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.

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.

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 (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.

As the house went up and the water went down, church-group volunteers came to help clean debris and rotting vegetation in the yard. Another volunteer, Suzanne Hague from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, provided a plan for a new garden and built Ireland raised beds for her future vegetable plot. Hague’s plan includes a channel to collect rainwater, directing it to an area for native cypress trees. Cypresses, unlike magnolias, are trees that evolved to deal with short periods of flooding.

“They’ll give good shade in about 15 years,” Ireland says. Her patience is high, her irony low.

Ireland sawed off the dead parts of her gigantic wisteria vine, leaving a hulking gray trunk that is sending out new shoots. She points out that Katrina gave her a new peach tree. Someone’s discarded pit sprouted and the little tree has shot up about shoulder-high. “The thing that’s so great about gardening,” Ireland said, “is that everything will come back.”

The plant that winter visitors to any New Orleans neighborhood remember and natives most prize is sweet olive, osmanthus fragrans. It’s a shrub that grows as high as 20 feet, with tiny white flowers that send out a scent all the more wonderful because you can’t quite tell where it’s coming from. Sweet olive blooms from late fall to early spring, beginning to wind down around Mardi Gras.

The thought of replanting her sweet olives kept Ireland going through what she calls the “mud, sweat, and tears.” The way she sees it, “I’ll be smelling sweet olive. I’ll be living alone in my house. I’ll be getting ready to go out in my garden and do nothing.”

Jerry Scavo (left) and Kenny Walker stand near the 75-year-old crape myrtle tree in their new garden

Linda Ireland is just beginning to replant, but Jerry Scavo devoted himself to making a complex and complete garden in only a year. Things come back, but not without a lot of work. Scavo had to go to the hospital to get a hernia repaired after moving thousands of pounds of granite blocks, bricks, and pavers from his old garden, which was washed away by a wave from Lake Pontchartrain, to his new garden, which had been under 4 feet of water.

All these rocks were moved in the back of his partner Kenny Walker’s little PT Cruiser. Scavo and Walker, a couple for 43 years, lived in Lakeview, an affluent neighborhood in a reclaimed swamp. There they had a formal garden with tidy gravel paths and planted squares outlined in boxwood, giving it the look of a miniature Italian villa’s landscape. With 11 feet of water in the house and 15 feet in the garden, they decided rebuilding in low land beside a lake was not a good idea.

They moved to a sturdy little 1928 brick house a few blocks north of Broadmoor set, significantly, 10 feet above the street. Over a year, while Walker fixed the plumbing, floors, walls, and electricity, Scavo constructed a new garden good enough to be included on the New Orleans Botanical Gardens’ Post-Katrina Recovery Tour.

Scavo, whose family came to New Orleans from Sicily in the 1850s, was a display designer for 32 years at D.H. Holmes & Co., the city’s historic (now defunct) department store. Those display skills are evident in his new creation. In a very small space, he has made distinct garden rooms linked by stone paths. Pots and sculpture sit on pedestals, like small altars. Pink camellias and azaleas mix with purple cabbage and asparagus, vines cloak every bit of fence, and several fountains burble.

Momentarily unable to recall the name of one of his hundreds of plants, Scavo says with astounding good humor, “Between the chemo and Katrina, I can’t remember anything.”

Scavo was in remission from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma when Katrina hit. His remission has ended. As to the mental condition, New Orleanians have coined the term “Katrina syndrome” for irritability, difficulty sleeping, and memory loss.

The name of the vine in question came to him. It’s maypop. It’s the only plant, he wants me to know, on which the Gulf fritillary butterfly lays its eggs.

Adolph Bynum adorned the remains of his 150-year-old fig tree with a clay mask

Adolph Bynum’s garden has the best features of a typical French Quarter garden, though it’s not quite in the Quarter. His plantings demonstrate the kind of Eden you can create in a city that is more like the northern edge of the Caribbean than the southern edge of the United States.

The water was a couple of feet deep on his street—St. Claude, in Treme—and about 1 foot deep in his garden. The advancing flood stopped a few blocks away, just short of the French Quarter, as if it were sparing the city’s income-producing places.

Treme is the oldest African-American neighborhood in the country, founded, Bynum says proudly, by “free men of color.” He built his own house on St. Claude, a perfect, though larger, replica of a Creole cottage, in 2002.

Bynum’s garden is a courtyard behind several 1840s Creole cottages he restored in order to rent. He didn’t so much mind the destruction of two large hollies; the heartbreaker was the loss of a 150-year-old fig tree. He has stuck a clay mask on the remaining stump. The water was shallower and receded more quickly in Treme than in Broadmoor. All the small plants turned brown but recovered. Even azaleas, which we think of as finicky, pulled through.

The city is a crescent lying between two bodies of water, the lake and the Gulf, putting it at risk but also giving it, in the calm times, distinctively moist, soft air. The humidity and warmth favor the kinds of plants in Bynum’s courtyard: monster philodendron, elephant ears, striped green and yellow gingers, banana trees, jasmine, and fan palms. Those tropical plants’ leaves might get ripped by the wind, but they recover.