Spring is here at the Milne Community Garden
I grew up in Milwaukee where the coming of spring bursts into one’s life with intoxicating hope and exuberant color. There was never anything subtle about the season. With sun yellow blossoms poking through the winter’s last snow, daffodils sparked the glorious knowledge that winter’s icy grip would finally be over. Soon, frozen dirt would give way to friable soil ready to welcome seeds and seedlings and thus take the deep chill off every gardener’s heart.
Here in the South, spring is fine and pretty but the signs are much less dramatic. The first visible clues that spring has arrived are the proliferation of Bonnie Plants starters outside Rouses Markets and the gathering of eager customers at Harold’s Plants, Jefferson Feed and Seed and Charvet’s Garden Center.
There is little doubt that gardening is big business these days. New data included in a 2019 survey by the National Gardening Association — the nation’s leading nonprofit in gardening education — found that lawn and garden spending increased in 2018 to a whopping $52.3 billion. The survey also found that though much of the spending was led by wealthy households, millennial households also reported strong levels.
And if you’re not growing in your backyard, just being a locavore can help you and the economy. According to Ecolife, a guide to green living, by eating locally you not only support local farmers’ livelihoods, you keep money flowing within your community.
Another way people grow locally is in community gardens. The idea started in the late ’80s with Parkway Partners, a Parkway Commission’s program. Though the program is now defunct, it was a great way to turn vacant properties into attractive, productive spaces.
One remaining community garden is The Milne Community Garden located on the 11-acre campus of the historic Milne Boys Home, which served as refuge for orphans and troubled children from 1933 to 1986. It’s now the site of NORD’s administration offices and the Milne Rec Center. The city has a long-term contract with the Milne Trust through 2031 that obligates it to operate the facility to benefit youth.
On a crisp windy day, Jude Solomon, along with her two long-haired dachshunds, is tending a small but productive garden. The dozens or so raised beds are filled with cilantro, collards, larkspur and bachelor buttons. Peas are growing on a trellis and she’s harvesting red cabbage and broccoli.
The garden is the size of a typical New Orleans city lot and for 23 years it’s been Solomon’s labor of love.
“The start of the garden in 1997 coincided with my breast cancer diagnosis,” Solomon says. “Going to the garden was soothing therapy for me then, and it also provided me with fresh produce. It’s all organic. I use no chemicals in the garden. This is as fresh as you can get.”
Solomon is prepping for summer. The green beans, onions and sweet potatoes are coming up and she just transplanted some corn into one of the beds. Soon it will be time to plant Creole tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and eggplant.
In its heyday, the garden was used by many in the community but the numbers dwindled after Hurricane Katrina. Now, just Solomon and a few neighbors keep up the work.
“We give a lot of produce away,” she says.
She also recently harvested dusty miller for her daughter’s wedding from one of the garden’s beds.
“It was so beautiful in her bouquet.”
Solomon spends three days a week in the garden but after her impending retirement as an associate curator at The Historic New Orleans Collection, she’s looking forward to spending more time cultivating the space.
“This is my exercise, my workout and my therapy,” Solomon says. “It’s hard work but I love it.”