Jeanette Bell, who owns and operates Bell Floricultural Services, has been selling her locally grown herbs and flowers for more than 35 years. Her customers include chefs and home cooks, and she recently made her produce available via the online farmers market Good Eggs. On most mornings, Bell tends her 9,000-square-foot garden in Central City, and she also operates two gardens in the Lower 9th Ward and one in Hazlehurst, Mississippi. Bell spoke with Gambit about how she got started and how home cooks can start their own herb gardens.
How did you get started?
Bell: I've been inside a garden since I was a little child. I grew up doing this and I just feel it's where I belong. Now I grow herbs that I sell to Mariza and to Good Eggs. I grow Italian sweet basil, purple basil, lemon verbena, lemon balm, rosemary, tarragon, sage, thyme, fresh bay leaves and probably 14 different types of mint. I grow some edible flowers, too.
Here in New Orleans, we are lucky that we can grow pretty much everything that we want to grow. My goal is not to sell quantity but to sell quality and have people notice the difference.
What's the difference between using locally grown herbs as opposed to store-bought herbs from somewhere else?
B: I think that chefs are realizing that locally grown herbs give a different flavor to the plate as opposed to something that's been in a refrigerated truck for a week or 10 days. The things that I grow here, they're cut, they're placed in a bag and they're delivered to the restaurant, so they're delivered within four hours from when they are cut, which means that there's a different flavor level — it just tastes so much better. It's important for people to know that they aren't at the mercy of California and South America for everything. Maybe avocados, but for things like rosemary or basil or mint, for example, there's no reason to buy something that's been in the truck for a week. I grow fresh bay leaves, too. I think it's important for people to realize when they're following these old Cajun recipes that they were using fresh bay leaves, not the dried kind. And rosemary chicken — when it's made with fresh rosemary, you just can't believe how delicious it is.
Do you have tips for novice growers?
B: The easiest and most important way for someone to start is to make sure you're using good seeds. I use Johnny's Selected Seeds. They're from New Orleans and [the company will] give you the information you need to know and will tell you whether the seeds you're buying are organic or not.
I think everyone who lives in New Orleans should grow citrus and pomegranate. Everyone should have a pomegranate in their yard. You won't know this from buying it in the store, but if you let it get completely ripe on the tree, the seeds are easier to eat, because they'll be softer. When you buy them in the store, they're pretty tough. But let them ripen on the tree? Oh, they're delicious.
For citrus, I grow them in containers. Just because you are renting — maybe you don't have a lot of space — that doesn't mean that you can't grow citrus. I use recycled or damaged tree containers that the landscape companies can't reuse. But you could use any type of large container or box. It also helps with the issues of contaminated soil – with the container, you know the soil that is going in there. You can put compost in there and you don't have the weed issues that you would if you were planting in a bed.