THREE YEARS AGO, MARK SANDERS decided he didn’t want to see the neighbors' two-story house behind his home anymore. He hopped in his car, and after a four-hour roundtrip drive, returned to his home in New Orleans with an organic solution to his privacy problem: 10 potted clumping (noninvasive) bamboo plants, for which he paid $100. Instead of planting the bamboo, he sold all 10 after posting an ad on Craigslist, doubling his initial investment. He took that $200, returned to the bamboo nursery and bought more stalks, and again doubled his money by reselling the bamboo online.
“Ironically, after a few months, I still hadn’t planted any bamboo in the yard,” Sanders says. “Actually, come to think of it, I never did.”
But he did begin to grow it in pots and to take cuttings of adolescent bamboo plants to grow new shoots. Eventually (to the consternation of his wife) he set up a makeshift nursery in his still-exposed backyard. Several Craigslist shoppers and potted bamboo plants later (and still powered by that first $100), Sanders’ wife suggested he find a plot of land where he could expand his operation. He purchased a slender strip of commercially zoned land in a mostly desolate stretch of the lower 9th Ward, and Ninth Ward Nursery (2641 Deslonde St., 504-296-8398; www.ninthwardnursery.com) was born. Sanders, a full-time travel writer and editor, was as surprised as anyone that his slapdash hobby had taken on a life of its own.
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“My mother was a master gardener,” he says, “but this just happened organically — pardon the pun. … I had done some landscaping work when I was younger, but really, this started out as a game to see how far I could push my (initial) $100.”
Sanders isn’t a trained horticulturist, but a casual observer wouldn’t know that from a stroll through the nursery. His curiosity and genuine pleasure at watching “plants do their own magic” has taken him far beyond bamboo babies and into the realms of silver squill, baby sun rose, zebra plants and other flora. It’s been a mostly self-guided ride.
“At first it was a lot of Googling, but eventually the Googling becomes expertise once you start memorizing it and learning what sources are better than others,” he says. “I’m very big on mentorship, so I’ve found a few experts [that run other nurseries] whose opinions I trust. … I’ve also had the same bamboo encyclopedia on my bedside table probably for about three years now. I seriously will fall asleep reading this bamboo book.”
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In a short time, Sanders has developed his own encyclopedic knowledge about the array of plants he offers at the nursery. I mention a mystery succulent that a co-worker gave me years ago that sporadically shoots out one long stem, which then erupts into a cluster of neon-red blooms. He immediately identifies it as kalanchoe (who knew?) and points me to his stock of those plants, adding a few quick notes about proper care and varieties of petal color.
Sanders offers competitive pricing on his merchandise because the nursery requires very little overhead; other than insurance and water/sanitation, most of his costs involve buying plants and materials. Many planters are recycled (vintage coffee cans), upcycled (retired woks from Red’s Chinese restaurant) or deals from garage and estate sales. Shoppers also will find hand-crafted ceramic planters made by local artisans, such as Byrdie’s Pottery on St. Claude Avenue. Sanders has expanded into hanging planters, which opened up new commercial opportunities — he now provides design and maintenance of indoor plant installations at a few spots around town, including Maypop restaurant and Frank Relle Photography Gallery.
“New Orleans is a very small town,” Sanders says. “Everybody knows everybody, so it behooves me to give the best customer service I can, and it’s the most gratifying thing in the world to see people come back and to also see people give referrals. I had an Uber driver a couple of weeks ago who overheard me talking in the backseat and she said, ‘Oh wait, do you run that nursery in the 9th Ward?’ It’s amazing how I’m one guy who started out with a few plants. … It just keeps getting better. It’s like positive feedback on an infinite loop.”
Ninth Ward Nursery is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. the first Saturday of every month and by appointment. Follow Sanders on Instagram (@ninthwardnursery) for news of occasional pop-ups and open house sales.