Post-Katrina Garden Rebuilt

Southern Revival

By Therese Ciesinski


The Restoration
In the Japanese garden, shorter, more light-sensitive Japanese maples are surrounded by taller red maples to keep their leaves from burning. Since Katrina opened up the tree canopy, the once-shady area has become infested with cogon grass. Listed as one of 10 international invasive weeds, it spreads by seeds and rhizomes and is almost impossible to keep ahead of.

The soil here is sandy, well-drained but rich. A weeping yaupon holly and a pecan tree were uprooted and now arch over rather attractively. John cut back their topgrowth to accommodate a weakened root system and mulched well, in the hope of keeping the trees from dying.

"The storm taught me that you can't rely on a single centerpiece in your garden," John says. "If you have one spectacular tree and it gets damaged, you have nothing. You need to plan redundancy into your garden."

The Walrods have not resisted the changes Katrina wrought; instead, they view their storm-torn landscape (and the accompanying debris) as opportunities to reimagine their garden, reuse materials that would otherwise go into landfills, and further protect and encourage wildlife.

A walk around reveals the many ingenious ways John reused debris from the storm to improve the way his garden works and looks. He was aided by a group of friends from around the country self-named "The Delisle Chain-Saw Gang" (motto: "We meaner than Katriner"), who arrived to help soon after the hurricane. They cleared downed trees and branches, assembled brush piles to create habitat for wildlife, and replaced destroyed structures.

In the large vegetable garden, a set of stump "chairs" surround a cedar-log table. The chairs are made from tree trunks downed by Katrina, with their bark removed. Since the bark from the tree-trunk chairs came off in complete circles, Melanie filled them with soil and planted tomatoes in them. They look natural in the garden and will eventually biodegrade.

When the original tool shed blew down in the storm, John built a new one, called the "Katrina Cantina." It's made from fallen telephone poles, reused roofing, and a door, complete with hinges, that John found on the side of the road. The compost heap is behind the cantina, so John extended the roofline to direct rain runoff onto the compost pile.

The "spider arbor" replaces one made from copper tubing that didn't hold up in the hurricane. The new one is made from red-cedar trunks and stands about 9 feet tall. The posts are sunk in concrete 3 to 4 feet down and the entire thing is varnished. Muscadine grapes are making a renewed assault on the new arbor.

While John does most of the ornamental gardening, Melanie enjoys tending the vegetable garden and involves the children, too. Each has a plot and can decorate it however he or she wants. Nicholas, age 5, practices his penmanship on a sign warning the chickens to stay out of the garden. Alexander, 7, built a bird feeder from a tin can and wood debris. Anastasia, 9, put a pair of worn sneakers to work as a planter.

The clay soil leaches lime, so Melanie adds compost and mulches with grass and leaves from the live-oak trees. Live oaks drop their leaves in spring instead of fall, and since the leaves are small and crumble easily, they are great as an addition to compost piles and as mulch. When the live oaks lost their leaves during the storm, there wasn't anything left for mulch. So Melanie literally pulled the needles off the downed longleaf pines and used those. She says they make a terrific, weed-free mulch that slowly degrades.

Hurricane Katrina wreaked almost inconceivable damage on the Gulf Coast. Yet it played one surprisingly hopeful trick. A few weeks after the storm, and then again in April, sunflowers appeared-thousands of them- everywhere: near the waterfront, in roofless houses, cemeteries, parking lots, anyplace there was sunlight. No one can say for sure where the sunflowers came from. For the Walrods, they were a welcome and fitting symbol of renewal.

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