This Garden Is the Bomb

By Karen J. Coates / Photo by Jerry Redfern
Originally published in The Faster Times
June 15, 2010

Bomb planter in Khammouane Province, Laos.
Bomb planter in Khammouane Province, Laos.


It’s that glorious hour when the slanted rays of a setting sun dazzle the world. This stretch of road through rural Laos sees more chickens, pigs and cows than cars or people. It’s hot and dry, and the earth is scorched from months without rain.

I spot a little oasis of green—clumps of scallions, thick and tall, bedded in dark little goat pellets. A short woman with arms outstretched showers her garden with buckets of clear, clean water. The onions grow at eye level, perched across two tree trunks in a solid metal casing made from an American bomb.

“Oh, this came from the airplane,” says Haum, the gardener. “My parents had this a long time. This is the best planter.”

Haum lives in a small village called Kunpho, along Highway 12 in Khammoune province, which was hammered with explosives during the nine years that American bombers carried out their campaign in Laos. The country was, and is, the most heavily bombed place on earth. Back then, between 1964 and 1973, the aim was the Ho Chi Minh Trail and its spidery branches, which supplied the North Vietnamese and their communist allies through Laos and Cambodia. But the detritus remains today for villagers of all persuasions. Unexploded bombs  (UXO) have killed and maimed more than 20,000 Laotians since the end of war.

Across most of Laos, gardeners like Haum have found a metallic lining to the gray cloud of war: the cluster bomb casing. These bomb shells were packed with hundreds of bomblets, or “bombies,” each about the size of a tennis ball. The casings were designed to split in mid-air, scattering little bombs across an area as large as a few football fields. (Iraqis have reportedly called cluster munitions“steel rain.”) The danger these bombs pose to civilians has spurred a global campaign to ban cluster munitions. The convention was ratified in February and an international ban goes into effect Aug. 1. The United States has not signed the treaty.

Cluster munitions were dropped across Laotian farmlands. And thousands of those casings remain in useful condition decades later, forming strong planters, feed troughs and fences. “We never buy them. We just find them in the forest,” says a Hmong villager named Chon who uses her bomb casing as a pig trough. “Usually we don’t dig for them. They’re just on the surface.” As her neighbors in the mountains around Phonsavan expand their farm fields, she says, they find more evidence of war. Some people save their casings as veritable bank accounts, cashing in on the high-grade metal when financial needs arise. Others put them to use.

“If we make this with wood, it lasts only a year or two,” says a villager named Nae in Phongsali province, who acquired a bomb casing from her grandfather. “This lasts a long time,” she says. “It’s better to save the bomb casing for planting than to sell it. If you sell it, you’ll spend all the money.” But put to work, the casing provides an ongoing supply of onions and mint. “It protects the herbs from chickens and pigs.”

A few weeks ago, my husband, Jerry, and I left Laos and returned home to New Mexico at the start of a garden-season frenzy. We have neither chickens nor pigs. But we do have a menacing case of bindweed and a solid layer of caliche, which exacerbates the back-aching work of planting. So we’ve opted for raised beds.

But how to build a durable, eco-friendly bed that doesn’t drain the bank account? Long-lasting cedar and redwood are great—but in our area, neither is abundant nor cheap. We’re aiming for an organic yard, so we want to avoid paints, stains, glues and pressure-treated woods with chemicals that could leach into our peppers and tomatoes.

In the end, Jerry buys several boards of untreated construction lumber. We consider a natural outdoor BioShield wood stain made just up the road in Santa Fe.  But the pricetag, with shipping costs, exceeds $100—just for the stain. Plus the wood, the dirt, the gas to truck it home and the hours spent in sweat and sun. Jerry’s online research turns up testimony of untreated wood lasting at least a few years against the elements. So we go naked.

I can’t say for sure what Laotian farmers, many of whom neither earn nor spend more than a dollar each day, would think of paying $100 just to stain a raised bed. Given their history, I suspect they would think it far more outlandish than scavenging a bomb and planting it with herbs.

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