Gardens on Mars and other earthly delights
Story and Photography by Meaghan Clark
Wandering the city of New Orleans while on a floral delivery, gardener Jeannette Bell got turned around and lost somewhere in the city’s Ninth Ward. What she did find was several blighted properties and vacant lots in need of love … and a garden. A Southerner raised planting her own vegetables and fruits, Bell realized many New Orleanians did not have access to fresh fruit or vegetables nor did they have the skills to produce a self-sustaining garden. She set out to change that.
Today, as the founder of Gardens on Mars, Bell has a created a business model that gives back to communities in need and affords her the flexible lifestyle she wanted – time with her family, setting her own schedule, and growing both her business and her gardens. She conducts classes for local residents who want to learn how to garden in raised beds and to eventually create their own. “We teach people how to garden, especially those who reside in food deserts,” says Bell. “I want people to grow some of the food they need so they don’t have to look for everything in the supermarket. Let’s go back to that model,” says Bell.
In addition to providing New Orleanians with the skills to build their own gardens, she also provides fresh food to eat and provides additional products to sell at local farmers’ markets, as well as to local chefs and other pop up markets across the city. Gardens on Mars, found throughout the Lower Nine, are located on quiet streets on main thoroughfares, deep in the heart of residential neighborhoods.
“A Champion exemplifies excellence through experience; the richness of their lives sets the stage for their greatest achievements.”
Peppers, tomatoes, squash, potatoes, and beans are just some of the vegetables growing in containers and raised beds in various Gardens on Mars. Noting that much of the soil in New Orleans was contaminated after Hurricane Katrina, Bell uses the best soil she can, along with quality seeds needed to grow healthy produce. Bell has one garden strictly dedicated to fresh flowers, which she also sells to local merchants.
The community activist admires how communities in New Orleans, such as the Vietnamese community, embraced the idea of food-to-table and grow much of their own spices, herbs, and food. It’s a model she too fully embraces and wants to spread the idea throughout the city. But she cannot do it alone.
A retired teacher and educational sales executive, Bell has an ongoing roster of volunteers of mostly students from local schools and groups of visiting college students who come to New Orleans to work with organizations and communities rebuilding the city after Hurricane Katrina. Her partnership with Parkway Partners affords Bell more assistance with her gardens and marketing efforts to promote the work she does.
A People’s Health Champion Award winner, Bell has been recognized for her hard work and dedication to these communities and their needs. The award recognizes citizens over the age of 65 who have made great contributions to the city of New Orleans. “A Champion exemplifies excellence through experience; the richness of their lives sets the stage for their greatest achievements.”
Despite being “retired” and working on her Gardens on Mars business, Bell is also currently finishing a coffee table book about flowers with 75 full-color pages of roses. She is also pursuing a partnership with a local university to provide information on urban agriculture and to provide a steady stream of volunteers and students to help Gardens on Mars grow.