Summer Days in the Broadmoor Food Forest

Changemaker Catalyst  Award Recipient, Shannon Cruz, spent the Summer of 2021 as a caretaker of the Broadmoor Food Forest Community Garden. Shannon is now a +1 masters student in the Tulane Ecology and Evolutionary Biology department were she is continuing her work in gardening, as well as in education and scientific literature.

Waking up in the morning was easy when I was headed straight to the garden. This summer I spent my mornings (and some afternoons and evenings) stewarding community gardens in the Broadmoor and Mid-City neighborhoods of New Orleans, Louisiana. There are 5 different gardens in the area. The Broadmoor Food Forest, Rain Garden, and Broadmoor Food Pantry are located in Broadmoor, while the New Zion Baptist Church and Mardi Gras Indian gardens are located in Mid-city. Though I was around to help out at all the gardens, I spent most of my time working at the Broadmoor Food Forest.  My responsibility to the garden were to care for the plants, harvest the produce, get it to people, and drum up community engagement.

My relationship with this space began when I was a student in Dr. Cheruiyot’s Urban Agroecology in New Orleans course, Spring 2021. The way the class was structured, there were 3 groups of about 5 students working at respective gardens in the city. On the first day of class, Dr. Cheruiyot took us around to the different gardens we would/could be working at. I was immediately taken by the atmosphere of the Broadmoor Food Forest. It was a double wide lot overgrown with weeds up to your thighs. That day I wore a soft jumpsuit and the pants got covered in so many weed sticker seeds that it looked like I had grown fur.

Amidst the weeds, there were large and healthy fruit trees. The entrance and back fence were lined with banana trees, the far and side corners housed two impressive figs. There was also an avocado tree, a Meyer lemon tree (at the time, filled with juicy yellow lemons), and a large loquat tree. Moringa, which is hailed as a superfood and known to be packed with vitamins and antioxidants*, was growing in a rectangular grove off to the side. Along the other edge of the lot were four thin brick beds of broccoli, cauliflower and collard greens. This place had magic from the get go, and so I begged my professor to assign my team and I to that space.

Brick begs filled with collard greens and cauliflower and green weeds with banana trees in the distance.
The Food Forest before Urban Agroecology in New Orleans team came in.

What followed was a semester of hard work and gratification. With the help of people from the surrounding community and many volunteers from institutions like Xavier and Tulane, we turned the double wide lot into a prolific garden filled out with native pollinator plants.

The space was meant to do more than just grow food in a garden, our goal was to cultivate it under the tenets of agroecology and do our best to help this area combat food insecurity. Urban Agroecology is a relatively new farming practice that incorporates social, biological, and agricultural knowledge with a local’s personal understanding of the land to provide sustainable food for a community. One of the core values of agroecology is that the food systems mimic the surrounding ecosystems as closely as possible. This made the garden pretty easy to care for in terms of watering and pruning – as evolutionary relationships did a lot of the work in maintaining the health of the produce. Our garden was also designed to serve as a haven for native species (mostly insects but some birds and small mammals) to flourish. Food, soil, and organismal health were prioritized, but perhaps one of the most important principles we implemented was the social aspect.

Agroecology is based in the identity, knowledge, innovation and traditions of local communities. It creates space for relationships to grow and for discussions between culturally diverse groups to share their knowledge. It encourages leadership and community. It supports personal relationships between people and their land.

This garden and what it stood for seemed like the answer to so many issues we face in

our globalized society. Primarily, that of food deserts and the peoples’ general lack of a relationship with the land. Despite the semester coming to a close, I knew I wasn’t done with our work in the Food Forest and especially not agroecology.

I am very thankful to the Taylor Center grant for providing me with funding to continue work on the garden. The funds allowed me to spend 4-5 days a week in the garden and still have the means to support myself.  This was a chaotic summer for me, but the garden was a beacon of calm and stability. Along with Dr. Cheruiyot, and my partner Sara Good-Chanmugam,  I was able to throw myself into the maintenance of the garden and the formation of relationships with community members. It is hard for me to describe how important Dr. Cheruiyot was to this whole process, but *exceedingly* is a start.  She brought us into the gardens, as well as into her home, and was a mentor and a friend when I needed one most. Sara is the most hard-working individual I have ever met, and working alongside her in this space inspired me to dedicate myself to the project with all that I have.

As the summer began, my garden visits became less about planting plants and designing beds (as they were mostly in the late spring) and more about tending the existing plants. In the beginning of the summer, the heat was intense and the rain was sparse, so most of the visits were spent saturating the plants with water to help them face the sun. The neighbor to the right of the garden, Ms. Ethel, allowed us to use her hose all summer to tend to the plants. Without her we would have been at a loss! The city has been dragging their feet to connect the water to the site despite us and the Broadmoor Improvement Agency (who we consistently liaison with) bugging them about it. The younger more delicate plants were having a hard time of things, so we made makeshift shading structures to try and give them some respite.

Around mid-June, the sky cracked open and things really started getting wet –  the Food Forest became more akin to a food jungle. The heat and the water made the life at the garden absolutely explode! We had almost more produce than we could collect from some of the plants. The okra, figs,  peppers, beans and watermelon thrived. The figs were my favorite, I swear they were the softest and sweetest in the city – but we were collecting fresh food from all of these plants every day. Other plants were, unfortunately, plagued with herbivorous insects who also had burst into the scene due to the steamy climate.

Hand holding three purplish figs.
Me holding three figs from one of the trees in the Broadmoor Food Forest.

Dealing with herbivory in an agroecology-esque way proved to be rather difficult. Mostly, there were issues with army worms and aphids. Army worms are polyphagous, meaning they can eat *anything* and boy! That they did. My team and I would spend hours trying to pick them off the tomato plants and squash plants. We squished or relocated the ones we found. To combat our aphid problem, we tried using water pressure ( squirting the hose at them) to control their population numbers. This was more successful than the mechanical removal of the army worms, who were decimating some of our produce. Eventually we had to turn to a chemical approach. We bought a pesticide known as BT which is very specialized for caterpillars. It is a bacteria that is arguably ubiquitous and harmless to most life, but that turn caterpillars insides into jagged crystals and their bodies to black goo.

It was kind of funny to me that while one caterpillar became the garden’s arch nemesis – monarch caterpillars were practically our mascots. We coddled and monitored and loved each caterpillar we saw, and there were a lot—especially during the hot and wet part of the season.  Milkweed, the only greenery that monarch caterpillars feed on, is a resilient plant. The monarch caterpillars would eat off every leaf and flower overnight… then, not even a day or two later the milk weed bounced right back with new growth!

3 monarchs on a stem of milk weed
Monarch caterpillars eating milkweed at the Broadmoor Food Forest.

Our garden was blessed with flocks of monarch butterflies in the later summer. As things started chilling out a bit more, rain would come in the evening and the sun would shine in the morning. In mid to late July, I was harvesting in the New Zion Baptist Church garden when I noticed a small eruption from the ground under a purplish vine…. The sweet potatoes we had planted in all of the gardens were becoming ripe and ready for harvest! To harvest sweet potatoes you have to dig around at the base of the plant in the dirt, a practice I am very fond of.

Watermelons, sweet potatos, okra, green peppers, and blackbeans on a picnic table.
Watermelons, sweet potatoes, okra, green peppers, and black beans grown in the Food Forest, on its way to the Broadmoor Food Pantry.

Our duties shifted during this time. We watered a little bit, but mostly tended the plants and harvested produce. All of the produce we harvested started going to the Broadmoor Food Pantry, who distributed groceries to Broadmoor residents on Monday and Wednesday mornings. Getting as much produce as possible there on those days was my top priority for weeks during the summer. Okra and the beans had to be harvested every day, and so my roommates and I had refrigerators full in the days leading up to the drop offs. Sweet potato and watermelon had to sit for weeks in the sun to sweeten up so our counters and window sills started piling up with those fruits and veggies as well.

The weeds outside of the beds began growing tall again, similarly to how the Food Forest looked when we first got there! Thankfully, during this whole experience we had the opportunity to become closer with some of the neighbors in the area, and one of our friends with a lawn mower came and cleared them away. Other neighborhood contributions to the garden included watering it on days we couldn’t get out there, harvesting, weeding in the beds, and generally keeping an eye on things.  One of my favorite moments was when a neighbor from a block or two down who is an awesome, badass person stormed into the garden wearing a gorgeous, floor-length, sheer cover up and black two piece swimsuit. She had seen people in the garden and didn’t immediately recognize us, so she had come to investigate and make sure no one was messing with things. From that day forward I called her the Bikini Warrior, because she was ready to kick some ass upon finding anything amiss.

In the last days of July, one day while I was at the garden I got a call from Dr. Cheruiyot. There was a last minute opportunity for Sara and I to join her at a conference in Minnesota, where we would sit on a panel and discuss how we thought urban agriculture could be incorporated into the undergraduate curriculum. I had never been asked to a conference before, and knew I could not pass up on this opportunity.  And so,  Sara, Dr. Cheruiyot and I flew out to Minnesota and spent half a week discussing this prospect with other biology teachers and students from universities across the country. Despite being young and not having a PhD,  I felt very welcome and at home amidst the other conference participants. I think that my future may lie in figuring out how to incorporate urban agroecology into education as an applied way to each biology.

5 people on a panel in front of a conference
Sara Good-Chanmugam and Shannon Cruz at an Urban Agriculture conference in Minnesota, discussing their experiences.

Without the funding provided by the Taylor Center, I don’t think I would have had the opportunity to give as much of myself to the garden as I did. Without putting my all into the garden, I wouldn’t have had such a rich experience, or gotten invited to the conference. I feel like my head is firmly on my shoulders after spending so much time in the garden. I am grounded and rooted. I feel more connected to the New Orleans Community than I have in the past 4 years I’ve lived here, and more confident about what my place in society may be going forwards.

It is now September… August flew by and was uneventful in the garden until the later days when Hurricane Ida hit. The storm knocked over some beds, and uprooted some plants, but the thick net of foliage in most of the garden beds kept things mostly secure. I have been away for about 3 weeks now and am eagerly ready to get back and rebuild. Dr. Cheruiyot told me that her and other neighbor were using okra from to garden to make stew when the power was out and all groceries gone bad. It is really heartening to know that even after disaster struck, the love and time we put into that space was reciprocated, and the garden fed many people. The Food Forest may have taken a blow, and it may soon be the end of my scheduled time with it, but just like I knew at the end of last semester… our story is far from over. Once I get back into town, I will be heading right over to Toledano and checking on my friend and partner, the Food Forest.