When Jim Seely headed to New Orleans from Wisconsin in 2010, the last thing he wanted to do was farm.
“That was my family’s business back home, and I wanted to try something different,” he said.
Attracted by Joel Hitchcock-Tilton’s promise of a sofa to sleep on at his place on Delachaise Street, Seely figured he’d check out what the city had to offer, then chart a new course for himself.
But he didn’t realize before he arrived just how passionate Hitchcock-Tilton had grown about gardening and how contagious his enthusiasm would be. Before long, Seely was roped into working on the community garden Hitchcock-Tilton had established on two vacant lots next to his house.
Today, Hitchcock-Tilton and Seely are the proprietors of Paradigm Gardens on South Rampart Street in Central City. They grow crops, tend bees and herd goats for local restaurant members and host a series of dinners with live music to generate additional revenue.
To introduce Paradigm to the greater community, they plan a free guided tour of their urban farm beginning at 10 a.m., March 6, at 1131 S. Rampart St., (paradigmgardensnola.com)
Hitchcock-Tilton, who had moved to New Orleans in 2005 to attend Xavier University, wasn’t a fan of gardening before a chance encounter with Macon Fry kindled his interest.
“I was walking back from class one day when I passed the Gathering Tree Community Garden and met Macon. He introduced himself as ‘Macon Fry, the garden guy.’ I started helping out over there and that inspired me to convert the vacant lots next to my house into a community garden,” Hitchcock-Tilton said.
Hitchcock-Tilton continued his career as a teacher and Seely took a job at Aaron Burgau’s Patois as a line cook, but soon they were generating ideas about how to garden full-time and get paid for their work. Before long, a plan emerged: They would seek a few member restaurants to subscribe to their products, thereby guaranteeing a market for their goods.
That’s how Burgau’s Patois, Kristen Essig’s Meauxbar and Mike Stolfuz’s Coquette became the three charter members of Paradigm Gardens.
“They call us their farm, because we source so many of the fresh ingredients they use,” said Hitchcock-Tilton. “We’re different from other gardens in town because we aren’t a nonprofit but a business, and we support the farm with a few different revenue streams.”
Before the enterprise could get off the ground, the business partners first had to find a suitably large parcel of vacant land.
“Susannah (Burley) and Jean (Fahr) at Parkway Partners told us about a big lot behind the (St. John the Baptist) church that Felicity Redevelopment owns,” said Seely. “We met with the leadership of Felicity, and they gave us a great deal on a seven-year lease.”
Measuring nearly 100 feet wide and 130 feet deep, the parcel had no electrical or water service when Seely and Hitchcock-Tilton first leased it.
“The fence was there, but we invested about $40,000 of our own money over time to turn it into what we have today,” Hitchcock-Tilton said.
The property is a patchwork of garden beds, dug after two rounds of soil testing showed no contamination by heavy metals. Some beds are at ground level, and others are raised, mostly for esthetic reasons but also to make them easier to work in. An extensive irrigation system — both drip and sprinklers — supply water to keep tender crops appropriately hydrated.
“We grow just about everything from seed, and we review the seed catalogs with the chefs at our member restaurants, so we grow the varieties they want,” explained Seely. “We sow a new crop of salad greens every week to ensure freshness.” In addition to greens (including arugula), the gardeners grow carrots, scarlet turnips, Japanese turnips, fennel, leeks, kale, scarlet green onion, green flesh radishes, black Spanish radishes, cauliflower and more. Herbs include lemongrass, cilantro, rosemary, thyme and fennel.
Young nasturtiums grow in beds and along the fence line, both for use in salads and also for their colorful blossoms. They will be joined by cypress vine and morning glories as the season moves into late spring and early summer.
One patch of ornamentals remains, filled with butterfly weed, sunflowers and zinnias. Along the rear of the plot, two beehives produce 100 pounds of honey a year.
Goat milk from AJ, the nanny goat whose pen is also at the rear of the garden, also goes to member restaurants. Guinea hens are the farm’s mascot.
Paradigm may feel like paradise today, but that was not always the case.
“When Joel and I started out here in 2014, we dug up hundreds of bricks just to try to get the soil ready for planting,” Seely said. “I knew someone across the river who had horses, and we went over and brought back truckloads of horse manure to amend the soil. We dug all the beds by hand.”
Now that the farm is maturing, it derives its compost ingredients from precooked scraps supplied by member restaurants.
With its spring concert and dinner series of special events set to kickoff March 1, Hitchcock-Tilton and Seely are looking to the future.
“So far, the farm has been full-time work but provided less than full-time income,” Hitchcock-Tilton said. “We’re hoping that is about to change.”
Stephanie Bruno writes about homes and gardens. Reach her at rstephaniebruno @gmail.com.