Marie St. Germain-Louis walked next door to a garden where a plant with broad leaves was growing. She leaned over and rubbed one of the plant’s long stalks.
“See this one here, the collard greens?” she said. “If nobody else picks that, I will make that for Thanksgiving this year.”
Odds are, Thanksgiving tables across New Orleans will be drawing more than ever from this type of hyper-local bounty, thanks to both a growing vogue for raising and eating local produce and post-Katrina programs that put vacant lots into use as gardens. The New Orleans Redevelopment Authority has leased at least 80 such gardens through its Growing Green program, which selects lots that are oddly shaped or located in less desirable locations.
Urban farming outfits like Okra Foods and Langlois have jumped at the opportunity to transform some of them into gardens. Sankofa, a local nonprofit, has established a community garden, an orchard and a fresh produce market on NORA-owned lots.
A group called Green Light New Orleans took over the long, narrow vacant lot on Cambronne Street next to St. Germain-Louis’ home two years ago after signing a lease and agreeing to pay NORA $250 a year in rent.
Today, after much digging and mulching, planting and watering, Green Light and its volunteers have transformed the empty lot into a lush space that serves partly as a community garden. Neighbors can pick whatever they want in the front, unfenced section.
There’s also a teaching garden on the lot, part of Green Light’s effort to impart the skills necessary to create postage-stamp-sized vegetable and herb gardens in yards across the city. So far, the nonprofit has installed more than 400 of its small, four-foot-square gardens in New Orleans yards.
Residents are eligible for a garden if they have a spot in their yard that receives at least six hours of sun a day and they pledge to plant vegetables, herbs or edible flowers such as nasturtiums or calendula. They also have to attend one class in the teaching garden to learn how to plant and care for the vegetation.
To publicize the project, Green Light volunteers have been placing cards on doorknobs citywide with a drawing of a small vegetable garden on the front. “Dear Neighbor,” the cards read. “You might know Green Light New Orleans as ‘the light bulb people,’ but that’s not all we do.”
The reference is to Green Light’s beginnings in 2006, when musician Andreas Hoffmann decided to offset his band’s carbon footprint by installing long-lasting, energy-efficient light bulbs in New Orleans homes. To date, he and teams of volunteers have installed 552,000 of the bulbs in more than 25,000 area houses, offsetting an estimated 250 million pounds of carbon dioxide.
Through that work, Hoffmann, like many post-Katrina do-gooders, found that he and his teams were welcomed into people’s homes in a way that went far beyond light bulbs. “I started to understand that it was a social project,” he said.
He hopes to makes the same sort of social connections, and environmental strides, by creating gardens. If the nonprofit receives continued financial support, Hoffmann can see placing 10,000 vegetables gardens in area yards over the next decade.
The idea intrigues Kristen Lonon, who came to a Monday afternoon class in the teaching garden. Lonon, a landscape architecture student at LSU, plans to volunteer for the project and wants to install one of the gardens in her mother’s yard in New Orleans East.
For Hoffmann, 54, the project is the culmination of a long-standing interest in sustainable farming. (His 1999 album “Basil for Nino” recounts conversations he had while delivering basil to a Carrollton neighborhood restaurateur.)
Recently, Hoffmann studied permaculture — short for permanent agriculture — design in Cuba, where farmers learned to live sustainably without imported fertilizer and tractor parts because of the United States trade embargo, he said.
A conversation with Hoffmann might touch on how to transplant a tomato seedling or the so-called “edible town” in Germany where city-owned property is sown with edible plants and townspeople can pick whatever they want for their tables.
St. Germain-Louis, 58, has become a key part of the Cambronne Street garden. Green Light uses her electricity and water, reimbursing her each month. In turn, she and other neighbors can pick herbs and vegetables there.
She also takes pride in keeping the Green Light staff healthy with her specialty teas, which she delivers to the garden in a thermal pitcher that typically contains garden ingredients such as mint, lemongrass and basil, brewed along with anise, cinnamon and ginger — ingredients said to keep arthritis and head colds at bay, she said.
St. Germain-Louis said having a garden at their fingertips has proved extremely useful, noting that they can simply run next door, instead of spending time and money going to a grocery store.
“It’s here for us,” she said. “I’m very thankful God sent this our way.”