Unlike a commercial plant nursery, the Common Ground Relief nursery in the Lower 9th Ward stocks no rows of russet chrysanthemums, no hanging baskets of mandevillia.
Instead, “We grow plants for wetlands restoration exclusively,” said Thom Pepper, the executive director of the nonprofit. “That means grasses such as Spartina alterniflora and also California bulrush. And it means lots of bottomland hardwood forest trees.”
About 7,500 specimens are currently growing in pots, waiting for their root systems to develop and the advent of ideal planting time.
“From late November to March, our volunteers will be going out in canoes and working to re-establish wetlands,” he said. “Stopping a football-field-sized piece of land from disappearing every hour is a huge task — if the same were happening in Manhattan, people would be hysterical.”
But instead of succumbing to hysteria, the folks at Common Ground Relief decided to do their bit to reverse the decline by establishing a wetlands plant nursery in 2007.
The nursery was in New Orleans East, but when the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority began soliciting proposals for vacant lots it had received through the Louisiana Land Trust — the Road Home Program — Common Ground saw an opportunity to consolidate its programming in the Lower Ninth Ward.
“We submitted a proposal that detailed what the nursery would look like, how many trees and grasses we planned to grow, how the site would be managed, where the plants would go once they were ready to plant, and so on,” Pepper said. “We already had a management system in place and a track record of working closely with the community, ever since we were founded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. NORA took a close look at our financials and our capacity to do what we said we would do.”
None of what Common Ground grows is for sale; all of the trees and grasses are dedicated to wetlands restoration.
The group’s application to purchase 10 lots for the purpose of urban agriculture was approved in 2012, and the group took title to its first property in January 2013.
Now Common Ground Relief is ready to christen Cabane Coypu, a raised shelter built according to conceptual plans devised by Joe Evans of Evans + Lighter and finalized by Architecture for Humanity New Orleans.
It’s another word for nutria and derived from the marsh-eaters’ Latin name, Myocaster coypus. The Cabane and its setting — described as a contemplative center — overlook the nursery and will open to the public Oct. 18.
“There are a number of older-growth trees that we left on the land when we cleared it, and we have created a butterfly garden on the site. We have ferns and palms and a variety of native plants. We planted climbing roses, and we’re hoping that neighbors will enjoy taking cuttings of them for their homes,” Pepper said.
When growing trees for planting in wetlands in the past, Common Ground had experimented with using cultivars of some of the bottomland hardwoods but learned the hard way that cultivars (hybrids) don’t hold up as well as the non-genetically modified saplings. In the salty surge from Hurricane Gustav, many died.
Now, the group purchases bare root saplings of unmodified species from Louisiana growers and nurtures them in pots.
The young trees include bald cypress, red maple, water oak, swamp tupelo, sweetgum, sweet bay magnolia, wax myrtle, Chickasaw plum, pecan, persimmon, and fringe tree.
Once the trees and grasses are mature enough for installation, they will find home in places including the Audubon Nature Institute, Bayou Bienvenue and other areas where wetlands are threatened. Sometimes Common Ground’s own volunteers install the plantings, but the nonprofit also grows trees and grasses for a variety of state and federal agencies, including the Army Corps of Engineers.
With so much experience in wetland restoration, it was a natural extension of Common Ground’s programming to offer ecotourism opportunities to conventioneers in town for meetings.
“We’ve had anywhere from 10 to 300 visitors out in canoes, and we show them the trees and grasses that have been planted to re-establish the wetlands,” Pepper said. “We like to take along Abita with us when we go – she’s a little terrier mix rescue dog who is the best alligator spotter we have.”
R. Stephanie Bruno writes about houses and gardens. Contact her at email@example.com