Sometimes the vacant lot next door, overgrown with weeds, turns into a beautiful garden. Not by itself, of course, but since nobody’s moved in and no houses are being built there, it can seem like magic.
That’s true for hundreds of neighbors in the Lower and Upper Ninth Ward as well as for residents throughout the city. And in a local twist on the international farm-to-table movement, the vegetables and fruits grown in those urban gardens often end up on plates in New Orleans restaurants, such as Root, Maurepas, Brown Butter, Patois, Paladar 511, Mariza, Meauxbar, La Petite Grocery, Angeline and Coquette, just to name a few.
Paradigm Gardens lies next to the interstate, on South Rampart Street in Central City. Baby goats are jumping around and Chef Aaron Burgau of Patois just scored two bodacious butternut squashes—volunteer veggies that started growing in the compost pile by accident.
“These probably grew from seeds from our restaurant,” he says. “Paradigm delivers vegetables and herbs to us and in turn picks up compost, and it’s been great. We got together in January last year. We had a bunch of seed books and just kind of went through them and made a Christmas list. ‘We’d like this type of beans.’ ‘Well, those are hard to grow…’ But since then we’ve gotten pea shoots and beans—dragon tongue, yellow wax, fava beans—and greens, kale, flowers, salad mix, spinach, arugula, lots of chilies. And we started getting honey in the late summer or fall last year. Quail eggs… stuff like that.”
The partnership between Jim Seely and Joel Tilton (the Paradigm gardeners) and Chefs Aaron Burgau (Patois) and Michael Stoltzfus (Coquette) began when they played soccer together. This year, they also invited Chef Kristen Essig of Meauxbar to share in the harvest.
“Aaron and Mike were kind enough to let me in,” she says. “I love it. It’s really good for your menu to take a look at what’s actually in the ground. It’s one thing when they call you and say, ‘We have this and that,’ and another when you come out here and feed the baby goats. For a chef, it doesn’t get much better.”
Chef Essig’s favorite crop from the garden is shiso, a Japanese herb.
“It has the best perfume,” she says. “Anything that’s cut the day you use it is just not the same as what you buy in a clamshell in the store. The fragrance is more intense, and the herbs from Paradigm have made a huge difference.”
But working with a local garden instead of a large produce company also brings challenges.
“There is always only so much of something,” Chef Essig says. “So how do I make it last? How do I make it work? Limitations force me to be more creative within boundaries.”
Chef Stoltzfus favorite thing about the garden has been doing outdoor events.
“We’ve had three or four so far,” he says. “And we’re doing a bunch more starting in September. There’s the outdoor oven and the grill, so we come out and cook. It’s an awesome place to bring people to eat. We’re growing all this stuff and we’re having dinner in the middle of it all, with the interstate right here, the CBD right there—it’s a funny mix.
“Having the garden definitely changes the way I cook and how I look at things. Also, it’s not an hour and a half’s drive to the Northshore, it’s five minutes from the restaurant. We’re used to the truck pulling up, but now we actually get to go to the garden and see, ‘Oh, that’s why we’re only getting this much of that today.’ Or, ‘That’s a lot of shiso! We should start using it…’ What I’ve enjoyed the most are probably the small, tender leeks. Those are my favorite.”
Across town, Michelle Posey is sitting by the railroad tracks sticking edible flowers into green foam blocks, commenting on the fact that she, a mother of two, is right now sitting on the ground by the railroad tracks sticking stuff into blocks. “How does this look?” she asks, before disappearing into the lush vegetation for more purple sunflowers. Their petals taste a lot like sunflower shoots.
“I call this one our circus lot because we have snake gourds and loofah, and it’s grown so well that it’s taking over,” she says. “We try to grow things that are well adapted to this particular climate, even if it’s not something you’d normally find at a farmers market.”
“We” refers to Michelle and John Posey, her dad. Together, they started Pelican Produce three years ago. Chef Phillip Lopez of Root and Square Root was their main supporter for the first two years, buying pretty much everything they harvested on a weekly basis. Today they sell to 14 restaurants, cultivating about a dozen lots in the Upper Ninth Ward where they’ve brought in fresh soil from Laughing Buddha Nursery for raised beds and rows.
“At this point we’re gotten to where we just ask Phillip what he wants every week,” Michelle explains. “As wonderful as he is, it’s not functional for him to take 200 pounds of cucuzzi every week. He runs a small plate restaurant!”
She sends out a newsletter on Mondays, listing what’s available and what will become available soon. After the chefs put in their orders, Pelican Produce delivers Wednesday through Saturday.
Working with local restaurants proved to be a more solid business proposition for Michelle and John Posey than selling their fruits, flowers and vegetables at farmers markets.
“You harvest to sell, but farmers markets can be tough,” Michelle says. “Maybe you’ll have to load everything back up at the end of the day because it was a slow day.”
But all restaurants are not a good fit for Pelican Produce. The chefs have to be flexible. If it doesn’t rain one week, the garden produces less, and some tolerance for “weird produce” doesn’t hurt either.
“We always have seconds and things that aren’t pretty enough to sell,” Michelle says. “Those we often give out to our neighbors—unless we’re hungry, and we eat them. This is a struggling neighborhood. Bruce lives over there and our okra lot abuts his house. So Saturday is his okra day. We cut okra all the rest of the week, but on Saturdays, Bruce cuts the okra because he likes okra. We try to respect the fact that these are our neighbors and they’re people. We do anything we can to help them out.”
Michelle and John Posey had wanted to farm for years, but couldn’t find land that was affordable enough in the city. And since Michelle Posey has two kids in school, the land had to be close by. It was in 2012 that the Poseys met with Mitchell Danese and the Habitat for Humanity’s Urban Gardens (HUG) program that he’d just started.
“We had all these vacant lots,” Danese remembers. “For years we’d been mowing these things, and some of the lots were too small to build on. We didn’t even have floor plans to put on them.”
So for one dollar a year for five years, anyone who wanted to start a garden or at least keep the weeds down could get a lease.
“It was so cheap people thought we were trying to trick them,” Danese says. “It seemed so easy, it bred skepticism at first.”
Today, the HUG program has 36 lots under cultivation and 22 more on the “pick list” available for gardeners. Michelle and John Posey now have a dozen of those lots. Another gardener, Marguerite Green, got her first two lots from HUG, and now manages NOCCA’s three gardens on Press Street, where she tries to grow a wide enough variety of crops that the students in NOCCA’s culinary program learn as much as possible, while also growing enough to meet the needs of their new restaurant, Press Street Station.
“The way I bring in my lettuce mix might look widely different from how a company in Chile packs their stuff,” Green says. “And I know that our chef, James Cullen, has had to change some of his recipes. For example, our mustard greens have too much flavor! They’re so pungent they need to be cooked down more.”
Some of NOCCA’s produce is also sold at the St. Roch Market and makes regular appearances in specials at Cake Café & Bakery.
“Today, they’ll bring in some butternut squash and I’ll use that for a soup,” Proprietor Steve Himelfarb says. “Usually we get just enough for a day or two at a time, so we’ll run a special.”
Himelfarb appreciates his symbiotic relationship with NOCCA, just three blocks away.
“I see the produce grow over time and I can touch it and smell it,” he says. “Food like that feeds you in a much bigger way. So much of what we eat today feels like it’s been made by a machine, and we’re not exactly about ‘the machine’ over here.”
Since last year, the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority also has an alternative land use program in the city called Growing Green, where 85 lots so far have been rented for $250 a year for urban agricultural projects. Overall, a total of 1,000 vacant lots have been made available.
So that eyesore on your block? Keep an eye out for fruits and flowers.