Growing Home: A Refugee Gardener And Refugee Plants Take Root In Montrose
A full block away from J.C. Nguyen’s house, you can hear the music from his past: the Marine Corps Hymn, blaring briskly from a CD player on the porch. Step closer, and behind a chain link fence you can see his present: Canary-colored pansies, crowds of roses, a low tree full of orange kumquats. Azaleas burst from nursery pots. Persimmon trees line the driveway. Every centimeter of this chaotic yard, it seems, holds something thriving.
But like Nguyen himself, a refugee from Vietnam, almost every living thing here had to be reborn. Castoffs and lost causes from nurseries where Nguyen has worked, each plant in the garden has been salvaged and slowly regained its purchase in the world.
“It’s just a hobby, but it got out of hand,” says Nguyen, a skinny, spry seventy-one-year-old. He is at once immaculately tidy and dressed to dig in a buttoned-up plaid shirt, old cargo pants with cinched belt, and a battered beige gimme cap. Three black pens line his breast pocket. He speaks Vietnamese, English, and French with the same breakneck speed.
Hobby this garden may be, but its growth has coincided with the same shock, dislocation, adjustment, and, finally, setting down of roots that define Nguyen’s own life.
This month across Houston, in restaurants, community centers, and quiet, curtained living rooms, thousands of Vietnamese will commemorate Black April. It’s the community term for April 30, 1975, the day that Saigon fell to the Communists, and almost every Vietnamese immigrant in Houston began a frantic quest to escape.
The first to arrive came largely from the South Vietnamese military, flown out by the U.S. or granted entry from refugee camps in Asia. Later years would see thousands more flood in, civilians who managed to flee their country in boats. A third wave entered the U.S. throughout the 1980s and 1990s; unlike earlier arrivals,this group contained fewer refugees and included thousands of Vietnamese Amerasians (children of U.S. servicemen and Vietnamese mothers) as well as political prisoners. Together, these Vietnamese became the single biggest refugee influx in Houston history.
Nguyen had to escape Vietnam on his own. Before the division of the country into North and South, and the beginning of what became the Vietnam War, his parents had been farmers in the northern part of the nation, growing potatoes, rice, and other crops. Though the community was rural, the local school was excellent – Nguyen and his friends learned not just French and English, but also Latin. High school, though, was where their education stopped.
“I thought I’d be a farmer, but I didn’t really think of the future otherwise,” Nguyen says. “Then after high school we all were drafted.” As the North Vietnamese forces gained momentum, Nguyen’s family fled to the South. There Nguyen joined the army, leading a squadron for almost ten years until he was wounded. After that, courtesy of the language skills he learned in high school, he was assigned to be a liaison to the American military.
Even so, when Saigon was overrun, getting out fell to him alone. “Chaos,” Nguyen says. “Everyone for himself.” He and his two oldest sons pushed their way onto a Vietnamese cargo ship, where they floated for four days with no food or water, until they were picked up by a U.S. ship. His wife was left behind.
“She was eight months pregnant,” Nguyen says. “She didn’t dare to come.” Alone in what had become a hostile country, she raised a baby her husband never saw. Finally, in 1989, she got a visa, and the family was reunited in a house in Montrose.
“Now this,” Nguyen says, stepping from a thin path between the flowers, “this is my air layer. It’s too fragile to put into the ground.”
He strides to the porch of his ramshackle gray bungalow, now the family home. On a thoroughfare where new restaurants and townhouses sprout almost monthly, Nguyen’s house looks much as it did in 1989, when Montrose real estate still sold for a song. The house, double-gabled with a front-porch, clearly hasn’t been painted since then, and its chain-link front fence is a vestige of days when security rather than grace dominated most landscaping decisions. Nguyen has prettied things up a bit, tying white lattice to the fence and settling volcanic rocks and some yucca plants in the grass near the street, but in general the property is a snapshot of the neighborhood’s gritty past.
Gritty, but resourceful. In Nguyen’s garden nothing is wasted. Near the driveway hangs a series of small plastic pots, strung like a child’s necklace, cleaned for reuse. On the battered porch, next to various plants in intensive care, stand stacks of bigger plastic pots, bags of soil, rakes. Below the porch, in the tiny front yard, a blast of April color demonstrates his successes. Roses, azaleas, pansies. The kumquat tree starry with fruit. Climbing the side of the house near the heavily barred living room window, a lavender wisteria out of Tennessee Williams.
And then there’s the air layer. On the porch a bedraggled stick of shrub stands with a blob of plastic affixed to one branch. The plant looks forlorn as a dog with a therapeutic cone on its neck. No more than a few woody sticks with some fluttering leaves, the plant is one of Nguyen’s recent rescues.
He likes it enough, and, maybe more importantly, believes in it enough, that he is trying to reproduce it by attaching a puff of sphagnum moss drenched in root stimulator to one branch. In time, he thinks, the sickly plant will rally with more leaves, and under the plastic blob a new set of roots will sprout. By then, the weather will be warm enough for him to separate the new, ready-to-root stalk and squeeze both old and new plants into the crowd of greenery and color that jam his garden.
Montrose is home to more than a few unique collections of flora, wild bursts of growth you spy mainly by traveling side streets or peeking through fences. And like many Montrose gardeners, Nguyen says his love of nature began in a rural childhood. But it took study for him to learn how make his abandoned American plants thrive. His first stop in the U.S. was in California in 1975, where he found a job on a chicken farm. He saved his money to learn a skill, deciding on a program in mechanized agriculture, for which he heard there was high demand.
“It was the practical thing to do,” Nguyen says. “I could fix anything related to diesel.” The training got him a job in New Orleans, where he worked for a decade before being transferred to Houston. Soon after, he bought the sagging wood house in Montrose and took his mechanical skills to Home Depot, where he was hired to fix heavy equipment in the nursery department. For the first time since boyhood, Nguyen was near growing things again.
The nursery’s castaway flowers caught Nguyen’s special attention. His wife, who spoke no English and stayed at home, loved flowers, and the rejects were affordable enough for Nguyen to bring to her. “The roses looked funny,” he says. “They’d sell cheap.”
Ever practical, Nguyen also saw professional potential in learning how to save plants. In Vietnam, his time as a soldier had narrowed his dreams to little more than survival. But after his first, disoriented years in America, Nguyen had seen how U.S. culture permitted ambition to flower. While supporting his newly reunited family with his job as a mechanic, Nguyen signed up for a master gardener course through Texas A&M. In a year, armed with the certification to do something he loved, he moved on to Home Depot’s gardening section, and then to his current job, advising customers about plants as a master gardener at Lowe’s.
It’s three in the afternoon, and a block down the street, Mrs. Nguyen strolls with a small boy in khaki shorts and a red shirt. Forty years after struggling to raise a similar-looking boy alone in the mayhem of postwar Vietnam, she walks placidly to school each day to get her grandson and bring him to a house surrounded by flowers.
There’s a little less pressure on both Nguyens now. One of their sons lives in the Houston suburbs; another lives in South Carolina; and their daughter lives in Las Vegas. Their house, though somewhat dilapidated, is still worth considerably more than when they bought it during Montrose’s tougher days: it turned out to be a fine investment. And in the garden, less flamboyant than the azaleas, pansies, and wisteria, arch dozens of mature fruit trees more commonly found in Vietnam than in Houston.
“My wife likes flowers. I like fruit,” Nguyen shrugs. “I didn’t choose Asian trees on purpose.”
Nevertheless, they have ended up filling his garden.
“That’s a gingko biloba,” he instructs, pointing to a small, dainty tree with mitten-shaped foliage. “I give the leaves to a friend, who makes them into a tea. It’s very good for memory.”
An intoxicating, faint perfume sifts past. It comes from somewhere hard to place.
“You smell that?” Nguyen says. “That’s a sweet olive. It’s this plant down here, with the dark leaves and the little white flowers. If you don’t have much room, that’s the one plant I tell people to grow. You don’t see the flowers, but you smell it.”
He leans toward a knobbed, leafless shrub with pink blossoms. It looks like an image from a painted scroll. “And this,” he goes on, “is a flowering quince. Very common in Asia. I’ve just put it in the ground.”
Elsewhere in the garden, mostly along the fence where they won’t shadow the flowers, stand dozens of slender trees that will bear Asian pears and fruits called jujubes. “Jujubes taste likes dates. They’re sometimes called Chinese dates,” Nguyen says. “I’ve had them here for 20 years. Some of them plant themselves, from the seeds. We eat them for dessert, along with the pears and the kumquats.”
Because Houston is even warmer than Vietnam, Nguyen’s rescued plants with Asian origins tend to flourish. He points to a persimmon tree by the gate, its top branches pulled by a curious wire contraption so that the tree forms an arch over the driveway. By autumn, Nguyen says, it will be studded with shiny fruit the color of coral.
“In Vietnam, people say hanging a brick, or pulling a tree with a wire, makes it think it should have lots of fruit,” he says. The master gardener in him shakes his head. “You’re not making the tree think anything.”
Nevertheless, Nguyen concedes, it’s true that stressing the persimmon tree with the wire seems somehow to boost its vigor. And of all the plants in his garden, the persimmon is Nguyen’s favorite. He planted it here soon after moving into his house. He was a refugee from a hostile environment; the tree was too.
At first, the tree didn’t produce; it almost died during cold snaps. But Nguyen left it planted, covered its root system as best he could, and gave it special attention by pulling it toward the gate, challenging it, encouraging it. Now, in the autumn, instead of the dozen persimmons that are typical of a tree this size, Nguyen says the tree gives close to a hundred. It has deep roots. It’s home.