“Ernest, the goal is not to make a trench,” said Jenga Mwendo as she showed a group of school children how to prepare the soil for planting.
Students from the AdinkraNOLA home school were visiting the Guerrilla Garden at Charbonnet and Chartres Streets and learning the correct method for sowing seeds. The boys vigorously took to the task of breaking up clods of dirt with hoes.
“Now that we’ve loosened up the soil, use your fingers,” Mwendo directed. Marci McDaniel, 4, crouched demurely, deftly wielding a cultivator.
Children like to dig and play in the dirt, said the schoolteacher, Elizabeth Fletcher. “They have a chance to see what they planted last year,” she said.
The school children also enjoyed eating fresh figs picked right off the tree.
Through a Kellogg grant, Backyard Gardeners has been holding free workshops in the Guerrilla Garden six afternoons a week to continue through the end of November. So far, activities have ranged from food demonstrations, art workshops, storytelling and composting with the goal of fostering community spirit and a love of gardening.
There was a time, not long ago, when almost every home in the Lower Ninth Ward had a backyard garden, Mwendo said. Communing while growing food was a longstanding neighborhood tradition, she added. Many of those gardens disappeared after Hurricane Katrina.
Mwendo saw the potential and opportunity to use gardens to rebuild community, revitalize the neighborhood and increase access to quality food. In 2009, she started the Backyard Gardeners Network, which currently maintains two community gardens where local residents grow their own fruits and vegetables, as well as share common experiences.
“The vision is a vibrant community space,” Mwendo said.
A second place, the Laurentine Ernst Garden, on the corner of Forstall and Chartres Streets, offers a tool lending library, an educational resource library and a small cottage donated by the Preservation Resource Center.
“This was an empty lot before 2009,” Mwendo said, describing the Guerrilla Garden. Aloyd Edinburgh, a neighbor, used to throw seeds on the ground there for the neighbors to pick whatever grew.
“Then a few neighbors got together to decide what they wanted to develop,” Mwendo recalled.
First, they cleared the land of stones, rocks and bricks. Their first fundraising event paid for fencing and a driveway.
The Guerrilla Garden is planted with broccoli, collard and mustard greens. There are also fig, grapefruit, lime, lemon and kumquat trees and an okra bush. Some people pay a seasonal for a private vegetable bed.
Other groups use the garden for meetings and classes. The previous week, Thaddaeus Prosper, owner of Sheaux Fresh Sustainable Foods, conducted a hands-on fall planting workshop for a few teenage boys.
“Growing food is in my blood. My father instilled ideas if hard work and his mother cooked dinner for needy families,” he told them. The entrepreneur, whose business is growing fresh food in underserved neighborhoods, explained its career potential.
The Recirculating Farms Coalition recently helped Backyard Gardeners Network further improve the property with a wooden structure that provides a shaded rest and recreation space. The Coalition donated a hydroponics system, which pumps nutrient-rich water over the roots of grape and luffa vines that will eventually climb and cover the structure. The new system is eco-friendly, using collected rainwater and solar energy.
Edinburgh is proud of the progress the neighborhood has made because he believes farming is a valuable experience.
“We’ve got an obligation to the kids to teach them something,” he said.