Gardening in Three Worlds: Mai Zong Vue was born in Laos. She helped her grandma garden there. “I used to tag along,” said Mai Zong. “My favorite thing was when she’d cut a fresh pineapple and we’d sit and eat it in the little shed by the garden after we were done.”
When the Communists invaded, Mai Zong left her first garden at age 7 and moved to the next garden in Thailand. The Thailand garden was different. It filled a space three times the size of a regular room. This garden fed their family—parents, five children, and a grandmother. This time Mai didn’t just tag along. She worked.
When she was in her teens, she moved to her third garden, in America. America again was a change. [Mai’s family planted] this garden so they could have fresh vegetables and not store-bought that came from who knows where. These were vegetables to put in the freezer (a very new concept to Mai and her family).
The Hmong use plants to eat, to flavor recipes, and some even for medicinal uses. Green mustard is from all the way back in Laos. It is a spice and is very common in Hmong gardens. Cilantro is like parsley. Mai Zong brought her cilantro seeds from Thailand. It is used in soups and on fish to give flavor to a dish. Yellow squash in Laos was cut in half. The inside was eaten, and the outside dried and used for a dipping gourd. Snow peas are usually eaten raw by the Hmong. “Once you plant the peas it takes a while for them to grow. That’s why you can plant faster growing plants on top, and they will be harvested by the time the peas start to grow,” Mai Zong commented.
Over the years, gardening has changed for Mai Zong, but she has also kept traditions going.
Mai Xiong Vue is a folk singer. She also is working for the Wisconsin Arts Festival in Washington, DC. She has presented in many different places.
Outside almost any Hmong house you’ll find a garden. This is for many reasons. One, elders are afraid food [other vegetables] might have poisonous chemicals. Two, it saves money. And three, it’s fun!!!
Cilantro is similar to parsley, except it has a stronger (and some say better) flavor and smell. At some places, they call it Chinese parsley…. One thing that is very good is a kind of boiled squash soup. It goes well with rice…. Also the Hmong plant a black kind of sweet corn. The ears are quite small, and the stalks don’t get more than a few feet off the ground. It is very good to eat. Boiled soybeans are delicious. If you let them dry out, you can make drinks. Or you can use them for seeds. Chili peppers are to rice like ketchup is to hotdogs.
Mai Xiong is pregnant. When she has her baby, she will drink a lot of warm water with lots of herbs like lemon grass. She will eat only certain things for a whole month, in a recovery process. [The Hmong believe that] otherwise, when she gets older, she might shake. Or something like that…
Here in the United States, we have things like potting soil and Miracle Grow, but back in Laos and Thailand, all they had was real manure. Their fields used to smell horrible. The best kind was fresh from the cow. It was wet then, so it watered as well as fed the plants. Mai Xiong said even though it smells horrible, she would go back to manure if she could.
An interesting fact about Hmong culture is that after a woman gives birth to a child, she can eat nothing but lemon grass, chicken, and rice for one month.
Chili pepper and rice are served with every meal. They are like bread and potatoes are for some families.
There are many differences between gardening in the U.S. and in Laos and Thailand. In the U.S., you turn on the hose and presto! Water! But in Laos and Thailand, water had to be fetched from the stream in a bucket.
The Hmong people would plant squash and cut the squash in half, take out all the seeds, wash the inside of the squash, let the inside dry and it would be good to carry water in a bucket. Mai showed us a basket that they use to carry tools to the garden, but the basket can be used for any other kind of materials, too.
Mr. Wagler told us that Mai was cousins with Pakou…
Mai talked to us about planting the “Hmong way”—without machines, with sharp hand tools that the blacksmith makes, and with fresh cow manure…. She plants cilantro, squash, green mustard, snow peas, sweetcorn, cucumber, soybeans, chili peppers, and lemon grass. Since she grows them herself, they are money savers, and no chemicals or fake colors are on them…
Mai works with the mental health programs to help refugees from all over. She is also a Hmong folk singer. She presents at Hmong festivals and celebrations. She also loves making presentations for children at schools…
Lemon grass is a type of plant you use to spice or flavor your food. Mai uses it for tea, chicken, and pie. After women give birth, they have to have spice in all of the food they eat. If they don’t, it is said they will be weak when they get older. It is a tradition. The Hmong have believed this for centuries. Mai is pregnant and she said she will be having a lot of lemon grass.
In Laos and Thailand they couldn’t just use regular dirt, because it needs fertilizer. So they used manure straight from the cow. Mai always thought it really stunk. But the Hmong believe in natural remedies.
Back in Laos, they didn’t have the materials to make a nice backpack. So what they did was make a basket and tie handles to it. They would use it to take tools to and from the field, or carry crops back to their houses.
In the United States, you can still see some Hmong gardens with the same kinds of vegetables as in Laos and Thailand. If you go to any Hmong house here in the U.S., you usually will find a freezer full of vegetables for the winter, when they can’t garden. Since the gardens here in America are so small, the Hmong can’t garden everything they want. So they form something that Mai calls a co-op of labor. That is when gardeners trade some of their vegetables for someone else’s vegetables.
Rice is a big part of Hmong culture and food. Back in Laos, they ate rice for all three meals of the day. Mint is another plant Mai uses a lot here. She uses it in food like salad, but also in other ways. In her house, she has a hole in the wall mice get through. Mice don’t like the smell of mint, so Mai plants mint around the hole outside.
Looking back on Laos and Thailand, and seeing what the Hmong are doing here, makes me realize how much the Hmong try to save and keep their traditions alive.
Mai Xiong has talked to community elders about their culture’s unique and traditional way of gardening.
The Hmong have been gardening for centuries. They gardened in China, Laos, Thailand refugee camps, and in America, for non-pesticide plants to eat.
Mai Zong Vue is a gardener at heart. As a toddler in Laos, she would follow her grandmother into the garden and help her water. Her grandmother would then give her fresh pineapple for a treat. Mai Zong described that pineapple so well I could practically taste it in my mouth! I could tell Mai Zong was tasting it, too.
Hmong people in Laos had to grow their own crops to survive. Gardens were very important. If there wasn’t any rain, there wouldn’t be food, and everyone would starve. They used fresh cow poop for fertilizer! I thought that was gross but I’m sure it worked well. Mai Zong told us the amount of land her family had was [very large]. One person couldn’t plow it alone, so they’d get together with friends for the day and plow one person’s land, and the next day they’d do someone else’s garden, and so on.
When Mai Zong was seven, her family went to the refugee camps. Since the rations they received were very small, they had gardens to help the family eat. The more members of the family, the more garden space they could receive. When Mai moved to America, there was barely any garden space. So the Hmong planted only a few things and then traded with friends and family to get crops they didn’t have.
Mai Zong showed us a bunch of different plants the Hmong depend on. Cilantro has a very strong smell and is used to flavor soups, salad, and fish. Green mustard grows quickly—you can see it pop out of the ground within two weeks! Soy beans can be eaten fresh, right off the stalk. Mai also showed us cucumber, snow peas, yellow squash, and black sweet corn.
Tools are very important. Mai Zong told us the Hmong names for them, Lao Dua and Lao Cavay. One looked like a hoe, with a wooden handle and a slanted, sharp shovel-like metal end. If you want to plant a seed, you dig a hole with the sharp end. The other tool was used to loosen the earth and hand-plow it. If you are lazy and don’t want to bend down, you can get one with a longer handle and work standing up!
Hmong gardening is a valuable tradition that should be passed on. As the years go by, adaptations will be made, but I hope some Hmong secrets stay the same.
Mai Xiong Vue told us that when she moved into her new house they had a rat problem. So they put mint all over the house and that made the rats go away because they don’t like the smell.
There is a tool Hmong people used in Laos and Thailand, that was also brought to America. It is used as a hoe. Lazy people supposedly use a longer version, so they don’t have to bend over. You don’t want to get caught using one if you’re an unmarried woman. Because that will probably make your chances for getting a husband zero because men tend to like woman who are active, fit, and un-lazy.
After hearing the presentation, I went out into the Randall Outdoor Classroom and planted some Hmong seeds in the raised beds. First went the cantaloupes. They went pretty deep in the soil, and one interesting thing I learned was that you can scatter chili pepper seeds OVER the cantaloupe bed. Then you put a little earth over the chili pepper and water. This is done this way because chili pepper grows faster than cantaloupe.
There are a lot of plants that we helped Mai Zong Vue plant. Cilantro, green mustard, lemon grass, and a type of pea. We hoed and dug deep. Then we put the peas in. We gently covered them up. On one half of the raised bed, right over the peas, we sprinkled green mustard. On the other half, we sprinkled cilantro. We mixed the soil up a bit and then stuck one lemon grass stalk directly in the middle of the raised bed.