harvest of fresh vegetables in the next month or two.

• Plant in containers so that you can learn where the plants are happiest. You can control the environment by moving the plants into the sun or shade, or protect them from the wind and/or cold. Once you know all this, you can try planting in the ground.

• If you are not as adventurous, you might start out with herbs. Herbs grow fast and you can use them immediately. Just give them lots of space, find the best location, and they can keep going for years.

-- B.D.

"Since I count calories and log in daily to a food diary, I knew that eating more vegetables was going to maintain my weight loss. And, knowing they are available right outside my door is a great incentive."

Freeman has dropped 120 pounds since enrolling in UCLA's Obesity Risk Factor Program, an intensive weight-loss program that uses a combination of diet, exercise, behavior modification and appetite suppressant drugs to achieve results. The 46-year-old actress now weighs a trim 140 pounds.

Nurse Adams on "ER"


While Freeman's poor health spurred her interest in gardening, she is far from alone in her passion for growing her own food. She is among a growing number of Americans who are not only getting back in touch with nature but rediscovering the joys of fresh-from-the-earth carrots and collard greens, said Ellen Kirby, president of the New York-based American Community Gardening Association.

"Even in upscale neighborhoods like the Hamptons in New York, people are renting plots to raise vegetables," said Kirby, who estimates there are now more than 10,000 community gardens across the country.

Nurseryman Emilio Telles of Armstrong Garden Center in Sherman Oaks is also tracking the trend, citing a steady increase in vegetable seed and plant sales during the past 14 years.

"The most popular are tomatoes sold in 4-inch pots, but bell peppers and carrots also are popular with beginners," he said.

With husband Lanny Hartley

Freeman's own green thumb grew gradually, starting with childhood forays into her grandmother's vegetable garden to pick collard greens. She was also influenced by her husband, jazz pianist and arranger Lanny Hartley, who has always grown his own vegetables.

When Freeman decided to start growing vegetables, she began with collard greens and tomatoes. She soon added peppers, green beans, squash and watermelon.

"Most of them were easy to plant," she said. "It's the waiting for the product that is hard, and finding ways to keep bugs off."

And while mature herbs were easy to find in abundance at local nurseries, Freeman found they are sensitive to their environment.

"The hard part is finding a location where they are the happiest as far as sun, wind, shade and so on," she said.

Since adopting her healthy lifestyle, Freeman has discovered new ways to incorporate favorite vegetables into home-cooked meals. She uses collard greens, for example, in her own version of Greek roll-ups.

"I use collard greens instead of grape leaves and stuff them with mushrooms and rice instead of meat," she said, adding she's also learned to propagate them by planting a leaf in the ground and watering it.

Now she dreams of having "collard trees," she said, chuckling.

The actress also has learned to substitute fruit in place of sugary foods.

"In addition to eating vegetables, I now eat fruits, especially watermelon, since it has hardly any calories; it was never a favorite before, but now I love it."

In fact, she's become a connoisseur of the native African fruit. Her favorite is Star, a seedless watermelon heirloom variety dating back to 1910.

"Heirloom gardening" involves planting seeds with a history, allowing gardeners to see, taste and smell food as previous generations did. In fact, Freeman said she finds heirloom melons and tomatoes have a richer taste.

When she's not tending her garden or working on the set of "ER" (which starts its new season Sept. 25), she works on other projects. Freeman recently wrote and directed "Remember," a short film on Alzheimer's disease that stars "ER" co-star Ellen Crawford.

But she remains focused on maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

"While I'm not eating everything I'd like, I'm now able to do physical things I like but couldn't because of my weight."

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