Know Your NOLA

Tips if you’ve got less than a green thumb from Treme gardening expert Ms. Gloria

“I never thought about something not growing,” declared Gloria Ward as she sat in the shade provided by the trees in the back of her lush garden. This was a well-deserved break for Ward, affectionately known as “Ms. Gloria,” who typically spends her days tending to her beautiful garden that is scattered with colorfully painted planter boxes, tool sheds, and decorated tires strewn across the entrance adjacent to Claiborne Avenue.

She was clearly at home sitting in her chair, basking in the sun and humidity, her lawn chair planted firmly on the soil that has helped her cultivate a flourishing garden filled with banana trees, blackberries, melons, herbs, peppers, flowers, and smiling faces walking in and out of this welcoming community space.

“I treat the plants right, believe they will grow, and they always do,” she said.

As I pulled up a lawn chair next to her to get some advice on how to foster a garden as lush and green as hers, I was excited and took careful notes. Lord knows I have killed a couple of paychecks worth of house plants, which has led me to the logical next step: trying my luck at planting a raised garden bed in my backyard. But before I embark on my last-ditch effort at finding my green thumb, I turned to Ms. Gloria for wisdom on all things gardening and wrote down her advice so I wouldn’t forget.

Planter boxes and soil

Ms. Gloria recommended using cedar wood so that the planter box will hold up and not rot quickly. When it comes to filling up the cedar planter box, she told me her secret mix: “I use organic soil, manure, and compost, and my plants love it.” Ms. Gloria swears by composting and advised that everyone start doing it themselves. Not only is it great for getting your plants to grow, but it will save you some money. Speaking of saving money on soil, Ms. Gloria had more ideas on how to start a garden on a budget.

Soil on sale

“Most people think you can just start digging down and grow some plants,” she said. “That’s not how it is. The soil here is too sandy. You’re going to have to condition the soil with some soil you buy from the store. And that ain’t cheap.”

Ms. Gloria’s followed up this discouraging comment with some hope. She explained how whenever she buys soil, she gets her bags at half price because she buys the ones that are slightly ripped or damaged. She also always makes sure to become friends with the employees in the garden center because they often give her a call whenever there are lots of discounted bags of soil with rips in the bags. Ms. Gloria gave me this advice about six months ago when I first visited her garden, and it recently helped me save about $160 dollars when I bought the soil for two raised beds that I built in preparation for planting my garden.

CDs for trees

Not sure what to do with that old “breakup” mix or your “Summer 2006” burned CD? Ms. Gloria told me a great way to repurpose them. She uses CDs to protect her fruit trees, including her fig trees and pear trees. Ms. Gloria received this advice from a friend who gave her the recommendation, and Ms. Gloria has been blown away by how well it has worked.

“After I put the CDs on the branches, I didn’t have one bird,” she said.

She also uses this simple trick to protect all of the blackberries on the bushes that stretch across the back of her garden.

Watermelons love manure and coffee

Ms. Gloria is also known for having some amazingly refreshing organic watermelon juice that she makes from the huge watermelons she grows in her garden. I first tried this juice during this past summer at Vegan 2 the Soul Festival, and it was what lured me over to check out her garden. In order to grow sweet watermelons, Ms. Gloria advised using manure and coffee grounds to keep the plants healthy and sweet.

She also added that it is important not to water them too much once they get big, because, according to Ms. Gloria, “If you water them too much, it takes all the sugar out.”

Plants to repel mosquitoes

Ms. Gloria brought a few of her citronella plants from Chicago when she moved to New Orleans. Since arriving, she has grown multiple new citronella plants by either l sectioning off a part of the roots of the main plant. The plants ward off mosquitoes and look beautiful in big pots that she has strategically placed all over her garden. She highly recommended placing one or two on the porch to fend off those pesky mosquitoes that tend to feast on the ankles of locals just trying to catch a breeze on a summer night. She also suggested using rosemary because of its pungent scent that acts as an extra defense against the mighty mosquitoes of New Orleans.

Planting for the fall

Ms. Gloria didn’t provide an expansive list of what to plant during the fall, but she did mention that she was excited to get her cabbage and collard greens in the soil so she can soon harvest and enjoy them at the dinner table.

“Collards and cabbage always do well for me this time of year,” Ms. Gloria explained.

But she also admitted that she really doesn’t pay attention to all the do’s and don’ts of when to plant.

“I don’t really look at when to plant or the best season to plant,” she said. “I grow what I want to grow. I’ve always found that if you water something and you treat it right, then it will grow regardless of whatever the experts say.”

Spice and soap

“I go around every 1-2 weeks and mix up some dish-washing detergent and hot sauce, and I wash all my plants,” she said. “I always saw my grandparents doing it when I was growing up in Alabama, and it worked for them.”

I am very surprised and laugh a little at the idea of Ms. Gloria washing her plants with this spicy, soapy mix, but she assured me it protects the plants from worms, garden mites, caterpillars, and other bugs.

“If you start to notice your plants are getting nibbled on, mix up that soap and hot sauce. Works for me every time,” she assured me.

I left with a pen pad full of notes and a glimmer of hope that, with these tips in hand, I may one day stand proudly beside a flourishing garden of my own. If you ever want to hear some advice straight from Ms. Gloria, she is always eager to welcome anyone and everyone into her garden. You can also reach out to her via her website or her Instagram @ms.gloriaskitchen. She is currently located at 814 N. Claiborne, but she will soon be moving right across the street, where she will replant her garden at her new location.