FOR THE HORTICULTURE in New Orleans, Louisiana
Meet Krystle Sims-Cameron, the woman behind For the HortiCulture and @iyanla_plantzant. Krystle is an avid backyard gardener who recently relocated back to her hometown of New Orleans with her husband and young son, after working in the corporate world on the West Coast. When Covid-19 hit New Orleans this Spring and their financial future was unknown, Krystle returned to the soil to find peace and grow food. For Krystle, gardening has always been a calm refuge to restore her energy and power.
"Gardening has been such a safety net for me in various stages of my life. When I was a new, anxious mother living thousands of miles away from family, I started a garden. When I quit a job that had plummeted me into depression due to micro and macro aggressions against Black women in corporate America, I expanded my garden. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, with no foreseeable income and every number of uncertainty hurled at me and my family, I turned to my garden and thought to myself, “At least we will eat.” In a moment of absolute gratitude, I realized that gardening allowed me to be and feel more myself whenever the world was turning upside down around me. It gave me the courage to choose myself because I knew I could still provide for my family. And I wanted that for other Black women."
The well being, joy and security she felt by growing food for her family inspired Krystle to help others build their first garden. She started small, initially starting a crowd funding campaign to buy materials to build raised gardens for 25 Black families in New Orleans. News of her mission spread rapidly and contributions kept coming in. In less than two weeks she had well surpassed her initial fundraising goal. This generous community support has given Krystle the opportunity to expand her vision and establish her community organization For the HortiCulture to battle food insecurity and inequality in New Orleans. She now builds different garden types (raised beds, containers, etc.) for families "based on the new gardeners' space, time and financial resources." She also provided "educational and mentoring support to ensure that each gardener reaches their full potential." Krystle is humble about the work - seeing the need and doing something to try to help is just in her nature - but she can't help but feel overcome with emotion at the outpouring of community support.
"What's incredible to me is the overwhelming response even though we are still in the very foundational phases of the project. Just the idea, the pure vision has brought a sense of hope and joy to women in and outside of my community. I started out with a fundraiser asking for $2,500 to build maybe 25 or 30 small gardens with recycled pallets. I ended up raising over $20,000 because folks wanted to sow into this movement. What it's done for me personally, the faith it has restored in me at such a time like this, is remarkable."
In a city where 69% of families of color do not have enough savings to stay above the poverty line in the event of an emergency or job loss, having the ability and infrastructure to grow food is invaluable. Krystle is continuing to evolve For the Horticulture by partnering with other local organizations and further expanding her mission and outreach.
"Since the end of my initial fundraiser, the vision for the project has expanded. I am now planning two cohorts in majority African-American neighborhoods in New Orleans. We will build gardens, we will have educational programming, and we will have mentoring support throughout two full growing seasons."
Food security is essential for the health and well being of a community. Krystle has taken it upon herself to grow diverse, nutritious food for her family and she wants others to feel the same satisfaction and autonomy knowing that they have some of their basic needs covered without having to rely on a broken and exploitive system.
"The fact that citizens living in one of the wealthiest nations on this abundant planet have any type of food insecurity, live in places we call “Food Deserts,” is criminal to me. There are a lot of wonderful people doing the hard work of policymaking and resource redistribution in an effort to close these gaps. But before we had Social Security, before there were government aid programs and food banks, we had our hands. We had a relationship with the land that we lived on. We knew what we could forage and we knew where we could find sustenance in our own backyards. I've always been the kind of person who not only is willing to do for herself but who revels in it. I can't think of a better way to live than knowing I can take care of myself and the people I love without waiting for anyone else to give me a hand. It's truly liberating, and it’s something I want everyone to experience for themselves."
The pandemic's significantly disproportionate mortality rate in the BIPOC community, coinciding with the Black Lives Matter protests, has made it impossible to ignore the blatant inequalities and injustices in our country perpetuated by centuries of systematic racism. Krystle feels hopeful that this might be a turning point when society starts working towards dismantling these systems of oppression and building a more equitable future.
"There are more people visibly doing the internal and external work required to be better community members; folks are grappling with their privileges and questioning their motivations in unprecedented numbers. The intersection of public health and systemic racism is a place where I have worked as a consultant for years, so I know how vast and inequitable an overlap it is. To know that folks I would have never counted on as even passive allies are now considering what it means to be anti-racist and anti-ableist gives me hope. But more than that, seeing members of my community fight through fear and uncertainty and doubt to loudly proclaim their right to be heard and to be recognized fully as valuable members of society brings my heart so much joy, and it lets me know that we are going to be okay."
Returning to New Orleans and starting For the Horticulture has allowed Krystle to reconnect with her family and find a real passion and purpose for her many talents. Although the pandemic has been a very stressful, heartbreaking and difficult time, the motivation and joy she feels helping others has helped her focus her energy in a positive and healthy way.
Thank you Krystle for sharing your story with us!
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First off, I would love to hear a little bit of your back story. Did you grow up in NOLA? Did you have any experience growing food when you were young?
I grew up between New Orleans and Kenner, Louisiana, with my mom moving our family to Jefferson Parish sometime after 2nd grade to offer me a better public school education. My first experience growing food was right before we moved out of Orleans Parish; my mom told me that it was pointless to plant the plum seed that I got from eating a piece of fruit. Years later, driving past my childhood home, I can see that plum tree growing in the backyard and it makes me smile.
What do you love about living in New Orleans?
Because I grew up here, I never really understood other people's infatuation with the city of New Orleans; it was always just home. But after I moved away and lived outside of the city for almost a decade, all the magic of it became so clear when juxtaposed to the cities I was living in. Of course, my family is here and all my childhood memories, but the best thing about living in New Orleans and being from New Orleans is knowing how much of this magic is in your blood. I feel closer to my ancestors here, I feel closer to my purpose here, I feel full of potential and full of life when I'm here. No place else has done that for me.
Is there anything challenging about living in New Orleans?
Is there anything that isn't?! Honestly, life in New Orleans is a beautiful struggle. We need better infrastructure, we need more opportunities for natives and culture bearers to lead healthy, fruitful lives of their own choosing. We still need better schools for our children and an overall stronger economy that isn't 100% dependent on oil or tourism. But New Orleans is for survivors; if you want an easy, pot-hole free life, this ain’t it.
How can people help support your mission at For the HortiCulture?
Since the end of my initial fundraiser, the vision for the project has expanded. I am now planning two cohorts in majority African-American neighborhoods in New Orleans. We will build gardens, we will have educational programming, and we will have mentoring support throughout two full growing seasons. So, despite having raised quite a bit more than I'd initially asked for, the project, now called For the Horticulture, still needs financial support. We have a PayPal donation button and we're also selling apparel and accessories with our brand new logo on them; all the proceeds from the sales go directly to the program. We’ve also, due to requests, created an Amazon wishlist so folks can send us supplies instead of cash if they’d like.
Have you grown closer to your neighbors since starting this project?
I really have! My immediate community and my online community have grown exponentially. I have developed partnerships and friendships with incredible women in New Orleans who all have parallel missions to make life better for Black women and Black families and for everyone living at or below the poverty line in this culturally rich city. I have shared my innermost hopes and dreams with women whose faces I've only ever seen as tiny circles on my phone screen. I've received phone calls and texts and inbox messages of encouragement from folks I probably would have never crossed paths with. I feel like my world got bigger and smaller all at the same time, and I love it.
Do you have advice for people who want to start a similar initiative in their own community?
As cliche as it sounds, the best advice is just to get started. I woke up with this project on my heart one morning, and I just obeyed the call. And once I did that, doors opened up, windows opened up. People opened their hearts and their minds and even their wallets -- which can be the hardest of all three -- to help me make this thing happen. If you see a need and you have a vision for meeting it, then you also have divine access to all the resources that are required to get it done. You just have to make the first move.
Do you have any favorite garden tools, materials, seed companies, etc?
I just got a pair of the little thumb knife harvesting tools and I literally cannot get enough of them. I also love using a colorful photo organizer for storing my growing collection of seeds. One of my favorite things about gardening is that you can get plants to grow in almost any vessel. I've started a fun little of buckets and pots and baskets so that I can show my community that the only limit to growing their own food is their imagination. I am seeking out more Black women-owned sources for actual plants and seeds; they're harder to come by than I would like. But the Seed Mail Seed Co. and Soulgardener74’s Etsy shop are two spots I’d recommend to anyone. I’m also looking forward to buying my way through The Spruce’s latest list of 8 Black-Owned Online Plant Stores to Support.
Do you have any advice on books, podcasts, YouTube channels for people to read/listen/watch to learn how to grow their own food?
LeadFarmer73 on YouTube is fabulous! He makes things so simple and accessible, plus he’s just fun to watch!. I feel like he’s my adorable gardening uncle, and he seems to know something about everything there is to growing food. I’m also a big fan of Epic Gardening.
I love your plastic snake buddies that you use to deter birds. Do you have any other clever garden hacks to share?
Those plastic snakes have saved my garden not only from birds but from squirrels, mice, and the occasional nosey cat! I love using regular household items in my garden, so I keep antacids on hand to combat blossom end rot and dilute mouthwash in a spray bottle to get rid of powdery mildew. Recycling also plays a big role in my garden; milk jugs as mini-greenhouses, plastic soda bottles for drip irrigation, and repurposed storage tubs become self-watering containers for herbs and tomatoes.
What are the best “gateway” crops you recommend for new growers to try out, especially for those with limited space, materials, and experience?
Herbs, herbs, and all the herbs. You can start a quick-and-dirty kitchen scrap garden with leftover green onions, carrot tops, basil, mint, and celery. Just plop those discarded plant parts in some water until they grow roots, then transfer them to a prepared garden bed or pot. Beans are also great for the new gardener who wants near-instant gratification of seeing their seeds sprouts; and those can be started from a few dried beans right out the pantry!
Do you have any favorite crop varieties you want to share that thrive in New Orleans?
Anything that loves -- or can even just survive -- high heat and humidity is the move when you’re growing in New Orleans. Any kind of Okra, Chinese Long Beans, and Georgia Southern Collards are a few I like to have in my spring/ summer garden here. We also have the benefit of a very long growing season, so I’m looking forward to seeing my Pink Teddy Bear banana, baby kiwis, and Spanish Limes flourish. As far as prolific New Orleans plants go, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a Loquat or Elderberry tree here, and I really appreciate how they’ve always been there and always will be.
How have you been coping through this very difficult time?
Being back in the city with my family has been so soothing during the past few months. Of course, my husband and my son are great housemates if you’re going to be shut in with anyone -- Nate and Khaliq both keep me laughing and have an innate knack for knowing how to take care of me when I need it. But drive-by visits with my mama, sister, and nephew and, lately, front lawn workouts with my cousins have been my saving grace. It’s empowering to be reminded each day who and what I’m fighting for. The health and wellness of my elders, the future of my son and nephews; all these things are right in front of my face in ways they haven’t been in recent years. It renews my purpose and my resolve daily.
Do you have any favorite recipes/preparations for your garden produce?
There's a stuffed zucchini dish that I could literally eat every day. First, you halve and hollow a large zucchini and shred one or two medium ones. Mix the shredded zucchini with softened goat cheese, cream cheese, cooked & crumbled bacon, salt, and pepper. Add in caramelized onions for an additional razzle-dazzle. Stuff the hollowed-out zucchini halves with the cheese blend, then top with shredded parmesan cheese and either Panko bread crumbs or, since I eat keto, crushed up pork rinds. Bake it until the top is golden and serve warm. It’s very addictive.
Do you have any tried and true methods for preserving your harvest?
To be honest, preservation is something I am truly working on to become my version of the best gardener that I can be. I've rarely grown enough for waste to be a huge problem, but as I become more proficient with growing peppers and beans and root vegetables, I'm looking forward to canning and pickling. The most I do at this point is to dry and preserve my herbs, which seems pretty elementary but it has definitely stepped up my culinary game.
What do you think we can learn from by becoming more self-sufficient - especially in the day and age of processed food and convenience?
When we aren’t completely dependent on mass-produced pseudo-foods or conventionally grown produce to feed us and our families, we learn what our brains and bodies really need to feel their best. When we endeavor to grow those healthy, nutrient-rich food ourselves, we also gain the ability to say “No” to everything else that doesn’t properly nourish us. We can say “No” to employers who don’t respect the need to be with our families. We can say “No” to being overworked, underrepresented, and overwhelmed. We can say “No” to living a life based solely on doing what we have to do to survive, and we can turn our thoughts to living fully, deeply, and with greater purpose.