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Eyes on the Sparrow

Marilyn Yank of Little Sparrow Farm in Mid-City has transformed a vacant lot into a community garden worth watching.

Marilyn Yank

CHERYL GERBER PHOTOGRAPH

If you’ve been on Google recently, you’ve probably run into the feature that allows you to look at a particular intersection on the Internet and rotate the view 360 degrees. Called Google Street View, it’s become a standard link from online real estate ads.

The coolest thing about “street views” of New Orleans is that the images now coming up on the Web are about 18 months old. As a result, you can see how far we’ve come –– and how fast.

The currently available “street view” of the corner of South Cortez Street and Cleveland Avenue, for instance, shows a derelict corner store and, across the street, an empty lot. Today, the ruined corner store is a bustling neighborhood eatery, The Ruby Slipper Café, while the lot across the street bristles with rows of kale and broccoli and lettuce, ringed by nasturtiums, calendula and borage.

The transformed lot, now known as Little Sparrow Farm, is a testament to the faith of its creator, urban farmer and New Orleans Food and Farm Network program director Marilyn Yank, that New Orleans can –– and should –– be riddled with neighborhood gardens. “With its love of food and love of music, it makes sense that we should be a garden city,” Yank said on a recent spring morning. She sat back on her heels, midway through uprooting a row of microgreens. “I called it Little Sparrow because I wanted it to be like a sparrow, a little thing that never loses its delight.”
“Little” is not a word that many gardeners would apply to Yank’s borrowed plot. The property is the standard 100-foot-by-30-foot lot typical of central New Orleans, and it’s pretty much planted from end to end.

Yank was careful to choose a lot that was free of rubble and buried debris and that also had good drainage. Connecting with the owner, who lives next door to the lot, turned into a comedy of errors as Yank mailed letter after letter to a post office box that the owner rarely checked. Finally, they
communicated and worked out an agreement that gave Yank use of the lot and access to the owner’s water in exchange for some of the garden’s produce and flowers.

That settled, it was time to turn the empty space into a productive one. Yank’s first step was to till the soil and then “solarize” it by covering it completely in black plastic. The heat of July and August literally baked the nematodes and weeds to death and turned the lot into a blank slate. The
next step –– soil –– was the most important and also the most expensive. Yank piled 40 yards of fine-textured soil with a high percentage of fully composted organic matter into the space and then raked the soil into raised beds, each with about 10 inches of flat, arable surface across the top. The furrows between the beds were covered in mulch to serve as walking paths. Soaking hoses route water along the beds as needed.

The initial cost of setting the whole thing up, including a wire fence, came to $3,100.

I had to ask Yank how she kept such a healthy garden without using chemicals. As I looked out over the garden, it was impossible not to notice the absence of nibbles and spots. The nasturtiums stood up tall and beamed with color; the dinosaur kale, though past its prime, reached to my waist.

“Diversity,” said Yank. Rather than resisting bugs, she invites birds and beneficial insects that help keep pests at bay. A stand of borage near the fence draws bees; dill and romaine lettuce, both of which Yank allowed to flower, served as ladybug magnets. The variety of plants attracts a variety of bugs, which in turn draws mockingbirds, sparrows, mourning doves and pigeons. The mourning doves like something in the wheat straw that Yank uses as mulch. By spraying weekly with a combination of fish emulsion and seaweed extract, she keeps the plants strong –– and that keeps the birds and bees coming.

In less than a year, Little Sparrow has created a community of people as well as of birds and bugs. The Ruby Slipper sends its coffee grounds over for Yank’s compost pile, and Yank collects oak leaves from friends around the city. So many neighbors and diners stop by that Yank posts on the fence a flier summarizing the garden’s progress.

A neighbor stopped by recently to donate a tomato plant. Yank had just planted 75 baby tomatoes and asked if the neighbor was sure he didn’t want to pot it and put it on his own porch.

“‘Oh, no,’ he told me,” said Yank with a smile. “He said, ‘I’m counting on you.’”

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