Covering Louisiana

Sep 2, 2013 3:55 AM by Brian Freidman

Tulane students fix flood-prone community garden

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Tony Lee had been a working man all his life. Then an injury left him unable to continue his job as an electrician. The Marine veteran found himself idle and unhappy.

"I was really taking it hard," Lee said.

His wife, Linette, suggested he get involved with the burgeoning organic gardening movement that had taken hold in New Orleans.

Through Parkway Partners and the Food and Farm Network, the couple in 2009 took the helm of an untended, overgrown community garden on Magellan Street in Algiers. With the help of volunteers, the Lees were able to get the 150-foot-by-60-foot space up and running.

But the low-lying garden often flooded after heavy rain, so Linette asked Tulane City Center to help redesigning the space. Students and professors with the university's School of Architecture answered the call.

A dozen students raised the garden last spring, giving it a slope for drainage and building a drainage canal. They also constructed a shade pavilion with a butterfly roof structure - the tip of the spear in the fight against Magellan's drainage problem.

The roof now diverts rainwater into the garden's corners and into a raised, lined water garden, where plants like watercress or water spinach can be grown or fish can be kept for mosquito control.

Runoff from the water garden is directed to a lower garden, and then into a wetlands section - previously a troublesome 10-foot indentation - to grow wetlands plants for lessons about coastal erosion.

"We wanted to try to capitalize on that existing depression and make it a useful part of the garden," said Doug Harmon, an adjunct professor of architecture at Tulane who, with his colleague Sam Richards, oversaw the project.

The students also built a front and side fence, a tool storage shed and an educational wetlands area.

All the while, they were meeting constantly with Lee, and the project proved to be beneficial both to the garden and its volunteer head gardener.

In November, Linette passed away, two months after earning her masters' degree in social work.

"Tulane City Center and the Tulane School of Architecture, they were so positive and great for me," Lee said. "It really helped me through a very, very tough time.

"I ain't gonna say (the garden) saved my life," he said, "but it came close to it. It gave me a focus; it gave me an outlet."

"Tony really just demonstrated a seriousness, a commitment to this work," Harmon said. "He's someone we want to support as much as possible."

One of Magellan's most noticeable new features are the raised beds. Constructed by the students, the beds make it possible for those with physical limitations to still enjoy working in the garden.

"At one point, Tony had mentioned wanting to be able to use the garden for rehabilitation for returning vets," Harmon said. "Whether it was physical or emotional disabilities, gardening could be an incredible asset for that type of work."

Harmon pointed to many other benefits of community gardens. "First of all, you know where your food comes from," he said. "You can kind of verify the quality and the nutritional benefits of your own food. There's also a lot to be said about being able to reconnect back to some of the agricultural and culinary traditions of our city, which I think have been lost in the last generation."

Work on Magellan wrapped up this summer, and when the weather cools down a bit, Lee has big plans.

From the beginning, he viewed the garden as a teaching tool, and, in a sense, a place to atone for how his generation has shaped the way we eat today.

"My generation, the baby boomers, we did such wonderful work," Lee said, but in some ways, "we were woefully misguided, like replacing home-cooked meals at the table with fast food."

Lee plans to hold cooking and nutrition classes at the garden, and he talks to neighborhood kids who volunteer there about career opportunities.

"Just because we talk about farming and growing doesn't mean you have to get behind a plow," Lee said, "and that's what a lot of youth are thinking. They only focus on the manual labor.

"There are so many different components in growing food," he said. "The chemistry of it, the pest control, the weed control, land management, water management, the equipment that you use to farm, ... there are so many jobs and so many ways that you can find work."

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