Montagnard Garden Journal 2009
Julie Mullin, Fiberactive Organics and St Paul’s Christian Church.
The first time we tried to make a vegetable garden for the Montagnard families at St Paul’s Christian Church, it was a dismal failure. The land was hard and rocky; we tilled with a tiller but it would only bite into the ground about four inches deep. We amended the soil with as much compost as we could get, but it wasn’t enough.
The Montagnard families didn’t understand that we were giving them the land to “farm”, so they didn’t know what to do unless I was there with them. We did get some small spring vegetables – the first radish they ever tasted was red and round and looked sweet. The face Neh made when he bit into it was priceless!
Between the rabbits, weeds and finally drought, it wasn’t worth the effort.
Jump ahead two years to the Spring of 2009. We have five Montagnard families, most speaking English well enough to make simple conversation. This time when I took them to the site and said this is all for you to farm, they were awestruck. I could see in their faces that they now understood what I had tried to do two years earlier.
Staking a Claim
I asked each of the families to mark their garden plots with rocks and sticks. It was awkward at first, but finally one of the men put down the first marking rock and then everybody spread out and began staking their claim. I was surprised that only the men took part in this. There was no discussion, the women simply backed away.
I stayed with the men for a while, pointing out fire ant hills, parking lot runoff and things like that. I assume they know a lot more about farming than I do, so I joined the women and children foraging in the woods.
Most Americans think food comes from a store. But grocery stores are a new concept for the Montagnards. They are used to collecting the days food from the jungle around their homes; and it’s hard for them to fathom that Americans let all the good food in the trees, lawns and landscaping go uneaten. Before I moved my studio into Raleigh, Jum, H’tonh and I regularly foraged in my yard and in the woods behind my house. My father taught me a bit about what’s edible in the North American landscape, so I could show them and few things, but they showed me a lot more. There is no poison ivy in Vietnam, so I was sure to point that out to everyone.
Back at the garden the plots were laid out as follows: Glun & Jum’s garden is lowest on the hill, about 30’x30’. Tuan & Tuat’s is next it’s about the same size. About 12’ up from them are three plots butted up together; first is my small plot, about 6’x20’’, then Tia & Klum’s is about 20’x20’, and along side of us Nyup and H’nam are sharing a plot with H’nam’s sister H’tonh and her fiance Tom. Their garden is about 30’x35’.
Amending Poor Soil
Phil Jones, our pastor, volunteered his truck and for two days he and the Montagnard men got loads of mulch and dumped it in the garden area. I loaded our trailer with all the compost and manure I could find on my tiny Apex “farm” and brought it to the garden site too. What seemed like tons of mulch and compost looked pitifully small in piles next to those big garden plots!
When I arrived at the church there were about 15 adults, three young children and two babies there. Tom had brought friends to help, I never got names, just smiles. Everyone was used to the hard labor on farms in Vietnam, so everyone worked with incredible strength and stamina. Whoever needed a rest took care of babies in the shade of the tree on the hill. The mothers nursed the babies at the same time to coordinate their naps so they could be free to work together.
I borrowed a tiller from my neighbor and we started to break ground. It was immediately apparent that we would have no better luck now than before. But this time the Montagnards went into full swing. They are used to farming with no tools, or only meager ones. The women swung pick axes to break the soil open and the men followed with shovels and forks breaking up the big clods and pulling out rocks. The loads of leaf mulch were spread over the plots, but no one would dig in to my contribution of manure. They refused, saying it was mine and I should use it on my own garden. I brought it to share. But I understand their pride, so I backed off and my husband tilled it all into my plot. Later I found out that they didn’t understand why anyone would put “poop” on their garden.
With the hard pan roughly broken up we could approach it with the tiller to mix in the mulch. The guys loved it! They took turns trying it out, each man providing raucous amusement for all the onlookers. As one man tired, another would step in, the tired one passing along any tidbits of wisdom he had acquired. Half way through the acreage the tiller broke.
People that have never had access to any resources don’t think of taking a broken machine to a shop to get it fixed. They take it apart, find what looks like it might have been the problem and repair it as best they can. The Montagnard men soon had the tiller spread out on the ground in pieces, and then it was back together again. It sounded a little different, but it worked.
Each family worked on their piece of land in their own way. Tom and Nyup broke up the clods and pulled out all the grass roots making great piles of roots and rocks under the trees in the wild area. Tuan pulled out the roots and set them on top of the ground to dry. He explained that after they are dead, the roots can be mixed back into the garden to help the soil. His rocks make a border around his plot. Glun didn’t pull out the roots at all, and left the small rocks in place. He used the large rocks to create baffles in the small channels that the rain runoff had created up hill from his garden.
The joy of the day was palpable. Every body ended up dirty, sweaty, exhausted and happy! The gardens, except mine, ended up with deep troughs and mounded rows about 2’ wide and contoured to the hill. They are completely clean of vegetation about 2’ beyond the planting areas.
I left my plot level, dotted with grass that I was too tired to pull out. I left a fringe of grass around the beds to help beneficial insect access the cultivated areas.
A church member had donated money to buy necessities for the garden; with it I purchased fencing to protect against rabbits. Also Tai was given about 50 yards of rabbit fencing by his boss at the State Fair Grounds. A combination of metal and hunter orange net now guards the area from invaders and divides one garden from another.
I’m interested in the division of labor between the sexes in Montagnard society. It seems that all decisions are made by the men. All ownership is attributed to the men. But in general, the women tend the gardens and are responsible for the heaviest labor, the garden’s upkeep and harvesting; often doing the work with a sleeping baby on their back.
My father sent me seeds that he had saved from raising Cambodian pole beans in his garden in Kansas City; I gave them to the men and they were divvied up. They are proud farmers and don’t want to take handouts, so I accepted a bell pepper seedling in exchange. Jum was given seeds for Vietnamese eggplants by a Montagnard friend living near Raleigh. The seeds originally were brought in someone’s pocket when they immigrated to the US. Jum tells me they are not as sweet as what Americans are used to, Montagnards like eggplants to be bitter.
The first seedlings show up in Tom’s garden. Tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and eggplants. Gradually each garden is sporting little green blobs and small smoothed areas where seeds have been laid down in little clusters, not beds like my garden has.
Each family has their own style, and it’s fun to watch the subtle competition. Here in the US it’s all fun, in Vietnam less successful gardeners had less to feed their children. So there’s a serious note in everything they do. The health of his children is the measure of a Montagnard man, and the success of his woman.
None of them will allow me to buy seeds and seedlings for them. They explained that we have given enough and they really want to take care of themselves. I understand.
On Mother’s Day, my husband and son have to do my bidding – family tradition. So we spent the day in my garden planting parsnips, green beans, zucchini, beets, tomatoes and my green pepper seedling. I leave a 12” border of grass around my plot as habitat for the beneficial bugs. Ground beetles and wolf spiders will shelter in the grass after a day of feasting on bugs that are attracted to my veggies.
My beds are flat and I spread dried grass clippings over each bed to hold in the moisture. I tried to explain all this to the Montagnard men, but they just give each other knowing looks, agreeing that I’m crazy. The Montagnard women make no comments, they are all stoic acceptance.
There’s no more collective work, each family comes and tends their own plot when they have time. However, after church on cool days and when the sun gets low on Saturday and Sunday evenings, cars arrive one by one spilling children down the hillside and the community part of this garden is in full swing.
Often when I arrive, my garden is wet from someone having watered it for me. Every time I come something is different in each plot. The plants are scattered around the garden in seemingly random ways. But gradually patterns are emerging as more plants and seeds are added.
First, the tomato and pepper seedlings stood about 6” high. The first of the seeds to emerge are the Cambodian beans from my father. Tai points them out along the edge of his plot. Then single stalks of corn poked up through the ground near the tomato plants. Hotter peppers were then interspersed in the rows as well as eggplants, multiple varieties of sweet potatoes, cucumbers and the occasional plant that’s just pretty and reminds them of home.
A donor bought us several tomato cages which I distributed. In Vietnam the tomato plants are strong and woody and the fruits are small, so the plants don’t need support. The cages are accepted with quizzical looks. There aren’t enough for all the climbing plants, but everyone is satisfied with what they have, sticks gathered from the woods are leaned against the fencing as the kind of supports they’re used to using.
Tom’s garden is dead. All of it! The promising little plants lie brown and shriveled. The men don’t ask me, they are guessing among themselves what could have happened. Finally one day they are discussing the disaster at my studio when they drop off their wives for work. I know enough Jarai now to get the general drift of the conversation, so I ask for details, in English.
In Vietnam they all heard stories of the wonderful stuff Americans had to put on their farms to make the plants grow big and make lots of fruit. They were eager to put this stuff on their gardens, thinking they would put it on then jump back as the giant bean stalks lept for the sky.
They all bought bags of what I now know to have been fertilizer. Each man got his from a different place, guessing he had the right thing only from the picture on the front of the bags. Thinking “if a little bit’s good, a lot, a lot, is better” they put their hands down into the bags and heaped loads of fertilizer into each hole before dropping in the plants or seeds. Each man had used 4-6 bags on their garden! Out of sheer luck, Glun, Tai and Tuan bought organic fertilizer or compost and their gardens flourish. Tom had bought chemical fertilizer. It burned the roots of all his plants and sterilized the soil. His skin was irritated, but he had no lasting illness from the chemical exposure.
Meeting Tom and H’ton by chance one evening at the garden as they grieved over their dead plants, I was able to help them understand what had happened. They re-tilled everything with a shovel and hoe, hoping to disperse the chemicals enough to allow new plants to survive.
I showed everyone the word “organic” and explained that if that word is on the package it is OK to use. It won’t kill their plants and it won’t poison their children. Tuan attached an empty bag of organic compost to his fence so everyone could learn to recognize it and remember.
“The proof is in the [poop] pudding”
My garden is lush with abundant growth. I hear the men talking about it, each of them approach me in his own way. “Rabbit poop and chicken poop!” They all want some for their plants now; I promise to bring another trailer load – my rabbits and chickens are working hard making enough manure for everyone! But my right arm is acting up again and I can’t dig anymore. I’ll get it here somehow.
My squash plants are four feet high with yellow blossoms at the base. Jum and H’tonh taught me last summer that squash leaves and stems are very good to eat and are a staple of Montagnard cooking. I have enough for everyone if they will just take it. It’s obvious that I have more than my family can eat so the women reluctantly approach; only Jum feels comfortable enough to get in the garden with me. The other women gather along my fence line accepting bundles of leaves and flowers as Jum and I harvest with gusto.
You can buy squash leaves in the Vietnamese grocery store, but since you can’t get them anywhere else, they are very expensive. It’s wonderful to hand out the scratchy green bundles and see the look of nostalgia and anticipation on those smiling faces. I drive away that day with my heart full, knowing what will be in their cooking pots tonight.
The rocks that were pulled out of the garden and piled up found their way up to the church campus and now border the walkway that leads to the sanctuary. What was a problem in one place is a beautiful sight somewhere else. It’s wonderful that the gardens have benefitted the church so soon and in such an unexpected way.
We’ve had a lot of good rain this spring, so the plants are growing well. The Montagnards have added more and more vegetables. Sweet potatoes, varieties with bright yellow and deep purple leaves splash color here and there. The rows of plants along the ridges in their gardens have been joined by other vegetables planted on the hill sides.
I don’t recognize many of the plants and I’m told that they were purchased at the Vietnamese and Laotian groceries. I asked for names a few times, but I can’t remember the Jarai very well and it doesn’t give me any reference to what it may be in the kitchen. Now I’m on a quest to figure out what these things are.
Wholefoods Market is a great place to find unusual fresh foods. One day while shopping I recognized one of the plants I had seen in Tom and H’tonh’s garden. It is Lemon Grass. Glun and Tuan tell me that in Vietnam it grows very tall. But we don’t expect it to do so well here because we have a growing season instead of year-round growth. Lemon Grass is not lemony at all. It grows in tall stalks like the grasses Americans use as ornamentals. You eat the inside of the stalks after pealing away the hard, stringy outside. It’s very peppery, so you cook it in something else rather than eating it alone.
One other mystery plant’s American identity was discovered from having prepared a Montagnard meal for the Mary Circle of St Paul’s more than a year ago. Jum and I were the hostesses and we cooked what the grocery store had labeled as Yucca root. I assumed that I knew what a yucca looked like since we have yuccas in my front yard. But the plants that Jum said would produce those roots look nothing like my yuccas.
The plants grow into tall trees in Vietnam. Glun described how the children could climb the trees, the trunks getting as big around as his leg. We don’t think they can survive the winter here, but even if they don’t, the leaves and roots will be large enough to be edible. Jum and Glun laughed about how they got sick of eating it back in Plei Grak. When there was nothing else to eat, this plant was always available. And there was often nothing else to eat. Now Jum hasn’t had any for over three years and Glun for over six. They look lovingly at the plant and smile, explaining that they thought they never wanted another mouthful of it in their lives, now they miss it and can’t wait till it’s big enough to harvest some of the leaves.
It has a central “trunk” with stems angling upward, each bearing a single leaf which droops down like a hand with fingers separated. It’s very pretty. Here’s what the internet search told me:
Cassava, yucca, Brazilian arrowroot, mandioca… So many names for a root that can be used in a variety of dishes. The most known ingredient extracted from the root of cassava is tapioca flour, tapioca starch or yucca flour. Sounds familiar? I use cassava as much as many people use potatoes. Puddings, breads, cakes, chips, deep fried, purées, dumplings, soups, etc. can be made with cassava or tapioca. Gluten-free, it can replace wheat flour and it is very used by people with wheat allergies, like coeliac disease.
Tuan has expanded his garden, adding a four foot bed along the full length of the side closest to me. He started by planting it with onion sets, followed two weeks later by hot pepper plants and finally sweet potatoes with purple leaves.
Jum says the sweet potato leaves are edible. I always thought potato leaves were poisonous, so I looked it up. Here’s what the internet said:
The sweet potato is one of the world’s most cultivated crops, and is grown all over the world, but especially in Asia and the Pacific. The leaves are good forage for domestic animals, so consumption by humans is looked down upon in some places as the food of the poor. However, because some varieties of leaves are high in protein, they can serve an important place in a diet that is based on tubers and other grains. Chinese herbalist lore says that the leaves can improve the respiratory and renal system function.
Tom and H’ton’s replanted garden is doing well now. They’ve put in a carpet of something unfamiliar. Tuan tells me it is summer lettuce. Summer lettuce is new to me so I grabbed a leaf to taste it. I guess my expression was pretty amusing after the fresh greens taste disappeared and the bitter as bile flavor filled my mouth and dried it out. I politely swallowed, as Jum and Tuat burst into a fit of giggling. Montagnards like bitter foods!
Everything is producing now and being regularly harvested. Glun reports that Ni, Neh and Nap walked to the garden one afternoon while Glun and Jum were at work. They stuffed themselves on cucumbers. Neh couldn’t keep the secret and admitted the theft. As an American, used to an abundance of food and an attitude of gardening is just for fun, I didn’t see the problem with the kid’s antics. But from a Montagnard perspective, the boys had taken food out of the mouths of the rest of the family. Back in Vietnam if you did that someone would go hungry.
I notice that all the gardens have the same plants along the fences on all sides. I don’t recognize them but it looks like the leaves have been clipped off at the top of the plants. Tuan explained that these are the Cambodian beans that we got from my father. Ultimately they will grow very high and produce green beans about a foot and a half long. In Vietnam they plant these around their gardens to keep the deer out. The vines grow into a high fence and the deer leave them alone because they’re so bitter. Montagnards harvest the young leaves to add to other dishes because, as we know, they like bitter foods.
Charley has the day off of work, so when it’s cool enough, we go to the garden to harvest green and yellow beans and pull some weeds. We have a lot of beans! Also several large zucchini and a green pepper. The tomatoes are still green, but getting big. Sunflowers are about four feet high.
Tuan arrives with Tuat, Tuyet, Luu and William. Next Glun pulls in sans family. Tuyet and Luu are delighted when I hand them fat zucchinis to take home. Next I pick some green tomatoes for them. Montagnards consider red tomatos to be past their prime. As I pile green beans onto a newspaper for them to take home Tuan presents his usual objections. He asks why I always give them our food. I explain for the millionth time that we have more than enough for our small family and they have many mouths to feed. He smiles and shakes his head. Glun accepts his portion without argument.
There’s more to harvest every time I go to the gardens. My tomato plants are so heavy the cages won’t hold them up. I’m afraid if I keep standing them up I’ll break the stems, so I just let them rest on the fence. I’m having trouble with blossom end rot, but I don’t see it on anyone else’s veggies.
The women talk about the gardens and vegetables when they work at my studio, so I am sure they’re all enjoying the bounty. I talked to Jum about opening a produce stand once or twice a week to sell our extra veggies to the church-goers and the surrounding neighbors, but she looked at me like I was crazy! “We need food for family.” she said. I dropped it, maybe next year.
The men tell me about their expansion plans for next year. Tai, Tuan and Nyup have all called at one time or another this month to reminded me that I promised to bring a load of “rabbit poop” to put on their gardens. My right arm is disabled again, and loading the trailer with manure is not my family’s favorite pass time, so it may be a while.
Finally got the manure loaded and dumped just down hill from the gardens. I mention it to Tai and Jum when I see them at the studio. Told Nyup on the phone. But the pile remains untouched.
After worship I noticed Klum walking down the hill to the garden. I put my things in my car and when I crested the hill all the children came running to greet me. “Flower! Flower!” Tuyet calls pointing to my sunflowers. Their about 8 feet tall now and two of them have big yellow blooms smiling down at us. The men are under the tree watching the babies and the women are harvesting vegetables for the afternoon meal. My heart is full – this is what it is all about!
My hens have been hiding their eggs under some brush in our back yard and I hadn’t been able to find them for several days. I discovered their cache and brought three dozen eggs to church today for the Montagnards. Now it’s my turn to accept gifts. Tuat calls me over and hands three long eggplants over the fence, Jum gives me a bag of three large cucumbers. Tai skibles to his garden and starts calling me, “Julie, you want squash?”
“No thank you, I have a lot.”
“Julie, you want this?” he holds up a big HOT pepper.
“No!” I call back. “It hurts my stomach!” I hear laughter from under the tree.
“Julie, you want tomato?”
“Yes, I love tomatoes.”
I get an empty shoe box from my car and hand it to him. In a moment he’s back with the box full of ripe red tomatoes. Good thing my plants have got blossom end rot and my family has the appetite for all those tomatoes.
Tuan calls to me, “Julie, you want eat beans?” He points out about a zillion long cambodian beans hanging from his fence. “You pick all you want, OK?”
“OK” I say. Now everybody’s happy.
One by one the families fill their bags and go home to cook. Sweat trickles down my back soaking my dress. What a miserably hot wonderful day to be in the garden!
September has come and gone. My garden is full of weeds and dried stems. Beans and squash are a happy summer memory, my tomatoe plants are sprawled over what used to be the beds of beets. Time to clean up and tuck the beds in under a thick blanket of leaf mulch for the winter.
But wait! Right next door it’s still July! Tai’s garden is lush and blossoming and full of vegetables. Nyup’s fencing is invisible under a tangle of Cambodian bean vines, foot-long beans are everywhere. Tom’s lemon grass is tall and gracefully bending in the breeze. Tuan’s twenty varieties of hot peppers hang decoratively from dainty perfect plants and Jum gave me a big bag of eggplants, three varieties I’ve never seen before. We have too much she says.
If my family was trying to live off of what I raised in my garden we’d starve. These families who did have to live off their gardens know how to keep them alive and producing. I feel pretty stupid for having thought I had anything to teach them about gardening.
Tai and Klum’s garden had these amazing eggplants! They are about four feet tall with lovely purple blossoms. The fruit is about golfball size and white with green stripes coming out from where the stem attaches. They look like balls on a Christmas tree.
Since Hnam is pregnant, her and Nyup’s garden isn’t being tended very much. It’s a huge tangle of Cambodian beans with the occasional tomato or squash leaf sticking up through it. After church Hnam and Saran wandered down to the garden while I was pulling weeds in my plot. They walk around a bit then come to chat, Hnam has an 18” long bean that she’s chomping on. It reminds me of how hungry you are when you’re pregnant and how good food looks fresh on the vine.
Finally Hnam can’t stand to watch me work so she comes in and starts pulling weeds. Saran loves to help with whatever I’m doing so I lift her over the short fence. My back is aching, I sit in the dirt, the sun is hot and I’m ready to give up. And there’s Hnam, seven months pregnant leaning down pulling the weeds in my garden just for the fun of it. I feel like a sloth.
Ultimately I planted bok choy and spinach where my green beans used to be. I’ll put in broccoli and cabbage plants this week. As I worked the soil I was pleased to see how dark and crumbly it is, all the mulch I put on it all summer has decomposed and made the soil very nice. I’ve talked to Nyup, Tai and Glun about putting in winter crops, but they just look at me like I’m crazy. Maybe I have a little something to teach them after all.
Aug 20, 2014
After more than five years, this little piece of land just off Blue Ridge road has provided arm-load after arm-load, meal after meal, pound after pound of fresh vegetables for many families. Garden plots have been passed from one family to another as houses are bought and backyard gardens are established.
We’ve gained some local recognition among our fellow gardeners. We’ve given several tours to garden clubs and agriculturists from NC State Univ. have come by to look at the interesting veggies that the Montagnards are growing. I’m looking forward to another group tour this Sunday evening. It will be followed by a Gardener’s pot luck in which our Montagnard women will cook some of their produce in the church kitchen. The guest gardeners will bring a dish to share from their own gardens. It promises to be a fun cultural exchange.