Izzy S. | Mark
| Erika | Emily
| Mariah | Benjamin
| Tim | Pakou | Cristina
| Emma | Gabby |
Benjamin | Jeremy
| Sarah M. | Dylan
| Martha | Maggie
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
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
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
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
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, snowpeas, 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
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.