Allison Pressimone and Allie George, students from St. Mary's College of Maryland, are only in town for a few days but Joseph Brock is making sure they get their hands dirty.
The volunteers, part of a dozen on a service trip to New Orleans through HandsOn, are tilling soil and setting up tomato supports on the raised beds at the Wise Words Community Garden. Other volunteers are busy planting herbs and spreading fertilizer.
"If you build it, they will come," says Brock, the Mid-City Community Garden executive director.
He broke ground on the lots at 724 S. Hennessey St. in November 2009. "Right now I'm in construction mode," he says. "That's the hardest part."
The garden is designed for both food and art; Brock wants the garden to resemble an outdoor gallery, with works on display along the fences and in the soil beds. As the name implies, words of inspiration will line each bed and brick. The garden also will celebrate the art of food, with local chefs preparing dishes using ingredients from the garden during weekly cooking demonstrations. Brock already has caught the attention of neighborhood joints Huevos and Crescent City Pie and Sausage, the Ruby Slipper Cafe, Liberty's Kitchen and Parkway Bakery and Tavern.
Next up are rainwater cisterns, slated roofs on each container bed and a greenhouse.
The garden may be in its infancy, but it's producing. Basil, parsley, dill and a few other herbs, as well as leafy greens and vegetables are filling out several of the container beds, with room for tomatoes and seasonal produce in the coming months.
"Every single space needs a plant," he says.
Brock also wants to build a chicken coop, much like the one he installed in the Mid-City Community Garden at 516 S. Salcedo St., in his own backyard. The community garden grew from his personal vegetable stash. The seeds cost him pennies, he says, and he gave what he couldn't eat to his neighbors at no charge. "I had more than I could eat," he says. "I didn't want to waste seeds."
He extended his lot to the paved one next door. Rather than dig up the busted soil underneath the concrete, Brock enlisted community partners to help — the New Orleans Food and Farm Network and HandsOn volunteers helped build a container garden, leaving a rough skeleton of a garden sitting on the lot, which Brock cared for himself.
"The neighborhood don't believe in green," he says. "You have to show it." Neighborhood kids brought their families to investigate rumors of live chickens, and ended up joining Brock's co-operative garden program that now includes Wise Words, where members can "reap the benefits of the Mid-City garden," he says.
For $10 a month, members receive a weekly basket of seasonal produce from the garden (including fresh Mid-City eggs), but they also need to punch the clock — garden duties include weeding, watering, attending meetings and caring for assigned "boxes," or containers. ("Keep it happy," he says.)
"You can go to Burger King and get a meal for $10," Brock says. "Here, it's $10. For 30 days. That's all we ask."
Shareholder memberships are $20 a month and don't include gardening duties. In return, members receive a basket that's refilled each week. Brock does limited deliveries to senior citizen members, and he'll soon introduce bike delivery. Members also are eligible to elect garden officers, vice-presidents and presidents, and can vote on business transactions and at other decision-making meetings. Brock says this type of community organizing is essential and serves as a "cultural preservation."
"It's just one of those things we have to let exist, especially for poor folks," he says. "We have to do this. Katrina taught us a powerful lesson: Community, not government, is able to bring community together."
In 2009, Matt Schwartz, a partner in the 183-unit mixed-income Preserve apartments (a former Crystal Hot Sauce plant) on South Hennessey Street, approached Brock to develop not one but two lots on the other side of the street, right outside the building's front door, and put another community garden within the neighborhood's reach. Those lots turned into Wise Words.
"These two damn lots," Brock says, waving across the garden. "(Schwartz) said, 'Well, what do you need?' Because if I can't do it right, I'm not doing it. These are my babies."
The Wise Words garden isn't his last stop, he says. It's barely already up and running, but Brock's already planning his next lot. He plans to extend urban gardening across the city and convert blighted properties and abandoned lots into treasured, cared-for and productive community spaces.
"I'm a businessman, through and through," he says. (Brock also runs J. Brock Web Design and serves as vice president of the Mid-City Neighborhood Association.)
"I'm running this like a business, without grants. This is turning into a business!" he says. "The ball got bigger overnight."
Looking at the garden from above — across the street on the fourth floor of The Preserve — Brock says he sees a finished product despite a few empty garden beds and no greenhouse or coop.
"Someone asked me, 'Brock, why are you doing this?'" he says. "I said, 'Why would I not be doing this? You're not there yet.'"
Wise Words Community Garden
724 S. Hennessey St.
Mid-City Community Garden
514 S. Salcedo St.
Open 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays