Photo by Paul Christiansen
Megan Webbeking runs an urban garden in New Orleans East, working an acre of land on Dwyer Boulevard to provide fresh cut flowers to New Orleans.
Clippers in hand, Megan Webbeking weaves between rows of flowers, expertly collecting clippings of blooming white field peas, orange calendula flowers, and fragrant pink and purple stock flowers. She bundles them together, adds a few sprigs of mint, and whips a piece of twine out of her back pocket to secure them in a colorful bouquet.
Her jeans are torn and her boots are caked with mud, but there’s a smile glowing on her sun-tanned face beneath the shade of her wide-brimmed hat. She hands the flowers over and one senses the pride that comes with them—these are her flowers, grown on her own urban farm, through her own toil and labor.
The farm itself is in New Orleans East, an acre of land on Dwyer Boulevard across from Mary Queen of Vietnam church, where the painted sign on the fence reads “Nola Tilth.” “Tilth” refers to cultivating the land, soil, or spirit. Beyond the fence lie row upon row of bright flowers, earthy vegetables, and intoxicating herbs.
“I’ve been interested in farming my whole life,” explained Webbeking, who grew up in Seattle, Washington. “My family spent summers on my grandparents’ farm in Wisconsin. Then, after college, I rented a farm with friends in Walla Walla, Washington. We didn’t have enough money to rent the farmhouse, so we all lived in the barn—even in the heat and cold. When I moved back to Seattle, a friend had a farm, and I was able use one acre to grow flowers. It was really just for fun.”
Then, like so many others, her life took a new course after Hurricane Katrina.
“I had come here to help my sister after Katrina and fell in love with New Orleans. I moved here in April 2006 and got a job working the recovery efforts for a few years; but I missed farming and the community feeling of people working together. I wanted to have a project where everybody could work together to have access to our own healthy food, but also I wanted to transform a space into something beautiful,” said Webbeking.
Despite countless challenges, she relentlessly pursued her dream of establishing an urban farm. She spent every weekend visiting vacant plots of land, from the Ninth Ward to the Westbank, but nothing was panning out. Then, in 2012, Webbeking became connected with Propeller, a nonprofit organization that fosters social and environmental businesses to address local challenges. She applied as a social venture, with volunteers able to share in the vegetables grown in the garden, a previously vacant overgrown lot transformed into a beautiful flower garden. She was chosen for the 2012—13 class, and it was just the jumpstart she needed.
“They were extraordinarily helpful. They helped me get connected with a great piece of property. VEGGI Farmer’s Cooperative (a New Orleans farmer and fisherfolk cooperative) was also part of the class, and they approached me about sharing a piece of property they leased in New Orleans East, so I got roughly an acre from them,” said Webbeking. “Propeller also gave me professional pro bono support, training and legal counseling, a consultant, and [they] offered business workshops.”
Webbeking began slowly, farming on weekends while still working her full-time job during the week. As she cultivated the land and the flowers started to grow, her next break came when Propeller introduced her to the leaders of Good Eggs. After a successful start in San Francisco, Good Eggs opened up shop in several cities across the country, including New Orleans, to connect local farmers with local buyers, who can shop online from a wide variety of groceries, all delivered by Good Eggs.
“I started selling daily bouquets of flowers through Good Eggs, as well as selling in bulk for weddings and events. Just recently, I also began selling through St. Roch Forage, a group that operates out of St. Roch Market and sells food and flowers to restaurants. They also do CSA boxes, that’s Community Supported Agriculture, where you pay a certain amount and every week they bring you a box of local food,” said Webbeking.
Her ever-expanding list of flowers rotates seasonally, but includes common and unique varieties, such as Bird’s Eye Gilia, Calendula, Chinese Lanterns, Daffodils, Gladiolus, Gypsophila, Iris, Monarda, Mums, Nigella (Love in the Mist), Poppies, Scabiosa, Statice, Sunflowers, Thistle, Yarrow, and Zinnias—just to name a few. She also harvests several edible flowers, like Anise Hyssop, Bachelor Buttons, Borage, and Nasturtium.
“A small percentage of the farm I use for vegetables, like kale, artichokes, asparagus, beets, and carrots. I also grow a wide variety of herbs, which I use in my flower bouquets; but the vegetables are strictly for me and my volunteers,” said Webbeking. “And everything is grown without pesticides or chemicals. I use naturally grown standards.”
In March of last year, Webbeking began pursuing farming full-time. These days, she wakes up at 4:30 am, leaves her home in the Bywater, and heads out to New Orleans East when the sun comes up—earlier or later depending on the time of year.
“Usually by 6 am, I’m farming. I get there to pick flowers first thing in the morning. I make my bouquets and then deliver them to Good Eggs, St. Roch Market, or wherever they need to go. Then I head back to the garden to weed, water, and plant more seeds. I usually call it quits by three,” said Webbeking, detailing her typical day.
Many days she works alone in the garden, immersing herself in the tender care of her flowers. She battles the freezing cold in winter and blazing heat in summer, combats invading insects without the help of pesticides, and creatively addresses each new challenge as it arises. Thankfully, she’s found a network of urban farmers to help her along the way.
“I feel like it’s been a huge learning curve. There are farming techniques that people are using for urban agriculture; but in New Orleans, they don’t always work. A lot of people are figuring it out as they go,” said Webbeking. “Several farming groups have sprung up, like the New Orleans Flower Growers Association. We share ideas about what kind of flowers grow best and go in on group seed orders to buy in bulk and save on shipping costs. If one of us has something going on with a plant, we take a picture and send it to the group to get ideas on what to do.”
With urban farming becoming a growing industry in New Orleans, the city has taken notice and started addressing it in the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance (CZO).
“Another group that has sprung up is FARMER. They’ve taken the lead on addressing issues with the CZO. It [the CZO regulations] dictates what kind of soil testing must be done or even what kinds of beds have to be built. It’s all in draft form right now, but it gets pretty specific and doesn’t necessarily take into account that people are doing different things. Thankfully the group has been organizing farmers to get their input,” she added.
Her latest focus has been on educating people about the differences between products grown with chemicals and pesticides and products grown without them.
“It takes a lot of work, particularly in the South, to grow things pesticide free,” explained Webbeking. “A lot of people think if you go to a farmers market or a specialty store, you’re buying pesticide-free products, but if you look at the labels, you’ll often find that it’s covered in pesticides. Personally, I’d rather eat something or have something on my table that doesn’t have chemicals on it.”
Despite her struggles, though, Webbeking is one of those rare people who work at a job that they completely love.
“I can’t ever see myself going back to a desk job,” she said, shaking her head for emphasis. “When I first took over this property, it was covered with weeds and scrub brush nearly four feet tall. Now it’s fenced in [and] has neatly trimmed grass with forty-four rows of neatly planted flowers and vegetables. In the spring through fall, those are all growing and blooming—rows of brightly colored flowers, more pastel in the spring, hot pinks and reds during the summer, and oranges in the fall.”
She welcomes volunteers, who sometimes come to weed or plant seeds, and in return, they get to pick vegetables to take home. At times, her helpers simply show up to enjoy the garden.
“In New Orleans, you don’t get nature very often, so sometimes people come to sit and relax just because it’s pretty out here. I only ask that people give me a heads up before they come out to the garden. Otherwise, anyone and everyone is welcome.”
Details. Details. Details.
Nola Tilth 14000 Dwyer Boulevard New Orleans, La. (504) 616-0423 nolatilth.com • facebook.com/NolaTilth Good Eggs: New Orleans goodeggs.com/nola/bundles Propeller gopropeller.org VEGGI Farmer’s Cooperative veggifarmcoop.com FARMER farmer504.com