A movement to cultivate more native plants in the urban landscape is growing across Acadiana.
This is evident in Lafayette’s LaPlace neighborhood, also called Fightinville, where residents can be found cutting a path through an open lot marked with gardens. This time of year the plots are flourishing with edible produce and plants native to Louisiana.
“Greaux native” is the motto of the Acadiana Native Plant Project, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the use and propagation of native plants. Thanks to its efforts, scenes like this, with a wild-yet-cultivated appearance, are becoming more common across Acadiana. Many of these gardens are in the Acadiana Native Plant Project’s Louisiana Certified Habitat program, and they play an important role in restoring health to local ecosystems and neighborhoods, too.
“People are starting to be reawakened to the importance and connection between native plants and insects and birds, and do something about it,” says Lawrence Rozas, member of the Acadiana Native Plant Project and vice president of the Louisiana Native Plant Society.
The gardens attached to Fightinville Fresh Market, a neighborhood grower and maker market, serve the surrounding community — an area with a high concentration of poverty and food insecurity — while giving local farmers and gardeners a place to sell goods, steward land and envision a healthier urban ecosystem for plants, insects and people alike.
The Acadiana Native Plant Project donated several native species to the Fightinville Fresh gardens, like bee balm, a plant beloved by bees, hummingbirds, butterflies and even beneficial wasps. These plants are creating a more diverse urban environment for pollinators, which in turn creates a healthier ecosystem that is more resilient to Louisiana pests and weather conditions.
The plants are also playing an important role in energizing this once-vacant corner at the heart of the Simcoe corridor — a neighborhood of pedestrians, with a high proportion of blighted, abandoned properties.
Now, instead of crossing a vacant lot, walkers can pass through the open garden space and join the activity at the twice-a-week market. The Fightinville Fresh garden club also frequently gives away excess cuttings and produce.
The market and gardens create a destination, cultivated by people who “believe in building ecosystems,” according to market co-founder Kimberly Culotta. She says the vacant lot adjacent to the Fightinville Fresh awning originally drew her to the property.
“I’m a land steward. If there’s an unpaved piece of land I can bioremediate beautifully, I’m the happiest girl in the world,” says Culotta. “It’s a very slow process; that’s why it’s open to the community energy. We have other jobs, we’re all spread pretty thin, but everyone has a similar instinctive vision. That lends itself to being able to work together and build gardens.”
Andrew Buderi was one of the people attracted to the Fightinville Fresh gardens. A doctoral student in biology at UL Lafayette, Buderi studies pollinator diversity among native habitats — and works at the community garden for fun.
“The idea for the garden is to create a space that the community feels they can make use of,” says Buderi. “It’s providing something back to them. I’m excited about planting eggplants with the neighbors and the people who cross through all the time. They’re excited about the okra. If we can produce lots of okra on top of having a diverse and healthy ecosystem space on this lot — before this garden was here it was just a lawn — that’s benefiting everyone around. It’s helping the neighbors; it’s making a space that they feel welcome in.”
Culotta founded Fightinville Fresh in partnership with other local farmers who saw a need for a space that would benefit them as small-scale growers, and also serve the community.
There’s an “if you build it they will come” ethos at the heart of this space, whether you’re talking about attracting bees to the gardens or people to the market. According to Culotta, it’s a simple calculus: “People just enjoy seeing the plants grow.”