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Gardeners cultivate hope in battered New Orleans

Written by: Staff

PEARL RIVER, Louisiana, Nov 23: Looking at his metal-sided trailer home parked on a scrubby, storm-ravaged lot, hurricane survivor Larry Bridevaux decided to lift his spirits by planting a garden.

''This is what I do to keep my sanity,'' he said in front of the 30-foot trailer that has been home since Katrina destroyed his house outside New Orleans.

Where weeds and shrubs once sprouted, there are showy flowers surrounding a screened-in gazebo and a bubbling fountain. Thousands of New Orleans-area residents who lost homes and live in trailers issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency have decided to beautify their surroundings. like Bridevaux, to make the refugee life more tolerable.

''I absolutely cannot live without a garden,'' he said. ''I'm not going to be one of those people who are crying.'' Others have decided to follow the old adage to ''Bloom where you are planted'' by brightening up the storm-ravaged yards of their adoptive dwellings with flowers and foliage.

''Everything was brown and gray, and the trailer was no beauty,'' said Lorene Holbrook, a 63-year-old retiree whose trailer is parked in front of her damaged home in Metairie, Louisiana. ''When you've got some flowers out there, it looks like somebody cares.'' Holbrook's garden features so-called ''volunteer'' plants -- vincas, a crape myrtle -- that she did not plant but arrived haphazardly via Katrina's water or wind or even the sand that was dumped in her yard to anchor the trailer.

One exception is a lime tree she planted for fruit that she and her husband uses as garnish, she said, ''because we're rum-and-tonic people.''


The gardens that sprouted up across New Orleans prompted the local newspaper, the Times-Picayune, to hold a ''FEMA Trailer Beautification Contest.'' Each contest entry came with a tale of resilience and perseverance, said one of the newspaper's editors, Renee Peck, who oversaw the contest.

''It's more about the people than the gardens,'' Peck said. Gardening around his trailer, where Bridevaux has designed planters out of old sneakers and a baseball cap and set candles in a discarded chandelier, helps him feel like he's not just sitting around, waiting for help and handouts, he said. ''I said, 'I'm going to make it home,''' said the 44-year-old assistant manager of a hobby supply store. ''Just because you live in a FEMA trailer doesn't mean you have to act like it.'' One of his most cherished plants, he said, is a ginkgo tree rescued from his flood-damaged home. The tree survived Katrina by getting tangled in a rope that hung from a rafter of his ruined house, he said.

Outside their destroyed home in the Lakeview section of New Orleans, Mary and Bruce Johnson have hung colored bottles and bits of glass from the limbs of a tree, in an old Southern tradition some say helps keep evil spirits away.

The dozens of dangling bottles glisten in the sunlight.

''This has helped us cope,'' said Mary Johnson, 60, who with her husband ran a housecleaning business before Katrina. ''When I look out the door of the trailer, this is what I see.''


Their bottle tree is so eye-catching amid the devastation of the neighborhood, just blocks from where one of the protective levees broke in the August 2005 hurricane, that passersby stop to admire their handiwork.

As Johnson stood in her yard, showing the tree to a visitor, strangers driving by in a pickup truck stopped to look.

''We enjoy your tree,'' a woman called out from the truck. ''It's a little bright spot.'' Judging entries to the newspaper's FEMA trailer garden contest was Mary Hazen of the Louisiana Garden Club Federation, who has planted a garden around her own FEMA trailer.

''All of those gardens were healing gardens,'' Hazen said. ''Any kind of garden is good for you. You lose what's on your mind, and you dig, and you watch.'' Even scientific research has shown that gardens provide benefits to victims of trauma and abuse. ''Therapy gardens'' are sometimes used to help war veterans and hospital patients, so why not disaster victims, said Joy Harrison, president of the Denver-based American Horticultural Therapy Association.

''Many gardens are created for respite and solace, for the purpose of restoring one's balance and sense of well-being,'' Harrison said. ''If you plant something in the ground, there's a sense of hope and nurturing.'' Alas, the downside to cultivating a garden around a trailer comes when the trailer needs to be moved and residents return to permanent homes.

''Wherever God takes me, everything is removable,'' Bridevaux said of his elaborate garden. ''Granted, it will take some heavy equipment and some very strong men to move it.''


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