New Orleans has a long history of agriculture and gardening, altering the land for survival and growing for profit, ornamentation, and sustenance. Arriving in a harsh land which provided many forms of protein and some plant life, the settlers of New Orleans sustained themselves through gardening from the time of initial colonization to the present. Immigrants from Europe, Canada, Africa, and Asia strove to supplement existing sources of food with familiar and marketable items, introduce variety, and bolster household and neighborhood groceries. Today, gardens still remain important, because they supplement the diet of the gardener and their families (Kimber, Clarrisa T. “Gardens and Dwelling: People in Vernacular Gardens.” Geographical Review. Print. Page 263). There is a current trend in residential and community gardening in New Orleans and the nation. Throughout history, New Orleans residents have planted gardens to survive and supplement their basic needs of themselves, families, and communities.
A hardiness map of Lousiana. Photo provided by usda.gov.
New Orleans is semitropical and can be hot and humid, but can also experience unseasonably cool weather, freezes, and drought. New Orleans sits at Zone 9, with ranges of 8a – 9b, in the hardiness map. The Hardiness Map is created for gardeners and agriculturists by the U.S. Department of Agriculture based on temperature records provided by the U.S. Weather Bureau and is a guideline describing plants’ hardiness and resistance to low temperatures. This is problematic due to New Orleans’s ever-changing weather and microclimates. Microclimates are often found in areas next to bodies of water. Due to New Orleans’s proximity to the Mississippi River, Lake Pontchartrain, a number of bayous and inland waterways, many microclimates exist. Like any other location, infrastructure and architecture also play a role in affecting how plants grow. In addition, existing plants and trees create shade, retain moisture and restrict airflow affecting climate and influencing planting choices, determining yield and the survivability of gardens (Seidenberg, Charlotte. “The New Orleans Garden: Gardening in The Gulf South.” New Orleans: Silkmont & Count, 1990. Print. Page 37).
Early Garden Practices in The Gulf South
The region’s gardeners relied on their neighbors to develop farming and gardening skills. As a result, a combination of African, European, and Native American practices were utilized. Plantations often had gardens adjacent to kitchens and in many instances slaves kept gardens and livestock to supplement their diets and to trade and earn supplemental income. Unfortunately, the cotton market that drove broader agriculture in the South, also diminished the planting of kitchen gardens – cotton was often cultivated and subsistence suffered. When the boll weevil ravaged the South’s cotton crop, it forced Southerners to look at how they were growing their food, and individual gardens flourished (Westmacott, Richard. “African-American Gardens and Yards in the Rural South.” Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992. Print. Page 18).
As a result, advice columns were printed in early papers commenting on seasonality, plant choice, tilling technique fertilization, and watering. Summer vegetables such as beans, squashes, okra, cucumbers, melons, tomatoes, and corn were commonly grown, but locals were always on the lookout for something new and different to enhance their gardens and their gastronomic experiences – like the craze for Texas Pole Beans beginning in the late 1860’s (“The Kitchen Garden.” Southern Cultivator. The Daily Picayune. Print. Page 9).
Progressive Era Gardens
In the South, before the turn of the twentieth century, affluent members of African American women’s clubs promoted, participated, and shared with their poorer country counterparts the skills and glories of gardening, among other household industries and necessities. During this era, the federal government created social programs that included The Smith Lever Act of 1914, which provided for The Cooperative Extension Work in Agriculture and Home Economics, and offered rural families training, including bee keeping, women’s canning, and boys’ pigs clubs. The Tuskegee Institute of Alabama also assisted in training and conservation method sharing throughout the South for African Americans; a great deal of focus was placed on the home garden, through Home Demonstration Work and The Negro Cooperative Extension Service. The program was staffed by many women who visited women and farmers at home. Thomas Monroe Campbell, an appointed agent of the Cooperative Extension Service of Tuskegee stated, “we urge upon every woman the raising of poultry and consequently, the production of eggs, the making of butter, the pickling, drying and canning of fruits, such as berries, plums, peaches, and apples, the cultivating of a garden and raising of bees. Let her sell her produce to the best advantage, reserving a portion for home use”. In 1920, The Cooperative Extension Service documented that as a result of successful programming, African American women cultivated 20,494 home vegetable gardens across the country that year. Some African American gardens did not comply with the Euro-American ideal, but instead followed a more natural, diverse and holistic flow in keeping with their African and African American heritage and reflective of their unique experiences and knowledge (Glave, Diane D. “A Garden So Brilliant with Colors, So Original in Its Design: Women, Gardening, Progressive Reform, and the Foundation of an African American Environmental Perspective.” Environmental History. Print. Page 400). Unfortunately, there is poor documentation and only ancillary photographs accompanying home and architecture depictions in the area and little oral history (Westmacott).
Wartime and Peacetime Gardens
Victory Gardens were planted and championed during both the First and Second World Wars. There have also been calls from early on for gardening to remain a staple in household practices to ensure food security and thrift. In June 1917, M.D. Hite, while visiting the Catherine Club in New Orleans, urged that women continue gardening after the First World War was over. Practical kitchen gardens were seen as “necessary, a vital and urgent requirement.” He went on to say “the kitchen garden is not a new sudden war measure, but bringing to us an old idea” (“The Value of Gardens and Gardening Even When War Needs Will Have Passed Away.” The Times-Picayune. Print. Page 91).
In March of 1918, near the end of World War I, the backyard garden was still being promoted nationwide by the Farm Administration. For New Orleans, details of what plants grew best and an urgency and focus on ensuring production and discouraging experimentation was fundamental to the message. Simple hearty crops such as potatoes were pushed. As explained by Herman J. Seiforth in “Lay Of the Land Time to Try That Backyard Garden” published in The Times-Picayune March 4, 1918 “the main garden crop urged by all food and agricultural experts down this way is Irish potatoes. These should be planted as liberally as space will permit” (Seiforth, Herman J. “Lay Of the Land Time to Try That Backyard Garden.” Times-Picayune. Print. Page 4).
In 1943, President Roosevelt advocated the country go back to the successful idea of residential vegetable gardening. During World War II, the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt planted a Victory Garden at the White House and twenty million Americans did the same. A great impetus for planting residential vegetable gardens was the need to feed the armed forces. As reported in the Times Picayune, in September of 1941, one and a half million men needed to be fed (“Army Shops for 1,500,000 Hungry Men.” Times-Picayune. Print. Page 7). Gardens were planted not only to support the war effort, but to ensure food security for families and communities during this period. By the end of the war, these vegetable gardens were supplying forty percent of the nation’s vegetables. The current First Lady, Michelle Obama, has also followed suit inspiring many gardeners not only to plant and eat more vegetables, but to eat healthier and expose more members of the community, especially children, to outdoor activity.
Garden Memories of the 1960’s
Lawrence A. Smith III, working with the Center for Public Service, Tulane University, shared his memories of New Orleans’s neighborhood gardens in the 1960’s. Mr. Smith grew up in a residential area of single family homes in New Orleans known as Pontchartrain Park. He related that many of the neighbors grew tomatoes. Okra was also popular and often exchanged between the gardeners on his street. Corn and snap peas were common in vegetable gardens. A few in the community kept chickens and one gentleman raised ducks. One resident on his street raised sugar cane. All of the gardeners used leftover coffee grinds for a form of fertilizer – this is still a common practice in gardening today. Many yards were divided, the front manicured and suburban, while part of the back or side yards were dedicated to gardening.
His maternal grandparents lived in the Lower Garden District and owned a tailor shop, they did not garden, but they used their land to build rental apartments. Mr. Smith’s paternal grandmother lived in an apartment, but did have space for a garden and grew tomatoes. His aunts lived in the Sugar Hill neighborhood of New Orleans, they also grew tomatoes. Mr. Smith attributes the frequency of tomatoes in gardens to the popularity of the Creole tomato and the inclusion of tomatoes in many popular Creole dishes. Today, Mr. Smith lives in the Lower Garden District. He has a garden and changes what he grows from time to time. Currently he is growing tomatoes, mint, rosemary and other herbs. He also has fruit trees: peach, pear, tangelo, kumquat and little scuppernog grapes (Storms, Suzanne. “Lawrence A. Smith III, New Orleans Yard Gardens.” Print).
Community and School Gardening
Today, traditional gardening has found new support within the New Orleans community, through the community gardening movement. There are different approaches to the ideas of controlling food cost, eating healthier, reducing carbon footprints by eating locally, teaching children where food comes from, how it is grown and exposing them to fresh, non-processed ingredients while spending more active time outdoors. There has been a significant increase in the number of community gardens in New Orleans since Katrina. Currently there are thirty-four community gardens, three orchards, five school gardens, run by Edible School Yard, as well as other gardens in schools throughout the city.
An Edible Schoolyard garden. Photo provided by letsmove.gov.
Ornamental and vegetable gardening among the more affluent of New Orleans is well documented with the histories of local plantations and ladies’ garden clubs. In 1934, The Garden Study Club of New Orleans was founded. Currently the Garden Study Club of New Orleans focuses on beautification around the city and have been involved in projects in City Park and Audubon Park. Though beautification and historical ornamental gardening is central to their purpose, they also support the Edible Schoolyard organic garden at Samuel J. Green School. Through fundraisers they continue to support garden-related projects around New Orleans (Garden Study Club of New Orleans. Web. 31 July 2013. http://www.gscno.org/).
The New Orleans Vietnamese Community also has played a role in shaping the modern gardening movement. The community began in 1975 with the end of the Vietnam War, when many fled to the U.S. As a result, the largest single Vietnamese population in the United States is located in New Orleans. Here, in New Orleans, Vietnamese have planted as they would in their agrarian homeland and cultivate a great number of vegetables and herbs. Gardens and plots are located in backyards, but also on levees and in public land cleared specifically for individual garden plots starting in 1981. Many of the public areas for gardening were destroyed during Hurricane Katrina; however, there are projects to rebuild new areas for community and residential gardening in New Orleans. The gardening is carried out primarily by the elderly, giving the Vietnamese a reminder of their home, and allowing them to contribute in a significant way to the family, while maintaining cultural identity practices like cooking. As in many other circumstances, gardening in this community is seen as a way to stay healthy, both mentally and physically (Airriess, Christopher A. and David L. Clawson. “Vietnamese Markets in New Orleans.” Geographical Review. Print. Pages 16-31).
Many local and national Non-Governmental Organizations are involved in this movement and have very informative websites that provide information on starting new community gardens. One thing that is lacking is the history of these activities, their role in New Orleans past and the positive effects on New Orleans and its people.
In New Orleans, urban gardening today is multi-faceted. Small individual residential, community, farmer’s markets, grocery store roof tops, schools, and guerilla gardening are all found. Gardening is cropping up all over New Orleans, even the Tulane School of Architecture is in on it with applied research and outreach programs at The Tulane City Center and with the development of an uber-comprehensive Urban Farming Toolkit.
For more information, please visit the following websites:
1. Tulane University School of Architecture Urban Farming Toolkit
2. Agriculture Network Information Collaborative
3. Backyard Gardeners Network
4. Backyard Vegetable Gardening
5. Community Gardens Neighborhood Partnership Network
6. Edible Schoolyard New Orleans
7. Kitchen Gardeners International
8. New Orleans Food and Farm Network
9. New Orleans Fruit Tree Project
10. New Orleans Garden Society
11. Parkway Partners
12. Share Our Strength/Second Harvest
13. Tulane University School of Architecture Viet Village Urban Farm Project