Paved Paradise

Container gardening is catching on in urban areas, and Mid-City Community Garden is flourishing as a result.

Joe Brock watering raised beds at Mid-City Community Garden

Photographed by Cheryl Gerber

You’re to be forgiven if you missed it among the headlines, but on Feb. 12, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack poked a hole in his agency’s parking lot and declared a new emphasis on urban gardening in America.

OK, let’s skip the cracks about government digging holes into which to pour money. Vilsack’s dig only cleared the way for 1,250 square feet of concrete-bound earth to be rehabilitated into arable land. Still, it’s good symbolism that comes literally at the top of the food chain. Vilsack promises more, pledging to create a community garden at each United States Department of Agriculture facility worldwide. And the effort may spread from there: Rumors suggest a more prominent kitchen garden may be cropping up, this one on the grounds of the White House, by early summer. If so, it will be the first time the White House practiced home food production since Eleanor Roosevelt lived there in the 1940s.

 Few of us have the means to dig up a paved lot or the inclination to give the lawn over to lettuce and beans. But urban people across the globe have figured out how to make gardens out of industrial landscapes, primarily by gardening on top of them. Container gardens made out of baskets, used tires and even castoff bathtubs can translate “urban heat islands” into heat-deflecting oases. They can give city dwellers access to fresh, healthy food right at home. Best of all, you don’t lose the garden when you lose the lease: Properly planned, a container garden can travel with you.
 My friend Joe Brock figured all that out long before I caught on. Brock, who started the Mid-City Community Garden in his own backyard, saw possibility in the hot, dry, paved lot that ran behind his property. He dickered with the owner, who said he could use the very un-garden-like parcel for a community garden. He called in volunteers. He made phone calls and got donations of a fence and a gate. He drew up membership guidelines.
 When I saw the first photos of the proposed garden space, I thought he was nuts. I mean, this place was a dump. Then he invited us to come by to see what his first crew of volunteers had done. I was skeptical. How could they have possibly broken up that concrete? And if they had, how on earth were they going to render the compacted soil underneath into anything that would support more than duckweed?

 The answer, in a word: containers. “Oh, no, we’re not taking up the pavement,” said Brock, with a look that made it clear that I was the one who was nuts. “What, are you kidding?”

 What Brock did instead was beautiful in its simplicity. With the help of more volunteers, he constructed a series of 5-foot-by-10-foot boxes out of untreated 2-inch-by-12-inch lumber. For weatherproofing, he used linseed oil — cheaper and less toxic than treated wood. Each box was set on top of a trio of 4-inch-by-4-inch posts — one laid flat at each end and one in the middle — with bricks ranged along the edges between them to afford each planter box drainage. To contain the soil, he stapled landscape cloth, which allows further drainage, to the bottom of each box. 

 “If we have to move, it all goes with us,” Brock says. The same goes for the chicken coop, a ready source of fertilizer and home to Brock’s flock of Rhode Island Reds.

 The diciest aspect of building this kind of urban garden is getting good, fertile soil to fill the containers. For that, Brock turned to the New Orleans Food and Farm Network’s Farm-Yard Program, which provides soil to up to five urban micro-farms a year. Program director Pamela Broom connected Brock with Sugarland Soil, and NOFFN paid for 20 yards of the company’s composted mix to be delivered to the garden on South Salcedo Street. The manure and hay that Sugarland composts into its soil come from the Fair Grounds stables, less than a mile from Brock’s garden.

 Both on the ground and on the Web, Brock is building a tangible community around fresh food. He plans to make the garden a center of social life where garden members can gather for cookouts. The garden Web site, www.midcitycommunitygarden.com, features other gardens in the community along with helpful advice from their gardeners. In the future, Brock plans to work with other Mid-City gardeners to supply fresh produce to the Hollygrove Market and Farm, a neighborhood-based effort on Olive Street.

 New Orleanians have grounds for distrusting federal efforts. Right here at home, though, Brock is doing a heckuva job — truly — turning an unkempt lot into a place of promise.

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