Laura and Matthew Hetzler didn't know much about gardening when they started, but now the entire east side of their Zeeland Place home is one big vegetable garden.
"There used to be 15 azaleas there," said Dr. Laura Hetzler. Not anymore.
The Hetzlers moved to their home in 2010, when she was pregnant with daughter Marion. Their son, Jack, was born 13 months later. During both maternity leaves, Laura Hetzler looked at the azaleas outside and thought about a garden.
"I said, 'Let's grow what we can eat,' " Matthew Hetzler said.
In the spring of 2013, the couple tore out the azaleas, and Matthew Hetzler, an engineer with a master's degree in business, built two large wooden boxes, filled them with six to eight inches of oak leaves and topped them with 12 cubic feet of garden soil. After a large oak tree fell in the backyard, he built two more boxes to double the size of the garden. Over time, they added some smaller garden boxes.
As two busy working parents — Laura Hetzler is a facial and reconstructive surgeon and an associate professor and program director for the Department of Head and Neck Surgery at the LSU School of Medicine practicing at Our Lady of the Lake — the Hetzlers have only a few hours to spend in the garden, but they manage to have huge spring and fall gardens with something growing every day of the year.
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"We call this the Darwin garden," Laura Hetzler said. "It has to be survival of the fittest out here. If it can't live without fertilizer and TLC, it doesn't belong here."
The Hetzler children, now 5 and 6, are completely involved in the garden. They help plan, plant and pick vegetables.
"Jack picks a project," his mother said. "Marion does the whole garden."
Laura Hetzler rotates crops in the large boxes. She studies the different varieties and experiments with what grows best in her space. She planted lots of tomatoes this year using about 15 different varieties. About 80 percent are heirlooms.
"I do plant some standard varieties," she said, "just in case the heirlooms get diseases."
One of the large boxes is planted with eggplants and peppers — bell peppers, poblanos, serranos and jalapeños. Another box contains corn and tomatoes. Still another is filled with tomatoes and okra. They have herbs, pole beans, cucumbers and lima beans. Along the side of the garden is a row of citrus including limes, satsumas, Meyer lemons and blood oranges. At the back is a fig tree. Small garden boxes contain asparagus and strawberries. Over the garden are two trellises filled with vining plants.
Laura Hetzler keeps a notebook to record planting plans and varieties.
"I am a novice gardener who has a garden to watch things grow," she said.
Because the children often eat as they pick, the Hetzlers do not use pesticides.
"We don't spray anything," Laura Hetzler said, adding marigolds are interspersed among the plants to help keep insects away.
Weeds are kept at bay with pine straw mulch.
"I do think if you let weeds get too bad, it does affect the plants," she said.
In the middle of September, the Hetzlers will say farewell to their spring and summer garden and begin planting for the winter, when beans, cauliflower, lettuce, cabbage and broccoli will go in. "You can do greens forever," Laura Hetzler said.
Peppers from the summer garden will rally in the fall and begin producing again.
"We will have a huge garden," she said. "We always go big."
It's a lot of work, but the Hetzlers do what they can to simplify the process.
"For me, the garden is a labor of love, a comedy of errors and my calm in the storm," she said. "I am really a farmer trapped in a surgeon's body."