New Orleans gardeners are replanting their roots.

All things green.
Feb. 1 2008 7:27 AM

The Gardens That Care Forgot

How New Orleans residents are replanting their roots.

To volunteer or contribute money to rebuilding New Orleans' gardens, you can find more info here.

Adolph courtyard garden. Click image to expand.
New Orleanians are rebuilding their gardens as well as their homes as they recover from Hurricane Katrina

New Orleans has lost at least one-third of its pre-Katrina population, a sad thought as the city prepares to celebrate its third post-catastrophe Mardi Gras. Among the loyal, maybe stubborn, people staying are homeowners strongly attached to their gardens.

Like gardeners anywhere, they're giving themselves something nice to look at. But here in this city with an uncertain future, their garden work stands for something more—a signal to neighbors that they're committed to the place. Over a week in New Orleans recently, I met three dedicated gardeners cleaning up and restoring three lovely places.

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How hard is this? They're bringing back gardens that were under water and then under muck. The relevant bumper sticker: "New Orleans: Proud To Swim Home." Outsiders forget the stunning fact that after the August 2005 failure of levees and floodwalls, 80 percent of the city was under water.

Two and a half years later, the formerly flooded neighborhoods still have thousands of unoccupied houses. (The fortunate 20 percent, "the sliver by the river," includes the oldest and highest parts of the city—the French Quarter and the Garden District.)

The off-kilter houses with boarded windows are a forlorn sight for the people staying, and it's hard to avoid being haunted by the thought of the almost 2,000 people who died in Katrina's aftermath. But adding to the pain for those who treasure greenery is the fact that New Orleans lost 70 percent of its trees to wind and water, along with countless shrubs and vines and plants. The previous holder of this unhappy record, Miami-Dade County, lost 45 percent of its trees in Hurricane Andrew.

New Orleans in the summer is a place that really needs its shade. The city's celebrated beauty depends as much on its venerable trees and extravagant tropical plants as on its exceedingly charming domestic architecture. The saddest loss of all the trees in the flooded areas was that of the big old Southern magnolias.

The magnolias drowned. Most of a tree's roots are near the soil's top layer. To keep these trees alive, they must be able to take in oxygen as well as water, which they can't do in saturated soil. (Here's more about flooding and soil quality.)

In the aftermath of the flooding, the New Orleans Botanical Garden turned from deep green and flowery to brown and scummy. Formerly shaded boulevards were left landscaped with tree skeletons. With its mild winters and humid summers, New Orleans is usually heaven for tropical plants with huge green leaves. Spanish moss hangs from the live oaks, and every crevice between bricks or on a tree trunk turns feathery with moss and small ferns. The plants that like it here play a large part in the city's lushness, extravagance, and comfort. (It wasn't uncommon for the NOLA greenery to show a hint of decay in pre-Katrina times. Now there's more than a hint.)

Linda Ireland and Katherine. Click image to expand.
Linda Ireland (left) and her daughter Katherine donned the protective gear recommended for post-hurricane cleanup

When Linda Ireland evacuated her house on Aug. 29, 2005, and headed for Texas, she figured she'd be back in a few days and the worst she'd face would be missing shingles and some broken windows. Instead she found 6 feet of water on her property and 3 1/2 feet of water inside her house. 

Her neighborhood magnolias were goners, but the 40-foot pine she planted 25 years ago was fine. Which was happy news since her garden was "well, really, a pond." The pond stayed around for two weeks, and she's been staying with a friend for two years while fixing up her house.

Ireland lives in a neighborhood in the city's geographic center, between Xavier and Tulane universities. New Orleanians now refer to the neighborhood, Broadmoor, as "spunky."  With a population that's 67 percent African-American, and with 70 percent of homes renovated or under construction, Broadmoor is a microcosm of the larger city. Houses here are much more affordable than in the French Quarter or Garden District, but they're on lower ground, "in the bowl," as the natives say. In one early plan to shrink the city's footprint, the neighborhood was slated to be turned into a swampy park. Every homeowner's fix-up is a way of fighting back. Part of the lesson of Katrina, people in New Orleans say, is that you can't trust the city government, the state government, or the federal government. You have to help yourself.

Ireland's first step after tackling the house with bleach and sponges was to have a contractor raise the structure 8 1/2 feet on pilings.

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