Backyard Gardener’s Network is a non-profit organization started by Jenga Mwendo (“Backyard Gardener’s Network: History”, September 28, 2009). Jenga and her organization are working on rebuilding the Lower Ninth Ward through urban farming and community building. Their self-stated mission is “To assist and lead in the transformation and restoration of under-resourced communities through education and service and with a focus on heritage conservation and sustainable design. All people are empowered to revitalize and sustain their communities, creating bright futures and celebrated pasts” (“Historic Green”, August 15, 2013).
The organization currently has two neighborhood gardens and a resource center that are the focal points of the organization. The current Ernst Garden stemmed from the Laurentine Ernst Garden, a community garden established long before Katrina, stated by the Backyard Gardener’s Network. The garden’s namesake, Mrs. Laurentine Ernst was an avid gardener who lived on Jourdan Avenue. After Katrina hit, neighbor and dedicated gardener Ms. Patsy Story tried to maintain the garden on her own, but due to personal circumstances, the garden fell into disrepair. In September 2007, Jenga Mwendo began organizing neighbors and local organizations, such as The Village, to clean up and replant the Ernst Garden. A Garden Committee was formed and met on a regular basis to maintain and plan the garden. The Committee established regular Garden Days, hosted waves of volunteers, and held events at the garden. Now a Backyard Gardener’s Network project, the garden is used by neighborhood residents to grow vegetables in the five in-ground and raised garden plots (“Historic Green”, August 15, 2013).
According to Media Nola, The Ernst Garden resource center is soon to open! The resource center is housed in a formerly blighted cottage adjacent to the Ernst Garden. The Garden Resource Center functions as a Tool Lending Library, an educational resource library, a meeting place and a relief station for gardeners and visitors. Neighborhood gardeners can come to the Garden Resource Center for free seeds and starter plants. The building was donated by the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans. It is also sponsored by the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association and supported by the Lower Ninth Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development.
Jenga envisioned a vibrant green space in place of blighted land where families can congregate, socialize, grow vegetables and pick from fruit trees, according to The Gambit. This idea transformed into the Guerrilla Garden. The Guerrilla Garden is a project that was conceived, developed and implemented by Lower Ninth Ward residents committed to community revitalization. The project began in April 2009 and residents, volunteers, and other organizations from the Lower Ninth and around the country have worked together clearing this lot, planning the space and securing resources for the garden. Where the Guerrilla Garden now sits was once an overgrown dumping ground. It has transformed into a beautiful community green space, featuring a small fruit tree grove, a shade structure, which will soon provide rainwater catchment), raised garden beds, and an outdoor kitchen space. The Guerrilla Garden is a center for community building and community ownership, eliminating blight and improving food access. The Backyard Gardens Network states the gardens are meant to be a place for folks of all ages to get together and learn from each other (“Backyard Gardener’s Network: Community Gardens”, August 20, 2013).
The Lower 9th Ward has a rich cultural tradition of growing food. BGN works to encourage and support that tradition and use it as a community-building tool. They help to bring people together in the gardens to grow, literally and figuratively. They have various programs which speak to this effort.
The Adopt-A-Plot program offers an opportunity for residents who want to grow in community with others. Garden plots are available for planting at the two BGN gardens, Ernst Garden and the Guerrilla Garden. According to Backyard Gardeners Network, Lower 9th Ward residents have priority (¾ of plots are set aside for Lower 9th Ward residents). All BGN gardeners get free access to water and basic tools, access to the Tool Lending Library, and free seeds and starter plants courtesy of New Orleans Food and Farm Network and Parkway Partners (“Backyard Gardener’s Network: Lower 9 Growing Strong”, 2013). Also, gardening at the community gardens allows residents to share advice and stories with one another. Gardeners meet regularly to make decisions about the garden and plan events.
The gardens are available for individuals or organizations to use as well, according to the Backyard Gardens Network. With an outdoor kitchen space, a shade structure, picnic tables, and benches, the Guerrilla Garden is often used to host events. These gardens are lively community centers and welcome community organizations and residents to use them.
Backyard Gardener’s Network host a variety of special events to bring the Lower Ninth Ward community together in the gardens, as stated in the community gardens section of the website. In partnership with New Orleans Citizens Diplomacy Council, they have hosted delegations of visitors from around the world for cultural exchanges with the community. They have an annual Tastes of the Lower 9th Ward Community Potluck, where residents bring a dish that includes ingredients grown in the neighborhood. They also host an annual Watermelon Party to celebrate the watermelons picked fresh from the garden! They also hosted a Garden Walk in 2012 with “Tekrema Center for the Arts”.
The Tool Lending Library program offers low-cost garden tool rental for Lower 9th Ward residents. In stock, they have a tiller, a weed wacker, pointed and flat shovels, leaf rakes, hard rakes, pick axes, and many hand tools (“Backyard Gardener’s Network: Lower 9 Growing Strong”, 2013).
Backyard Gardeners Network is one of many organizations that have worked to restore the Lower Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina. As part of a larger study of the impact and networks of non-profits in 2013, we can see that this organization excels in the following areas:
Anyone in the Lower Ninth Ward community is welcome to adopt a plot in a garden free of charge. The resources of the BGN are readily available without fees, and their gardens are directly in the community they are targeting.
Backyard Gardener’s Network provides a variety of collective goods from their public gardens and community spaces to their resource center. All of their projects serve to beautify their community, reducing blight and creating public spaces everyone can enjoy.
Volunteers are often solicited to help, particularly when new projects are starting up. Volunteers maintain gardens, clear new lots, and even do some planting themselves!
When we analyze Backyard Gardeners Network based on its extent of participation in information sharing activities, we see they are active in 4 ways.
Backyard Gardener’s Network serves to educate the community on gardening through their education resource center at the Ernst Garden House.
BGN is building capacity in the Lower Ninth Ward by providing gardens which residents can use to grow their own food and feed their families. This enables the community to become self-sustainable. Residents get a say in what happens to the gardens they grow in, giving them power and authority over their community.
Backyard Gardener’s Network has connections with four other organizations in this study (CSED, Tekrema Center for the Arts,The Village and Historic Green.) They have collaborated on projects, given donations, and shared volunteers with these organizations.
BGN is working to create social change by bringing the Lower Ninth Ward community together and making it more sustainable. They are enabling residents to grow their own food and come together in order to produce a stronger community. They are also helping to maintain a long standing tradition in the Lower Nine, preserving the culture and history of the community (“Mapping Non-profit Influence” September 17, 2013).