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Grow your own: Community gardens taking root in Houston

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A volunteer shows off a gorgeous yellow squash from Farmer Street Community Garden in the Fifth Ward, which brings neighbors together in a group effort. Courtesy of Urban Harvest
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Farmer Street Community Garden is a neighborhood garden where residents maintain a beautiful green space. Courtesy of Urban Harvest
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Mark Bowen, from left, Mayor Annise Parker, Mary Frances Morris and Laura Spanjian at the groundbreaking of the Downtown Houston Vegetable Container Garden Project Photo by Paula Murphy
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Residents of Public Works Building at 611 Walker, 14th floor, show off their planter. Photo by Paula Murphy
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Kathy Hubbard and Mayor Annise Parker at the groundbreaking Photo by Paula Murphy
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Alabama Gardens, an allotment-style community garden, just celebrated its 25th anniversary. Courtesy of Urban Harvest
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Warren Christian at Alabama Gardens Courtesy of Urban Harvest
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Ms. Lola Strauss, in her 90s, loves being an active participant in the Alabama Street Garden. Courtesy of Urban Harvest

Next time you shop, take a credit card break and take a good look at what is racking up your purchase points.

Perhaps you are concerned whether those jeans will make your butt look big or if you’d be able re-stylish your trendy techie pose to circumvent iPhone’s death grip. Will the sodium content in that can of soup make you withhold water and blimp like a blow fish?

As valid as those pseudo-concerns are, I challenge all to think beyond the object and consider what surrounds its origins. Conceptual age thinking should encompass questions regarding natural resources, human capital, environmental footprint and of course, necessity.

A side-effect of progress through the agricultural revolution, the industrial age and instant access to a geometrically growing supply of global information is we are generally disconnected and detached from our possessions. Retail stores, shopping malls, restaurants, mail-order catalogues and websites hide the manufacturing process and present consumers with something new and shiny in trendy packaging.

The consumer’s dilemma? Cash or charge.

We don’t know how they are made, why they work nor where they come from.

And food is very high on that list.

When children fail to identify a potato or tomato, it’s time to call the whole thing off.

Are you a locavore?

The term “locavore,” 2007 word of the year in the Oxford American Dictionary, is entering our vernacular fast and describes the movement that encourages consuming food that is locally grown. Benefits? Fresher and better tasting food, reducing our carbon footprint and supporting local economies. Sign me up.

When Emeril Lagasse’s new cookbook emphasizes local ingredients in lieu of the tired “pork fat rules” modus operandi, a paradigm shift is eminent.

And nothing reaches the spirit of local more than growing your own.

Community Gardens

Houston has a long history of volunteer led community gardens providing locally grown food for its members and for their community. In the Greater Houston Area there are at least 150 gardens. Mark Bowen, executive director at Urban Harvest reminds us that although there is some attrition, community gardens that do not bloom do succeed in inciting passion and cultivating future vegetable gardeners. Overall, the trend is up with 50 more in the planning stages.

“Vegetable gardening offers a great opportunity to learn where our food comes from, what it takes to successfully grow it and how wonderful it tastes when it is fresh,” Scott Howard, coordinator of the North Montrose Community Garden, explains. “This applies to anyone who gets involved in vegetable gardening, especially children.” Howard has been growing vegetables for over 20 years

“People are really starting to understand that local food is affordable, better tasting and sustainable, and that they can grow fruits and vegetables in Houston,” Houston Sustainability director Laura Spanjian says.

Some vegetable gardens exist solely to give back their fruits of their labor back to local food pantries while others split theirs into individual plots or share everything among its members. Some choose to sell part or all of their produce and join other local vendors at the Urban Harvest Farmers Markets

Benefits beyond just sustainable good eats

“I have a much better understanding and appreciation for the natural world.  I never imagined I could have an emotional attachment, much less the knowledge, to discuss the quality of compost, the microbial life in a handful of garden soil, good bugs versus bad bugs or the merits of one variety of kale over another," Howard remarks. "Like most worthwhile activities, vegetable gardening will always teach the practitioner something new. Aside from all of the esoteric gardening knowledge however, this activity willl teach one how to be patient."

Urban Harvest “is about helping people build healthy communities through the farmer’s market program, the education program which includes classes and youth education, and the community gardens program,” Bowen explains. “More so than building them directly, it is about helping people help themselves.”

Demand for support of community gardens exploded a few years ago as a direct result of worsening economic conditions. A small team of 10 dedicated staff and over 3,000 passionate volunteers illustrates the fervor and energy of those behind Urban Harvest and community gardening. 

Inspired by local landscape architect Keiji Asakura, The Mayor's Office of Sustainability and the City of Houston Department of Public Works and Engineering is getting in on the green action through the first phase of the Downtown Houston Container Vegetable Garden Project. In partnership with Keep Houston Beautiful, Urban Harvest and Asakura Robinson Company LLC, each floor of the Public Works Building at 611 Walker adopted, personalized and beautified a large planter with all donated resources.

“I hope that not only City facilities continue to do this, but that we inspire other Houstonians to grow herb and vegetable gardens,” Mayor Annise Parker, explains.

Phase two? Planting vegetables near Tranquility Park with a vision of redefining Houston as the green roofed city painted with terrace gardens growing on top of commercial and residential buildings.

Growing your own

Houston’s climate allows for year long planting, but the best times to lay planting beds are right ahead of the prime planting season. This means late summer for early fall planting as well as late winter in preparation for early spring. Whether you'd like to join a neighborhood community garden, start a new one or grow your own, here are some tips to get you started. 

  • Enroll in the Planning for Fall (or Winter) Vegetable Garden class at Urban Harvest. A three-hour primer offered every couple of months, the class covers basics including design ideas that work in an urban environment. 
  • Get your hands on Year Round Vegetable, Fruits and Flowers for Metro Houston by Dr. Bob Randall. An A through Z field manual, it has everything you need to know about what can grow in Houston, where to find it, how to plant it, how to set up beds, how to fertilize, how to harvest and how to take care of pest issues.
  • Visit other community and home gardens. Look and give volunteer time apprenticing before you start. You will experience what is involved, work with experienced gardeners hands-on, learn to troubleshoot and guesstimate what you can manage.
  • Start small with your first phase. Build three to five vegetable beds; five feet by 20 feet is an average size. If you are considering an orchard, five to six trees should be manageable. Fruit trees are best purchased in January.
  • Stick to vegetables that do well in this climate. For fall planting, consider collard and mustard greens, broccoli, carrots, lettuce and beets. Spring planting can include sweet potatoes, okra, cucumbers, southern peas and eggplant. 

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