I went to my favorite local nursery this afternoon. I had to pick up a couple of supplies for the little garden I tend on my front porch, but also had the place in mind as my target for the day.
Harold’s Plants on St. Claude Avenue has been at that location since 1985. It’s my first choice when I’m looking for new plants or supplies to better care for the ones I haven’t inadvertently murdered. Don’t get me wrong. I have a moderately green thumb. I’ve gotten a lot better in the last few years, when I’ve acquired the patience to focus on a few varieties at a time and learn their tendencies. Also, I got my hands on a simple moisture meter. Absolute game changer.
The staff there is always knowledgeable and patient. Harold himself was helping customers check out when I was there, and was happy to chat with me for a minute. He told me the property used to be an auto shop. There was a building or area on the property that he used as a warehouse for stock while he sold plants and flowers at the French Market. Now the place is an institution, nestled into the corner of the Bywater that is bordered by St. Claude Avenue and the railroad tracks. Sometimes I end up not buying anything. I’ll just wander around the giant garden, through the greenhouses, getting lost in the leafy mazes.
That’s all I really had in mind for this particular shoot. I had my camera bag slung on my shoulder, with my Nikon and this little 2mp Fisher Price camera, just for kicks. (I really love the quality it gives flowers when I edit the small files, almost a watercolor look.)
The first thing that scampered up to greet me as I walked through the gates of the big garden was the unmistakable scent of freshly cut Christmas trees. I headed straight for the back, where the trees are assembled in noble clumps and rows like proud troops on the morning of a winter camp. White pine, or spruce, or Fraser Firs. Beautiful specimens with perfect needles.
Diana Turner, an employee at the nursery, was suddenly standing in front of me. She seemed to have emerged from behind a tree, but then everything back there was behind a tree, depending on where you stood. A bright and open person with a generous smile, she wanted to know if I needed help with anything.
Well as a matter of fact, Diana.
A curious thing happened when I told her about my little quest vis a vis this blog, and asked her if she had a few minutes to chat. Did she ever. It was almost as if the interview had been pre-arranged.
The first thing I wanted to know about was the trees. She told me that they are from North Carolina and they come in 3 grades. The top grade, or “number 1’s”, are judged to be the best—the fullest and lushest of the grades, and of course, the most expensive. The Number 2’s, or “Polka Dots” (named for the tag they receive in the field, when all trees get graded) are thinner and have some imperfections.
“What are you talking about when you get into grade 3?”
“Probably really sparse, Charlie Brown kinda stuff.” But she made a point of defending the grade 2 and 3’s, almost rooting for them. Already early in our conversation, her innate sense of the levelness of things was obvious: the value of finding true identity of perspective in a world of easy classifications. “The number one’s are fat and thick and they’re lush and they’re great, but they’re not perfect either.”
We were standing, at that point, in a clump of these gorgeous cut fir trees, and I asked Diana to tell me about her background. As it poured out of her, I realized that this was the thing I had come looking for, and I didn’t find her, she found me.
Diana, like many others, came to New Orleans, in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to volunteer as a relief worker. She came from the Twin Cities, a “Minnesota gal born and bred”, where she owned and operated an urban farm and was certified there to do permaculture, which is a form of ecological engineering that focuses on the design and management of agricultural systems that are modeled on natural ecosystems. Though living here off and on for nine years, it took her awhile, she said, to discover Harold’s backyard paradise. When she did, she said she literally begged him for a job. “He said ‘come back in the spring.’ I’m a northern gardener. I didn’t know when that was.”
It was nine months ago, when she went in again and chanced into an opening in the staff. And though she has clearly found a niche there, she stopped short of claiming to be “permanent” in the city. “I’m hoping. I’m working on making that work. I haven’t figured out what that mix is gonna be. This is a temporary part time job for me that I love.” She still has that urban farm in Minneapolis, being managed by others. But her stakes are here, and she’s trying to make a go of it.
Diana has an effusive attitude about her work and she becomes equally passionate talking about her experience as a relief worker. She has been trying to spearhead a project called “Kat 10,” which she envisions as a kind of reflection, and acknowledgement, that ten years have passed since Hurricane Katrina and the voices and viewpoints of the relief worker have still largely remained unheard. The experience was clearly transformative for her. “The narrative that’s missing in the Katrina story is…about how many of us white privileged people came down here for the first time and our lives were changed. Inexplicably. I have been working here 9 years and, to sum it up, I can say….that I was given permission by people who were more gracious, more humble and generous, who lost everything. They gave me permission to start working from my heart, rather than my head.”
And from her heart she certainly works. In addition to the gig at the nursery, she is working with her daughter, who is a teacher at the Woodson middle school (or KIPP Central City Academy) to foster an urban farming program there. They have already created a garden on the school’s property. They hope to add chickens. She has a well-defined vision of how running such a program ought to work, much of it based on her experience as a permaculturalist, but a lot of it clearly influenced by her engagement in ground level issues, where she has her New Orleans roots. She cites studies showing that behavioral problems in children are reduced, and scores improve, when they can have access to a natural place and a healthy, sufficient diet. “It’s a kind of a self-efficacy thing. If there’s a pretty place and a natural place that they can go sit in nature for a little while, they can manage their own stress. And obviously, better nutrition, so healthy school lunches are really, really important. All those movements are here in New Orleans…” She would like to see her work for the KIPP charter program, eventually, follow a model similar to that of the Edible Schoolyard Project and the Grow Dat Youth Farm in City Park.
Through our conversation, as she told me about all of her passions and hopes in the works she is occupied with, she made sure to impress upon me that much of who she is now and what she is doing is a result of her experience as a relief worker. It was important to her that I understood how the experience changed her life—and many lives—in magnificent ways, and that this was the reason why her project Kat 10 is, in her words, “her baby.” She doesn’t mean to imply ownership; rather, that the project stays in the hands of the relief workers and does not get “twisted” by the media.
“Isn’t it amazing that [among the volunteers] there was a commonality, that people responded from their heart for the first time, and they were welcomed. I was told so much ‘you’re thinking too much, Diana, just trust, it’s all gonna work out.’ You know, like, where’s the truck gonna come from, where’s the 2×4’s we need. Then all of a sudden they’d show up. It was pretty fabulous, amazing.”
By now you’re beginning to realize, as I did, that I really hit the jackpot when I found Diana. Or she found me. And still, it’s important to note, as passionate and involved as she is with the Woodson farm and her ambitions for the Kat 10 Project, that she is also just a really, really good employee at Harold’s Plants on St. Claude Avenue. Her background and her enthusiasm for gardening and her engagement with customers has evidently made her quite a valuable member of the staff. They gave her charge of the greenhouses, an especially important task with the onset of winter. She wouldn’t let me go without pulling me into the nearest one to show me her handiwork.
“There’s a lot of care that goes into keeping a nursery healthy and vibrant,” she explains. Part of this care was moving plants inside the greenhouses to make room for the Christmas tree invasion. “In the mad rush, everything got shoved together, and it was my job to kind of parcel things out, and make sure the plants were happy.”
You don’t say, Diana.
“A lot of plants don’t like to touch each other. So it’s kind of a catch-as-catch-can, keeping everybody happy.”
You don’t say.