A signature program of the Emeril Lagasse Foundation, Emeril’s Culinary Garden & Teaching Kitchen is a national education program integrating culinary gardens and teaching kitchens in schools to create interactive learning environments focused on food. The program integrates four pillars: instilling in children an appreciation for the source of food; fostering life skills that set children up for a successful future; cultivating an understanding of nutrition and the importance of healthy eating habits; and developing culinary skills.

Since the program launched in August 2018, Emeril’s Culinary Garden & Teaching Kitchen has been implemented in six schools nationwide impacting more than 3,200 students. In Greater New Orleans, the program’s two school partners are Belle Chasse Academy and Dr. John Ochsner Discovery Health Sciences Academy. This year, the Emeril Lagasse Foundation is piloting a curriculum-only grant so that schools and nonprofit organizations can use the program curriculum to make meaningful connections between children’s core subjects and the world of food.

Here, Corinne Akins, garden and sustainability coordinator for Emeril’s Culinary Garden & Teaching Kitchen program at Belle Chase Academy, shares her tips for growing a spring and summer vegetable garden in New Orleans.

What to Plant

According to Akins, the heat of southern summers stresses many plants. However, she says that crops such as beans, eggplant and okra tolerate the heat, while both sweet and hot peppers, as well as corn, actually enjoy the heat. As far as herbs, basil is a good bet for the summer. “Genovese basil is the classic broad-leaf variety, but you may consider an interesting chocolate or lemon variety for some extra spice in your garden and kitchen,” she says. “Not to be forgotten, the perennial bay leaf, rosemary, oregano and thyme plants will continue to grow year-round with little effort and are always a rich culinary addition to your favorite meals.”

Akins also loves teaching her students about companion plants and how biodiversity benefits different species. For example, she likes to plant a tomato-basil-borage combination. “The basil and borage plants help with pest management for the tomatoes,” she says. “As an added bonus, the purple flowers of the borage plant are edible and add a beautiful ornament to soups and salads.”

She also loves to pair squash, corn and beans, which Akins says Native Americans referred to as the Three Sisters. “The beans enrich the soil with nutrients that the corn needs; the corn supports the beans’ vertical growth; and the squash helps with weed control at ground level,” she says.

Caring for Summer Crops

Keeping pests at bay is always a challenge, but especially so in the summer. Akins says to remove areas where pests can hide and breed by cutting back dying foliage, clearing undergrowth and pulling weeds. “We also like to keep a healthy abundance of beneficial insects such as ladybugs, praying mantises and assassin bugs to do the dirty work of pest control,” she says. “Keeping plants healthy makes it possible to tolerate some pests without impacting the overall health or abundance of the garden. When all else fails, however, gardening students engage in bug hunts to minimize the pest population.”

Also, although summer vegetables must stay hydrated, Akins says to avoid overwatering or keeping the soil constantly wet, which can cause fungal or bacterial diseases in plants. “Insert your finger in the soil, and if it’s dry or nearly dry to the touch, give it a deep drink,” she says. “Longer, deeper watering sessions are preferable to shorter, shallower drinks.”

For nutrients, Akins recommends using a nitrogen-rich fertilizer for younger plants. “Our student gardeners use a fish or kelp emulsion concentrate to boost our plants’ growth early in their life,” she says. “Our larger plants benefit from a well-rounded fertilizer for health, growth and fruiting. A well-rounded, balanced 10-10-10 (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) fertilizer applied as recommended will provide plants with the basic macronutrients. We also use nutrient-dense soil created from our school’s composting system.”

Container Gardening

Many New Orleans residents have small yards, and, thankfully, there are several summer plants that do well in containers. “Tomato, cucumber and bean plants all do well in pots but will need trellis supports to brace their height,” Akins says. “Even squash and eggplant will yield a generous harvest if tended with care.”

Akins also cautions that container planting requires extra attention to watering and fertilizing needs, because water and nutrients drain away from pots more rapidly than in-ground gardens. She says to check the soil moisture often and apply a fertilizer monthly at recommended amounts. “It is also important to use pots that are large enough to accommodate a plant’s need for nutrition and space,” she says.