The Great Outdoors
Fresh food, friends and fun: Community gardening brings the farm to you
Driving through Houston’s motley neighborhoods, it’s easy to miss them – the plot at Harvard Elementary in the Heights, the quiet corner just off Farmer Street in the Fifth Ward, or the spot outside the Dominican Sisters of Houston near the Medical Center. But look closer and you’ll find more than 100 community gardens tucked in the urban landscape as a growing number of city folks join their neighbors to raise the freshest veggies in town.
“It’s a whole lot more fun to garden with a group of people than by yourself sometimes,” said Becky Blanton, community gardens coordinator at Urban Harvest.
The nonprofit helps people all over Houston get their hands dirty raising food in the heart of the city, and Blanton says she’s seen interest in the group’s classes rise in the last year or so.
It’s not hard to see why. Free food, increased neighborhood camaraderie and a way to enjoy the outdoors without driving anywhere provide ample incentive for anyone with even a modest interest in gardening to pitch in. It only takes few people to establish a garden, and the land is easier to come by than you might think. Utilities, churches, parks, schools, apartment complexes and even homeowners often have acreage they’re willing to lend to the cause. Once established, volunteers split the crop, donate it or sell it for a profit at farmers markets. About half of the gardens in Houston are at schools that use them as part of the curriculum, and some exist for their therapeutic value to patients at medical facilities.
“One of the really great things about living in Houston is that we can garden year-round, and a lot of people don’t realize that,” Blanton said, adding that the climate here supports almost all vegetables and a wide range of fruit trees.
The local soil is less generous, though, so she suggests designing gardens with raised beds and high-quality top soil. Most new community gardens cost $1,500 to $4,000 initially, according to Urban Harvest, although it’s possible to build them for much less using recycled materials and composting. It’s also common to offset costs with sales at a farmers market.
Of course, the benefits of introducing a garden to the neighborhood are nothing new. The DePelchin Children’s Center, which has been around since the 1890s, is thought to have one of the oldest community gardens in Houston. Blanton says the oldest neighborhood garden Urban Harvest works with was founded in the mid-1980s outside a social club off Alabama Street east of Highway 288. The building is long gone, but she said “that garden started acting as a social club for the neighborhood.”
As more people discover the merits of farm-fresh basil and tomatoes that actually taste like something, membership in that kind of club gets more appealing all the time.
Interested in giving it a try?
- Find the closest garden
- Learn how to start your own at one of Urban Harvest’s classes
- Watch video on community gardening
- Check out the organization’s farmer’s market, 8 a.m. to noon every Saturday at 3000 Richmond Ave.