In May of 2013, I first met Ica Crawford at the Bayou Boogaloo festival inside the giant Slow Food tent on the banks of Bayou St. John. She was representing Our Garden, a non-profit organization she established. I was excited to discover a new urban agriculture organization. My eyes immediately jumped to the interactive display behind her. Hay, dirt, and seed packets lay on top of the table, surrounded by rocks, brochures, and information about the biological structure of plants. Impressed, I turned to Ica to learn more, “What’s a seed bomb?” Ica explained that a seed bomb contained clay, hay, dirt, and a seed. One simply places a seed bomb on a vacant lot, and with water, the seed will grow and bring life and food to the space. Ica handed me a packet that contained a basil seed and one of the detailed brochures.
A couple of weeks later in the high heat of June, I volunteered with Our Garden one morning to help harvest salad greens for an upcoming farmers market. In the Black Pearl neighborhood, I ventured over to meet Ica at Milaudon Garden and finally found the closed but unlocked wooden fence after a few minutes of searching for the location. The fence was lined with Mardi Gras beads of all colors. Upon entering, I was greeted with a colorful blue and yellow sign that was perched above the fence, painted with the words “Our Garden”.
After stepping inside, I found myself surrounded by raised garden beds built with wood on both sides of the lot, immersed in greenery. A scarecrow donned in New Orleans flair stood in one of the beds. Towards the back, a chicken coop gave four chickens a safe home near a large, towering bottle tree. Mirlitons dangled from the tree, with the vines climbing up high. Ica arrived in the garden, riding over on an old red cruiser bicycle. Our task for the morning was to harvest greens and ingredients to produce salads to sell at the Sankofa Farmers Market the following day. As we bounced from garden beds to a house down the street to collect the unique ingredients, Ica enthusiastically explained what they were and answered my questions patiently. From edible rose petals and arugula, to purple lettuce and onion flowers, it was the most beautiful salad I had ever seen – and the tastiest!
Our Garden is primarily about the community and providing local, fresh produce to the neighbors of the garden. The intent of the organization is not to make money but to support the neighborhood through education and the particular harvest people in the community desire. In the very beginning, Ica made the decision to start up a community garden in the neighborhood that would not cost residents a yearly or monthly fee, while utilizing every inch of garden space throughout the year. Rather than have a coalition of paying individuals, Ica and members of the Milaudon garden made the choice to make it about the neighborhood and bringing the community together. With such a model, the garden continues to be utilized continuously throughout the year regardless of the individual circumstances of involved members.
Before getting the plots started, Our Garden volunteers went around the neighborhood and asked what kinds of vegetables everyone wanted. Collard greens, black-eyed peas, mirlitons, peppers, and okra were some of the many produce items that were requested and then planted in the ground. As Ica explained, “We weren’t giving them things that were so strange or foreign to them that they wouldn’t utilize it – it was something familiar and they were getting fresh produce, as opposed to getting it in cans.” After identifying the space, the involved neighbors went to the local corner store to find more community members who were glad to help out and everyone came together to help install the garden. After going through a number of growing methods, the garden was established on raised beds.
Our Garden works to make access to fresh food easier for residents near the gardens, where many groceries stores are four miles away or more. Ica mentioned, “If you’re taking the empty lots and you’re turning them into gardens that are feeding the people, you are contributing to the depletion of the food desert, where it takes people miles and miles to go to the grocery store.” Since fresh produce is difficult to come by in the neighborhoods that Our Garden has land in, the organization aims to provide a solution by giving neighbors an opportunity to grow fresh produce themselves. Our Garden locates families within a two-mile radius of each garden in order to supplement whatever they get from Second Harvest food bank.
With a background in biological and horticultural sciences, Ica shares her knowledge with the youth in the three communities the organization serves. From the original Black Pearl garden, the St. Roch Garden, and the Pigeon Town Garden, Ica serves the youth in each community. Whether the subject of the day is about the cellular structure of plants or how to grow mirliton, the youth are learning valuable life skills while participating in an afterschool program that is not focused on sports or music.
When asked if the gardens have experienced any issues with unrestricted access, Ica declared, “That’s why we call it ‘Our Garden,’ because we want to give each neighborhood a sense of ownership. We try not to put locks on our doors.” It is no secret to anyone that the people who work so hard to grow our fresh food don’t do it for the money. Ica works at night to pay the bills and help fund the organization while she tends to the gardens during the day. Fortunately, a core group of volunteers helps keep the organization and each individual garden going. Our Garden has a unique system in place that allows volunteers to help during their free time. Rather than making a set schedule, the organization utilizes an online system that lists tasks that need to be completed at each garden. Once a volunteer has finished weeding the okra bed, for instance, they simply mark down what they accomplished.
Why do you farm?
“It’s in your heartbeat. And if it’s not in your heartbeat then…it’s just something that you don’t do. You can’t even understand why people would do that, you know? And if that’s your mission and your passion, you’re going to keep on farming. You’re going to keep on growing food for the people. It gets to be really frustrating sometimes but at the same time, it’s super rewarding.”
What are the challenges of farming?
“The only real frustrating thing is trying to really identify with the people in each area and get them engaged in the process of growing and cultivating, and cooking and giving this food.”
Ica stresses the importance of building an engaged community. “It really took the Milaudon garden years of being there before people were really engaged. I mean, they were engaged for a little bit, and then they were not, and then they were engaged, and then they weren’t. And the engagement always happens around harvest,” Ica said with a laugh.
What’s in the future for Our Garden?
In the near future, Ica is starting a CSA box program that will help fund the water bills. “My goal in 5 years is to have a garden in Black Pearl, in St. Roch, Pigeon Town and Hollygrove, in Central City, Irish Channel, and Mid-City. That’s seven gardens. Maybe we can start identifying the youth that five years from now can be paid as a farm manager of the St. Roch Garden, or the Uptown garden, or the Pigeon Town Garden. But it’s a slow process.”
Do you have any advice for aspiring urban farmers?
To aspiring farmers, Ica encourages folks to do their research first. “First my advice would be to really think about if that’s something that you want to do. Second, make sure that you identify the materials that you’re gonna need to do it in a sustainable manner. And three, to identify actual help. Think it through, identify the materials. Do not fight nature. Nature will always win.”
To learn more about Our Garden or to subscribe to their spring CSA, please visit www.ournolagarden.com or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/OurNolaGarden.