Mid-City gardeners learn to rise above bad soil

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Jeanette Bell's Fleur D’Eden urban garden, started before Hurricane Katrina on a 9,000-square-foot vacant lot on Baronne Street in Central City, offers a wide array of roses, herbs, fruits and vegetables.
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Jeanette Bell's Fleur D’Eden urban garden, started before Hurricane Katrina on a 9,000-square-foot vacant lot on Baronne Street in Central City, offers a wide array of roses, herbs, fruits and vegetables.

Jeanette Bell has a dream for every New Orleanian, and she’s not afraid to get dirty to see it come true.

“I want three things for everyone in this city,” she said as she stood on a vacant lot in Mid-City squinting into the sun. “I want everybody to have better quality food to eat in a way that cuts their grocery bill, I want them to be able to do something that is simple and relaxing and can earn them some extra income, and I want to help them improve the appearance of their own neighborhood.”

While it may seem like a lot to accomplish, Bell says the answer lies in one simple pastime — urban gardening.

“I’ve been gardening since I was 5 years old, and almost all of it has been in an urban setting,” Bell said. Gardening in New Orleans, however, comes with a challenge.

“The issue here is soil contamination,” she said. “It’s scary to hear people talking about the things that are in our soil, but contaminated soil doesn’t have to be the end of the story. You just grow on top of it.”

This is exactly what Bell is doing with her Garden on Mars project. Named for its location on Mars Place, a street in the middle of a residential area of Mid-City, the garden is just now starting to take shape over a formerly blighted plot of land. Using a creative mix of containers and soil covering, the garden is designed to serve as a teaching tool on how to, literally, rise above bad soil.

“The techniques are a lot like you’d use for rooftop gardens,” Bell said. “All the materials I’m using can be easily found — they may even be in your backyard already — and everything is designed to be very low maintenance. It’s designed for people who work all day.”

To assist with the education, Garden on Mars will also have an accompanying website, a project for which Bell recruited the assistance of her tech-savvy friend Benardett Jno-Finn, whose natural bath and body business, Senica, uses herbs grown at Fleur D’Eden in its products.

“The site will launch in about a month and will include all sorts of photos and step-by-step how-to instructions on everything from how to map out a garden, to how to compost,” Jno-Finn said. “Whether you’re looking to garden on a balcony, in your backyard, or on the lot next door, you’ll find everything you need to know.”

Garden on Mars is Bell’s second community garden in New Orleans. The first, Fleur D’Eden, was started before Hurricane Katrina and still exists at 2111 Baronne St. Also built over a formerly vacant lot, the 9,000-square-foot space features a wide array of roses, herbs, fruits and vegetables, some of which are purchased by local stores, like Senica, as well as restaurants like those owned by local chef Ian Schnoebelen.

Schnoebelen, the owner of two restaurants in New Orleans — Iris and Mariza — is deeply devoted to using local ingredients.

“The freshness makes all the difference,” Schnoebelen said. “A majority of the produce you see at the grocery store is produced out of California and is likely one to two weeks old, or even older.”

Unfortunately, Schnoebelen says he can’t always find the ingredients he needs from local sources. “There are a lot of herbs and produce that grows well here, but farmers are used to growing only certain things.”

It’s this gap that Bell says provides a great opportunity for budding urban gardeners to earn some extra income. “There are a lot of chefs like Ian who are looking for good local ingredients that are grown in a healthy way.” Bell says her garden and website will help people figure out both how to grow for their own table, and how to garden in a way that will appeal to local businesses and restaurants; the goal being to help create more relationships like the one she has with Schnoebelen.

“When I found out Ian was getting his fennel from a store, I said to him, ‘That shouldn’t happen.’ So I started growing it myself,” Bell laughed.

“Yup,” said Schnoebelen. “I always tell her, ‘If you grow it, I’ll buy it.”