When Kathy Muse and a band of volunteers were cleaning up the 4800 block of Dauphine Street back in 2011, one vacant lot proved especially troublesome.
Overgrown and nearly impassable, the lot had become a dumping ground for tires, construction debris and trash.
Today, however, it’s a restful pocket park and orchard in the Holy Cross neighborhood of the Lower Ninth Ward.
“It was a real process deciding what to do with the lot after it was donated to us,” said Muse, who is the project coordinator and urban farm manager of the Lower Ninth Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development.
Heavy metals, particularly lead, can be found in high concentrations in local soils, especially in historic neighborhoods.
CSED sent soil samples from several locations on the lot to Timberleaf Soil for testing and discovered a pattern: Concentrations of lead were highest in the front and center of the lot where a double house had stood, but lower in the rear portion.
“We designed the garden based on what we found,” Muse said. “Instead of vegetables, we decided to plant an orchard in the rear part of the garden where lead levels were lowest because fruit doesn’t take up lead like vegetables do.
“We decided to plant the front with ornamentals rather than a food crop and made the center into an area for relaxation and observation of nature. But before we did any of that, we capped the lot with 14 inches of organic soil and mulch.”
Another discovery was that rain water would collect regularly in a natural depression in the front of the lot.
“That’s where we decided to put in a rain garden and planted it with Louisiana irises,” Muse explained. “Neighbors were generous and harvested irises from their own gardens for ours.”
As homage to the home that formerly stood on the lot, the nonprofit chose to incorporate into the garden design the short paths that once led from the sidewalk to the front stoops of the double.
“That’s why there are two paths leading into the garden,” said Muse. “It was important for us to make that connection.”
“Pretty much every element of the garden incorporates recycled materials: Salvaged wood for the small garden pavilion, rubber tires for edging, and even unearthed bricks for paving. And because there is no water service to the lot, it was important to use planting materials that could do well in times of low rainfall.
“We have pink muhly grass, Knockout roses, butterfly bush, sunflowers, zinnias – plants that don’t need extra watering,” Muse said. “Now we have four water catchment barrels that I use to fill watering cans when plants look a little wilted. The goal is to find a way to hook up the barrels to one another so we can get enough water pressure to use a hose instead.”
The newest addition to the garden may also be the most eye-catching: a spiral herb garden built by volunteers from American Baptist Churches of Massachusetts, who come every year to help out.
“I wanted to find a project for the volunteers that they could complete in one visit, so I did some research,” said Muse.
An herb spiral, she discovered, is a vertical green design that conserves energy, space and water. Outer levels are lower than the innermost level, resulting in a pyramid shape.
According to themicrogardener.com (Muse’s primary source), the spiral configuration “maximizes the natural force of gravity, allowing water to drain freely and seep down through all layers — leaving a drier zone at the top (perfect for hardy herbs) and a moist area at the bottom for water lovers.”
As planned, the volunteers were able to complete the spiral garden in a single visit. They planted it with basil, garlic, marjoram, parsley, sage, thyme, rosemary, chives and mint.
Muse spends hours in the Dauphine Street lot every day, as well as at the wetlands education garden that CSED is sponsoring at Caffin and Florida avenues.
Some of the happiest interludes on Dauphine Street, she said, involve neighbors who simply stop by to visit.
“The garden has become a really great neighborhood asset,” Muse said. “I love seeing parents with strollers stopping by and relaxing while their little children explore.”