I first met Jeanette Bell while working on a project with HandsOn New Orleans. My friend Allyson and I worked as volunteer leaders with HandsOn, leading weekly beautification projects in Central City. Our first projects began in June, so we quickly became used to working in the sweltering summer temperatures. It became customary for neighborhood residents to offer their hospitality, inviting us in for red beans and rice, and a cold drink after a hot morning’s work.
It came as no surprise to us then when Bell invited us over to her house on Baronne Street after we finished our morning project on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard. “Do you girls want to come see my garden?” she casually asked. We happily complied, expecting little more than a small front or backyard with with a few flower beds.
We could smell her garden before we even saw it — and once we saw it, it was that much more intoxicating. Everywhere we looked, the bright, bold colors of roses juxtaposed on their soft petals were staring back at us. It became clear that gardening wasn’t just a casual hobby of Bell’s — it was her passion, and it still is. We left that day with some of Bell’s peppers and a whole lot of love for this city. Finding people who act on their passion is truly inspiring, and commonplace in New Orleans. Sometimes you just have to be invited behind the fence to smell the roses.
Bell and other New Orleans residents with a passion for flowers have been turning those passions into careers, growing flowers in urban farms and selling them throughout the city. I recently caught up with some of the flower farmers in New Orleans: Bell, Margee Green of Cow Apple Horticulture, Megan Webbeking of NOLA Tilth, and Megan McHugh and Denise Richter of Pistil and Stamen. While they have varying reasons for starting their business, one theme carries throughout — they are infusing beauty into our urban landscape while providing locally grown flowers and produce for the community.
Webbeking explains how her flower business started, greatly reflecting the city’s entrepreneurial spirit and its ability to pull together and overcome adversity as a community.
“When this project started [in 2011], by some estimates, there were roughly 35,000 vacant lots in New Orleans, many of which were overgrown, collecting debris, and contributing to blight,” Webbeking recalls. “I was interested in transforming some of this vacant space by covering it with flowers and making it beautiful for the community.” During that time, Webbeking had the opportunity to be a fellow at Propeller, a local business incubator. With the support of Propeller, she launched Nola Tilth, a combined community garden and flower farm. “Volunteers have access to fresh produce, and proceeds from flower sales are used to purchase seeds, equipment, and pay for water,” she says.
These flower gardens aren’t just turning blight into beauty and providing a community food supply, they are also reflective of New Orleans’ culture in a deeper, larger sense. Just as the city is vibrant in so many other ways, flowers too add to that vibrancy. McHugh of Pistil and Stamen explains that with year-round blooms, the city is always decorated with colors. “Our buildings reflect that color, our clothing reflects it, and our personalities sure as heck do,” she says.
When the French primarily occupied New Orleans, it was commonplace to see flower carts in the French Quarter. It was true then and remains true today: flowers are a way of celebrating life. “People in New Orleans like to celebrate life and each other. The flowers we grow are a part of that,” Webbeking says. “Whether they are being brought to a party, sprinkled in a cocktail, placed on an altar, or the centerpiece for a feast, flowers are intrinsic to life’s customs and celebrations in New Orleans.”
All of the flower farmers in New Orleans also grow seasonal vegetables and herbs. At Nola Tilth, this is done as an offering to the community. At Pistil and Stamen, they use their vegetables and herbs as unique surprises in their arrangements. They plant currant tomatoes in the spring, and burgundy okra and basil for the summer arrangements.
The ladies at Pistil and Stamen first got their New Orleans gardening fix at the Edible Schoolyard (ESY), the local outpost of a garden-based education program for public school students. A major tenet at ESY is “Beauty is in the Language of Caring.” This tenet has carried over to their current business. “While growing food is invaluable, our gardens would not have the same level of magic and tenderness without the flowers,” McHugh says. “Handing someone you love a bunch of flowers is still one of the most fundamental ways we have as people to show we care about somebody. That flowers hold in their pistil and stamen the very essence of life on this planet — well, that’s pretty darn cool, too.”
While New Orleans’ warm and rainy climate lends greatly to growing plants of all sorts, at times the more extreme tropical conditions can be challenging. Monsoon rains, stifling heat, freeze zaps and erratic temperatures all contribute to hard work for the flower farmers. In McHugh’s words, it’s a “blessing and a curse.”
You can technically grow flowers in New Orleans year-round — and all the flower farmers mentioned do — but the best months are usually March through October. Farmers use the slower months for other productive garden activities like building raised beds or digging rows, planting seeds and bulbs, fertilizing with organic fertilizer, and weeding. According to Green, “It’s really hard work, but it’s really happy work. I’d love to see more people experiencing that joy and sharing knowledge.”
Currently, the flower farmers collectively have about an acre and a half of growing space. This space is spread out in little green pockets in the St. Roch, St. Claude, and O.C. Haley neighborhoods, and in a neighborhood in New Orleans East called Village L’Est or Versailles.
Nola Tilth will soon be expanding to a second lot near “The End of the World,” the name for the space where the Industrial Canal meets the Mississippi, and Pistil and Stamen will be growing an all-edible cutting garden outside the new Jack and Jake’s grocery store on O.C. Haley. Wherever your location, there is likely a green pocket or two waiting to be discovered around the corner.
It’s easy for New Orleans residents and visitors to experience the beauty and community of the New Orleans flower scene. While most of the farmers manage their garden business solo or with a single partner, they encourage and appreciate support from volunteers. Pistil and Stamen hosts volunteers every Wednesday afternoon, in addition to hosting fun bi-monthly work parties on the weekends. Volunteer at Cow Apple Horticulture and you can expect to go home with a small assortment of flowers. Volunteer at Nola Tilth and you will likely be lucky enough to snag some fresh produce as well.
I’ve personally volunteered with Nola Tilth. A few friends and I ventured out in the cold winds of winter, and while we didn’t come back with handfuls of flowers because of the brutal snap freezes, we had collards and kale to last us weeks. True to the name of the business, we spent a large portion of time tilling up dirt to create new planting space. When you volunteer with these flower farms, you should expect to be playing in the dirt. It’s not all petal picking and delicate arrangements — but the work is rewarding and it feels good to connect with the Earth and other people who enjoy it.
You can find local flowers from these companies in several places: online through Good Eggs, restaurants around town (vended through St. Roch Forage), St. Roch Market (opening soon on St. Claude Avenue), and online through their personal websites. They all put an emphasis on vending for specific events like weddings, but they enjoy making personalized arrangements as well. Pistil and Stamen will soon be offering an 8-week flower-share program (similar to a community-supported agriculture produce box), and they offer workshops as well as casual gatherings as part of their Cut Flower Social Club. Visit their website, Pistil and Stamen, for details. The farmers have recently combined their resources and information to create a single website. Check it out for for more information on New Orleans’ urban flower farming scene.