Jeanette Bell has a long history of supplanting blight with flowers. Almost 20 years ago, when the push to revitalize Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard was just getting started and Bode’s Venus Gardens was under renovation, Bell contributed to the effort by planting flowers in pockets along the then-desolate stretch.
Later, when a large vacant lot on her block of Baronne Street in Central City became available, she worked through the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority to acquire it. Her goal? To remove the cast-off tires, the brambles, the empty beer bottles, and install a garden.
Today, the original garden joins one in Gert Town and two in the Lower 9th Ward under the umbrella of “Garden on Mars.”
“It’s named for Mars Place in Gert Town where one of the lots is located,” said Bell. “Someone told me recently that they liked the name because it implied we are growing flowers and vegetables on an otherwise barren site and making it come to life.”
Bell operates the enterprise with program director Erin Zimmer, the former marketing manager for the local “Good Eggs” venture. While their project awaits its 501(c) 3 status approval, HandsOn New Orleans acts as its umbrella nonprofit.
“I contribute most of the gardening expertise, and Erin is a genius at organizing and handling the technical aspects of things,” said Bell. “We make a great team.”
Early this year, Garden on Mars hosted its first series of free gardening workshops aimed at introducing locals — especially Lower 9th Ward residents — to the concept of growing their own vegetables and herbs and making a little pocket change by growing and selling flowers. March workshops — a series of four — are already underway, and registration for the April series is open on the group’s website, gardenonmars.com.
“I sold my first bouquet 35 years ago to a restaurant in Detroit. Flowers have always been my first love. That’s how I met Ian,” Bell said, referring to chef Ian Schnoebelen, of Bywater’s Mariza.
“I was selling roses at the Crescent City Farmer’s Market one Saturday morning when he stopped by my table and bought a few. I tucked my business card in with his order, and that is how it got started.”
Schnoebelen was intrigued by Bell and her Baronne Street garden, as well as her knowledge of growing herbs and vegetables. Over time, Bell began growing what Schnoebelen told her he needed for his restaurant, and their friendship developed into a business relationship. One of two lots on Charbonnet Street in the Lower 9th Ward is devoted to growing basil, thyme, parsley, sage, fennel, greens and other edibles Schnoebelen buys for his restaurant.
“If you think about the difference between really fresh greens grown within a couple of miles of where they’re consumed and something that was harvested weeks ago and shipped hundreds of miles, you can see why a chef would want the local product,” Bell said.
The other Charbonnet Street lot, closer to Florida Avenue, is where the flowers grow that Bell and Zimmer turn into bouquets. A downtown apartment complex is a weekly subscriber, but Garden on Mars also grows exotic flowers, like Gloriosa lilies, to sell to florists.
Both the flowers and the edibles are grown in raised beds — about 4 feet wide, 8 feet long and 2 feet deep — framed by wide, cedar boards. Sonnet snapdragons in yellow, magenta, white and pink fill the beds of the flower garden, but tubs filled with freesia and gladioli (yet to bloom) circle the lot.
“One thing we talk about in the gardening classes is containers for growing food and flowers. You don’t have to a big bed to grow enough food to reduce your grocery costs or enough flowers to sell for extra income. We’re growing the freesia and the gladioli in big plastic tubs that we get from Bayou Tree after they plant whatever was in them.” Bell said. “We made 28 old tires left over from the lot cleanup into planters by painting them and filling with a growing medium. You can even grow in a grocery store crate or box, as long as you use the right soil.”
For Bell, that means bags of top soil (brand name “Gardenese”) processed by Phillips Bark in Brookhaven, Mississippi. At $1.69 per bag, Bell considers it a bargain.
“I’ve been to their facility, and I can vouch for the product,” she said. “It’s really affordable and you can get it at the big box stores.”
Although many of the flowers and other plants grown by Garden on Mars begin with seeds, others start with plugs purchased from Sunrise Trading Company, a large wholesale greenhouse in Kenner.
“Sunrise starts the plugs. We buy them from Sunrise and grow them until they are big enough. Then when we harvest them, we sell the flowers to a florist or make bouquets to sell to the public,” said Bell. “It’s a web of relationships.”
The mission of Garden on Mars is to inspire others to forge the same kind of relationships, after gaining a little know-how from the garden team.
“It isn’t that complicated to turn a blighted lot into a garden, but it takes a lot of hard work,” She said. “I’m 71, so if I can do it, anyone who really wants to can do it, too.”