New Orleans native Jenga Mwendo isn’t trying to cover her old neighborhood in gardens, as some have jokingly claimed. Rather, she’s aiming to create green spaces for the Lower Ninth Ward to blossom and grow around. This fall the 33-year-old Audubon TogetherGreen fellow, a computer animator turned community organizer, will oversee the grand opening of the Guerilla Garden, a once-vacant lot that’s now a lush vegetable plot, and she’ll break ground on converting an empty house into a garden-centric lending library and educational resource center.
What will grow in your gardens?
That’s up to the gardeners. The space is available for people in the community to have their own plots and decide what they want to grow. Recently I’ve seen basil, some other herbs, and a couple of squash plants. We decided that the garden is organic; that’s really the only guideline.
Who will tend the vegetables and care for the land?
We have some pretty dedicated folks in the neighborhood. We had about 10 people come to the orientation who wanted to be involved in different ways in the Guerilla Garden. Five people wanted to have plots at the garden. Currently, two are being cultivated.
Why is the Guerilla Garden a good fit for New Orleans?
I was not here when Katrina hit. I came back in 2007 and began doing community organizing and just fell into urban agriculture work. I began to hear stories, mostly from the elders, who talked about a time when everyone in New Orleans was growing. Hearing about the history of backyard growing, I realized how much a part of the culture it was.
Before this project, how much did you know about gardening?
When I first started I was scared to go into the garden and pull anything. I didn’t know the difference between a weed and a plant you want to keep. Over time, you learn. You plant seeds and you see what happens. You talk with other people who are growing. You learn about companion planting. You learn about growing a diverse environment so you can bring the birds.
What’s your project’s goal?
To develop the two gardens that I manage into vibrant community spaces where people are encouraged and supported to grow, where people come together for social gatherings, having real gardening be the backdrop of our day-to-day lives, integrating it back into the culture.