From ball fields to vegetable fields

By Kathryn Fontenot

East Baton Rouge residents recognize Hillar Moore, District EBR Attorney, from evening news reports and local newspaper articles regarding criminal activity. But his friends and family know him as a coach, and more recently, as an avid gardener. 

To conduct this interview, I met Mr. Moore at City Hall. I waited in the hall outside his office with a man who needed bond information and a lawyer who was waiting on a signature. He walked up to the three of us toting a Marucci baseball backpack rather than a briefcase and I thought to myself, “This man must like sports!” Moving from the hall into his office, the thought that he might like sports quickly changed to the fact that he LOVES sports. His office is filled youth sports memorabilia. Photos of the many teams he has coached, trophies from championships and tournaments, framed newspaper victory articles on almost every wall and flat surface … you can tell without asking that this man is all about the world of sports. My own son carries a similar backpack and plays ball so I couldn’t help but ask him about the photos and trophies. We spoke for a good while about the many teams he has coached and even the fact that Hillar himself was an athlete and played rugby for LSU. It wasn’t until his three children entered high school and college that he found himself spending less time on the ball field and more in the yard. And then, rather than me asking the first interview question, Hillar asked, “How do you keep squirrels out of a vegetable garden?” This is not the first vegetable question Hillar Moore has sent my way. We’ve emailed and chatted on the phone about tomato varieties and how to keep insects off squash. As our conversation continued, I could tell his passion for gardening was nearing his passion for sports. 

Unlike many gardeners, Hillar didn’t grow up working in a large garden with a parent or grandparent. Hillar was born in New Orleans, not in the best neighborhood, in a small shotgun house with a tiny yard. He remembers corn and beans planted in his backyard and helping a bit with the garden. His father was in the wholesale grocery business and his mother’s parents were grocery retailers. Hillar remembers his mother buying fresh produce from the “vegetable man” who would push a cart of fresh produce by his house. Hillar was familiar with produce from a postharvest point of view, but didn’t know much about how it was grown. 

When he was 18, Hillar moved to Baton Rouge to attend LSU without having decided on a major. Eventually he chose forestry. He didn’t even know what forestry majors did, he just wanted to major in something that didn’t require him to take many math courses. Hillar never took an actual forestry class. However, he thoroughly enjoyed college life, perhaps a bit too much (too much to keep up with a 7 a.m. German class) and he was asked to take a semester off due to grades. So he went home for a semester to work in a grocery warehouse under his father’s direction. Working in the warehouse encouraged Hillar to give college another try. 

When Hillar’s father moved the entire family, his mother and seven brothers and sisters, to Baton Rouge when he became the president of Associated Grocers, Hillar returned to school – this time majoring in criminal justice (it required few math courses) and took college life seriously. Hillar graduated in 1977, completed 30 hours towards a master’s degree in criminal justice, and later graduated from Southern University Law School. 

He has now been around City Hall for nearly 40 years. He has fond memories of working under the direction of criminal defense lawyer, now Judge Tony Marabella, and eventually running for and being elected District Attorney. During our interview, I commented that his job must be tough mentally, dealing with so much crime. He agreed, saying, “It’s a rough business we are in, working with very serious crimes and with people who are in very difficult situations. Gardening is slow and gentle, and business is rough and tough.” 

Hillar loves being outdoors, so transitioning from the ball fields to the garden was an easy move – but who encouraged him? His neighbors were instrumental in this new hobby. Hillar’s neighbor Charlie, a sea captain, is an avid gardener and excellent with any type of handiwork – wood, metal, or machinery. Hillar bragged about Charlie’s gardens and ability to fix old equipment. When Charlie is out to sea, Hillar often looks after his garden. Another neighbor, Dr. Wayne White, a retired animal science professor, also grows large vegetable gardens. Hillar eventually started growing vegetables in his backyard. Thanks to borrowed equipment from Charlie and encouragement from both Charlie and Dr. White, the Moore garden now encompasses much of the backyard, all of the side yard, and okra was even planted in the front yard. Hillar began laughed, saying he hopes the neighbors don’t get upset with him. He didn’t realize how tall the okra would grow. He said the garden in the front yard resembled a jungle, chuckling as he described it. 

His tip for beginning gardeners is wise, “Start small, read as much as you can, and your soil must be just right.”

Hillar is a fan of vegetables … why? “Because you can’t eat the others [plants].” His vegetable gardens eventually began replacing his wife’s flowerbeds, so he jokingly said he had to plant lettuce because he knew she would like that. Lettuce is just the tip of the iceberg (pun intended) of what now grows in the Moore garden. Hillar loves planting anything edible: broccoli, cabbage, beets, celery, parsley, onions, potatoes, Brussels sprouts, okra, beans, cucumbers, squash, peppers (all kinds of peppers) herbs and spices, lemon grass, and more. Eventually he began running out of space, so Hillar and a friend nicknamed “English John” began constructing beautifully crafted raised beds. Hillar really enjoys gardening in raised beds. In traditional in-ground gardens, he had used plastic mulch and landscape cloth to reduce weed problems, but “laying the mulch is a lot of work but so is pulling weeds. Raised beds make gardening easier to manage weeds and you don’t need to stoop over,” so he plans on installing more.

So with whom does Hillar Moore share all of this produce with? First he said, “My wife is an excellent cook.” As he talks, you can tell he really enjoys his wife’s cooking, as do his neighbors. He mentioned hating (emphasis on the word “hate”) rosemary, but his wife loves it, so he grows it.  

He has begun blanching vegetables and preserving them. In fact, he now has two freezers full of produce from the garden. His tip for preserving produce, “After you blanch the vegetable, spin it to remove as much water as possible then freeze it. It will taste much better.” Hillar gives the produce away to family, neighbors, friends, and co- workers. Have you ever eaten at Thai Kitchen in Baton Rouge? Then you may have enjoyed some of Hillar’s lemon grass and hot peppers that he regularly brings to the owner, who’s a friend of his. He likes to give everyone cabbage for New Year’s and is disgusted by the price of cabbage at the grocery store. He said, “It’s frustrating to see the price of cabbage so low at the grocery store. I mean, I know how much effort it takes to grow that.” Since working with vegetable farmers is part of my own profession, this comment made me smile, knowing that people do appreciate the enormous effort of growing produce. 

At a crawfish boil, Hillar was introduced to the How Not to Die Cookbook, written by Michael Greger, M.D. It is 550 pages and he read the entire thing in one day. Since reading this book, he has followed a primarily vegetarian diet, eating some meat around the holidays. He recommends this cookbook to all gardeners. “The book is divided into chapters by diseases, so you can just read the few chapters that may be of particular interest to you.” Since he began consuming more vegetables, he has noticed a real change in his health and now he is constantly trying new vegetables, such as beet leaves – and loving them. Hillar also recommends readers sign up for the weekly emails from Old World Garden Farms (www.oldworldgardenfarms.com). These provide encouraging garden tips and recipe ideas. 

Hillar’s garden style is like that of many vegetable gardeners, using a combination of organic and synthetic fertilizers and submitting soil tests to LSU. Hillar prefers purchasing transplants to growing his own. He frequently shops at local nurseries, such as Clegg’s Nursery, for his garden needs. 

His tip for beginning gardeners is wise, “Start small, read as much as you can, and your soil must be just right.” When asked what tip he would share with the well-versed gardener, he was humble, saying he was still learning himself.  Hillar admits he struggled with tomatoes, artichoke, and garlic. But he said he didn’t have any trouble growing celery, and any Louisiana vegetable gardener knows celery is a tough crop to grow without it becoming too bitter, so I’m sure he knows more than he gives himself credit for. I was also amazed by his willingness to grow unique edibles, such as amla or “Indian gooseberry.”  

What I admire about Hillar is that he struggles with stinkbugs and squirrels, but is in gardening for the long haul – hot summers and cold winters – he’s growing. And there is nothing better than being in the vegetable field.

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