Shreveport’s finest architectural landmarks were built by an economy based on harvesting oil deposits from our land during the first half of the 20th century. While oil has played a critical role in the economy historically, there is a natural resource that could change the city of Shreveport. To be the basis of a strong and durable economy, this resource needs to not only be abundant in our area, but also needs to be financially efficient to harvest and use. Finally, it needs to be dependable from year to year.
But by our good fortune, we have just the resource to fit this need. It is abundant—so abundant that it gets in the way when it isn’t harvested for use. It is inexpensive to harvest and use, at the minimum requiring only a shovel and a good morning’s workout. This resource is even pretty dependable from year to year—averaging between four and five feet per year. That’s right, this resource is our rainfall. These feet of free water fall like manna on our roofs, streets, parking lots, driveways and heads. They collect in the low spots in our yards, our poorly drained streets, our paved ditches and bayous, and eventually the Red River. Sure, some months are hot and dry, but they aren’t always completely dry. In fact, the Augusts of 2016 and 2017 were so wet that it has made the dry season here hard to identify. The water dumped in summer thunderstorms and winter showers sheets off of our pavement, roofs, and hard clay ground to flood our streets and ditches and damage our downstream neighbors. Such a huge amount of this precious natural resource becomes a nuisance to daily life when it rushes into our drains all at once. If this water is delayed on its downhill journey by absorbent surfaces on top of the ground reshaped with a little digging—instead of being rushed immediately into drains—it becomes extremely valuable as a form of passive irrigation. It just takes a little know-how.
There is in fact a way to catch the rain cheaply and use it with minimal further effort to create clean soil and grow fresh healthy, delicious food. For the past two years, I have been digging and building simple, curved, water catching garden beds at my family farm, my house in Highland, the yards of a few friends, and behind my small restaurant, The Levee. With friends at Re-Form Shreveport and Shreveport Green, I have started ongoing projects on a larger scale in Highland Park and at the Food Bank of Northwest Louisiana. I want to tell you how it works so that you can start to gain the benefits of our bountiful rainfall, instead of just the annoyance of our floodwaters. First let me tell you a story about a clever city that caught its water to grow food.
There is a mid-sized city quite similar to us in climate—it’s on the same latitude and has about the same amount of rainfall from year to year. It generally has hot humid summers and mild wet winters. But this city can’t predict what months will be wet and which will be dry—just like us. And it waited for decades for some industry or investment from outside to revive its economy after fossil fuel production lagged and manufacturing moved overseas.
Some private citizens in this city decided to pick up their shovels to dig level trenches and install terrace-shaped gardens on contour lines on their own private property and in neglected public spaces, like parks and the land surrounding large parking lots. These gardens were basically free to make, because the ingredients were waste materials: logs, woodchips, grass clippings, leaves, and manure when it was available. All this free dead plant material piled up on trenches that caught water quickly decayed into smaller and smaller particles until it was fine, rich, black soil. This soil was better than could be purchased, because it was full of living organisms and already in the right place to grow plants. Every time it rained, the runoff water from roofs and pavements would flow downhill, and, drop by drop, get stuck in the terrace-shaped trenches, soak into new soil, and be available for absorption by plant roots for weeks, or even months. This all took place without any further effort at irrigation.
City officials who managed parks and public spaces took notice of this new type of garden and liked what they saw. The gardens were cheap to install and after a year or two they became highly productive. Even on a small scale, officials could see that the gardens caught water and held it uphill out of the drainage system, restoring groundwater and reducing the floods that had annoyed many residents and caused plenty of damage to cars and homes over the years. This city took a low-cost gamble to make a bunch of these gardens. They focused on building these gardens in public spaces, nature strips, the lawns around parking lots, around public buildings and on the slopes beside its numerous highways. Garbage trucks were rerouted to collect the leaves, sticks and grass clippings separately from household trash, and took all of it to make compost in its garden sites. They immediately noticed a savings in fuel cost, since the gardens were usually a closer drive than the landfill.
If you’d like help installing sustainable gardens in your yard, please check out the video that accompanies this article, or contact John Paul Young at The Levee or a new gardening company called Sun Green Thumb.
Now, instead of just endless high costs for mowing all these spaces, this city has retrained and hired many new ground crew employees to plant and harvest fresh produce from its many passively irrigated gardens. The land maintenance budget there has flipped from a constant, unrewarding cost, to a highly profitable enterprise. Lots of jobs have been created there by the need to harvest all the tomatoes, squash, kale, lettuce, broccoli, carrots, all grown on city land. When the thousands of fruit trees planted on this land matured after a few more years, people there realized an economic boom had set in. Now many private residents there have joined in catching the rainfall in this simple way and growing valuable food plants, ornamental flowers, and even timber for building. Many new entrepreneurial businesses related to food preparation and service have sprung up. Cafes, jelly companies, pickle makers, salsa businesses, juice and beverage producers, and their shops have filled in the buildings left empty by earlier industries. Now, many of these businesses sell their products on the national and even international market. Practically everyone in this city who wants a job can find one, either growing, harvesting, or preparing food, or building even more of these gardens. People who can’t or don’t work still rely on food pantries, but these are now all filled with fresh produce to give away.
Schoolchildren tend water-catching gardens on their campuses for thirty minutes a day and provide almost all the produce they eat in their cafeterias. This is a huge cost savings to the educational system, plus a rare form of education for the students. The best part is the food festivals—there is a festival marking the peak harvest time of over twenty delicious plants—and these draw tourists from a radius of more than 200 miles. Next, this city has announced a plan to grow large crops of plants for its native pharmaceutical and cosmetics companies to refine, package and market for high prices. Essential oil manufacture and indoor avocado and banana groves are in the works as well.
Because the set up and maintenance costs are so low for this type of food production, and because the financial rewards are so great, this city has balanced its budget and produces a surplus after decades of deficits. Conservatives and liberals there are cooperating on a proposal to reduce and eventually eliminate property and sales taxes—and one day perhaps it will pass. Private citizens with these rain-catching gardens have much larger discretionary incomes, too, since they rarely have to buy any fresh fruits or vegetables and restrict their grocery shopping to packaged foods, many of which are produced right in their own town.
All these benefits came to this city and its happy residents when they realized that a precious natural resource—clean, fresh water—was readily available for the taking. They quickly saw that capturing this water in a leveled garden helped moderate the damaging cycle of flood and drought that they’d been used to. By transforming rainwater from a nuisance into a valuable ingredient in business, the city also transformed itself. Now, instead of leaving and perpetuating the “brain drain,” high school and college graduates start new businesses based on all this food. Older “kids” are moving back home to enjoy the revival of culture there, and to get decent paying jobs in a place that still enjoys low real estate prices.
I have held back the name of this prosperous paradise for dramatic effect, because it is familiar to all of us in its pre-gardened form. This wealthy and happy city, living and growing on the enormous resource of its plentiful, passively harvested rainfall, is Shreveport, Louisiana, in the year 2025. That’s right, in just eight years, with the clever reshaping of our unused land to hold water uphill and the efficient reorganization of our waste materials to make compost and soil, we can recreate our economy. I know this because I’m just one person, and with the help of a couple friends and a single piece of heavy equipment, I have in only two years made a more or less barren clay grassland into a series of gardens that grow enough produce to supply my small restaurant. I did this without chemical fertilizer, pesticides, purchased soil, or even water collection tanks, and without adding water beyond what the gardens catch and store.
The design system for these super-efficient, inexpensive, long-term gardens is called Permaculture, and it consists of a bunch of clever ways to save time, energy, and reduce waste while growing surpassingly delicious food. Studying Permaculture (which means “permanent cultivation”) showed me that I could use the tiny lifeforms that live in healthy, homemade soil to grow valuable plants while I’m doing other things. Since I moved back to Shreveport in 2014, I have built over twenty of these permanent gardens, some large, some tiny, which all catch water every time it rains and supply it to plants for weeks and months afterward. The city has started to support these projects, which are going on in Highland Park and the Food Bank. SPAR, Shreveport Green and Re-Form Shreveport are some of the groups that are getting involved in remaking our city from the ground up, starting literally with the ground. Everyone who has tried it finds that in a couple of mornings with minor labor, you can build a garden that requires no more digging for decades, and nearly every yard in town can accommodate one.
So if you’re interested in The Next Big Thing for our economy, I’ve got the answer for you. It’s the most valuable substance in the universe, the basis of all life, and it’s falling on our heads. It’s the water in our rainfall, and harvesting and storing it in the ground for valuable use is cheaper and easier than harvesting any other natural resource. I hope you’re interested in learning how to put your lawn-care energy into a productive and beneficial use, and that you’ll swing by The Levee to taste the homegrown food and learn to make some in your own yard. We are just a few years away from boundless prosperity, once we get started.