Vietnamese Market Gardens in New Orleans

Article excerpt

SINCE 1975 approximately 600,000 Vietnamese refugees have emigrated to the United States. The great majority have settled in predominantly urban centers such as the New Orleans metropolitan area, where some 12,000 Vietnamese currently reside. The largest single concentration of Vietnamese in the city and, indeed, the United States is the Versailles enclave on the easternmost edge of the city. Approximately five thousand ethnic Vietnamese residing in this enclave have created a landscape that reflects their socioeconomic heritage: they were overwhelmingly agrarian and poor in Vietnam (Airriess and Clawson 1991).

Perhaps the most conspicuous evidence of the persistence of rural traditions in the enclave landscape is the vegetable and herb gardens. The New Orleans enclave is not the only example of a market-gardening landscape associated with Indochinese refugees in the United States; other examples are found in diverse environments such as Fresno, California, and St. Paul, Minnesota (Myers 1986). The purpose of this article is to examine the ecological basis of this market gardening by concentrating on three specific, but interlinked, objectives. The first objective is to identify the distinct spring, summer, and fall crop assemblages, each of which comprises primarily plant species common to the tropics. Genetic diversity at both individual and aggregate field scales is noted. On the basis of spatial variations in cropping scale and composition, a typology of garden layout is offered. The second objective is twofold: to describe the agricultural cycle of planting and harvesting the cultivars and the dietary roles of the principal crops. The third objective is to examine garden operations, with specific attention to equipment, water, fertilizers, and pesticides.

Research results are based on two surveys during May, June, August, and December 1991 and on field observations in 1991 and 1992. The first survey was administered to gardeners in their homes and focused on their socioeconomic background and their past and present agricultural activities. Of the total gardening households, fourteen, or 35 percent, were surveyed. All but two households surveyed included both a husband and a wife. The surveyed households were divided equally into backyard gardeners and levee gardeners. The second survey inventoried plants and mapped individual gardens. When possible and appropriate, informal discussions were held with gardeners concerning inconsistencies and problems observed in the initial survey. Of the fifty-one gardens, eighteen, or 35 percent, were surveyed. Although an almost complete overlap of gardeners and gardens was achieved, a small number of surveyed households' gardens were not inventoried, and the initial survey was not administered to a few garden owners.

EVOLUTION OF THE MARKET-GARDEN LANDSCAPE

Two groups of location-based gardeners were surveyed. One was persons who cultivated backyard gardens immediately behind the single-family and duplex dwellings of Versailles Gardens; the other was persons who tended levee gardens a short distance from the Versailles Arms apartment complex. Although the amount of land under cultivation in Versailles is gradually increasing, the backyard and levee plots still account for most of the agricultural land and are the longest-established plots.

The backyard gardens are essentially the transformed lawns of property owners who have chosen to cultivate vegetables and herbs rather than grass. Most of these gardeners increased the size of their gardens by squatting on and cultivating a public-utility easement between their property line and the canal. Most have further expanded the cultivated area by reclaiming the shallow, gently sloping bank of the canal. Adhering to the suburban custom of planting grass in front yards, the backyard gardeners have not extended their activities from the housefronts to the streets. The average size of a backyard garden is 167 square meters; the range is from 117 to 199 square meters. …