Though for most of us, “gardening” entails little more than mowing the lawn, a growing number of city dwellers are putting their backyards to productive use. These enterprising folks are turning parts of their property into small agricultural plots where they cultivate all sorts of wonderful edibles, from tomatoes and peppers to fig, olive and tangerine trees. And some have taken to raising chickens as well. The urban agriculture trend is growing all over the country, and San Antonio is no exception. Motivations vary, but with a current emphasis on healthy eating, many people are trying to avoid commercially produced crops while reconnecting with the source of our food and the regional nature of agriculture. It requires work, some money and a little education, but whether they have a private vegetable patch or participate in a community effort, the people interviewed for this story all agree that gardening is a rewarding endeavor that brings with it multiple benefits beyond fresh food.
A COOK’S PARADISE
One of the first things Linda and Tom Triesch did after moving to their new house on a quiet road north of 1604 was to establish a vegetable garden. Terraced and fenced, it now sits just a few yards from the kitchen wall, luxuriating in abundant Texas sunlight. Inside, an amazing variety of goodies awaits the curious visitor, from green beans and cucumbers twisting their vines over the fences, to beds of tomatoes, okra, Japanese eggplant, squash, leeks, peppers, Swiss chard and all kinds of herbs. A few young fruit trees dot the grounds as well — plum, apricot and a pineapple guava. A Bruce plum does well in the heat, explains Linda, who is an experienced gardener but has not previously tried to grow fruit trees. A lush row of feathery asparagus plants adorns another part of the property.
A skillful cook and a dietitian by profession, Linda knows how to use everything she grows. “Since I love to cook, it’s a perfect fit for me, and I love sharing it with friends and family,” she says. “I have a meat-and-potatoes kind of husband, but I always make at least two different vegetables every night. Last night, I took eggplant and onions, seasoned them with several herbs, wrapped everything up in foil and put it on the grill. So flavorful! These taste so much better than store-bought; there’s no comparison. They taste so good one could easily become a vegetarian.” When her harvest is bountiful, she freezes, cans or pickles the veggies to eat year-round. The only produce the Triesches buy from the grocery store is lettuce (“difficult to grow”) and maybe some berries.
Their brood enjoys the fruits of their labor. With six children and 10 grandkids, there is no shortage of enthusiastic guests. When the young ones come, they cannot wait to pick whatever is ripe in the garden. “I don’t have to take them to the zoo or anywhere — there is so much entertainment for them right here,” notes Linda with a chuckle. That entertainment also includes chickens, a donkey and three longneck alpacas that share living quarters with the donkey.
Who needs a zoo?
For their now-adult children, the new property brings back memories from their own childhood in Helotes, where Linda cultivated her first vegetable plot and fed the family as well as their neighbors with its produce. “We are now creating memories for our grandchildren,” she remarks. Both spouses worked hard this spring to get things going, with Tom doing the heavy lifting by mixing soil components and installing the irrigation system, while Linda helped with the planting. And both continue to care for their creation every day. It’s good exercise, and “it’s so peaceful out there.” Tom, who runs a recycling company in northwest San Antonio, brought home livestock feeding troughs that they turned into elevated beds to make harvesting easier on aging bodies. There’s still a lot to learn, Linda points out, as each variety has its own planting schedule and care needs.
Everything is grown organically, requiring extra effort to protect plants from pests. As Linda takes me on a tour, we are first greeted by a couple of large watermelons growing out of a tiny green patch just outside the garden gate. That something so big and solid can materialize out of a small green spot is a 3-D botany lesson. As we walk around, basket in hand, I feel almost like Linda’s grandkids, excited to spot a few cucumbers still lingering on the back-fence vine. “Oh, look, here’s one!” I exclaim, reaching for it. “And here’s another one!” Though the season for cucumbers has passed, we end up collecting enough for a couple of generous salads. As we go, she tells me a little about each bed while she prunes and picks a few things. Ripening tomatoes (in mid-June) beckon from several troughs. “Usually, you purchase young tomato plants in mid-February,” she explains, “and put them in the ground by March 15. If you are starting from seed, you have to do it earlier. I like to let them ripen on the vine. They taste so much better.”
In mid-August, the Triesches will start their fall planting: broccoli, cauliflower, butternut squash, pumpkins and more. Linda acknowledges that it will be a long time before they recoup the initial investment that went into setting up their sophisticated garden, but the benefits transcend monetary concerns. Clean, fresh food and a sense of self-sufficiency are rewards enough. Healthy meals with family and friends — priceless!
A B&B WITH HEALTH BENEFITS
While the Triesches created their little paradise far from the city’s hustle and bustle, Joe and Anne Barfield established theirs inside Loop 410, in the middle of a typical urban neighborhood. Recessed from the street and somewhat hard to find, their Chicken Paradise Bed & Breakfast (yes, it’s really called that) is an oasis of calm and beauty that makes you feel like you are on vacation. Though the couple have lived here since 1980 and reared their children on the property, the place was not turned into a B&B until 2005 after Joe retired from Southwest Research Institute. There’s only one guest suite, but it’s pretty much occupied year round. On this particular morning they are between guests, so Anne can take the time to chat with me on the patio overlooking the flower-bedecked pool. She tells me a little about the visitors that left the day before. They were two recently widowed sisters who live far away from each other but decided to take a trip together. The hosts sensed that they needed a little extra pampering and gladly provided it. More typically, the place attracts couples celebrating anniversaries and vacationing families. “We are far busier that we originally intended to be, but we are happy about it,” says Anne. “We have people 25 to 28 nights a month and lots of repeat customers.”
Like other B&B establishments, the Barfields serve breakfast but with a twist. Since Anne was diagnosed with celiac disease —whose main trait is gluten intolerance — their menus are meticulously gluten-free. Folks who suffer from the same condition love the place, but the hosts are also willing to accommodate other dietary restrictions. Much of the food that they serve comes from their own property. Though they started with a modest single plot that they cultivated only in the spring and summer, the Barfields now have a greenhouse and three fenced gardens, one of which — their “secret garden”— is located on a piece of land they bought behind the neighbors’ house. “We moved here from Colorado. We didn’t realize that you can garden in the winter, too,” explains the Paradise’s mistress. But they sure learned. The original patch is now an herb enclave, which can also serve as a cozy spot for a mama peahen to lay and sit on her eggs. The male peacock is trotting around nearby in the chicken coop, where a single rooster and the egg-laying hens reside. That’s where the breakfast eggs come from. Now that they know that winter can be a productive season, too, the couple plant arugula, kale, watercress, spinach, fennel, lettuces, parsley, garlic and three kinds of onions during that time. In the spring, it’s green beans, peppers and other veggies like the ones growing in the Triesches’ garden, plus potatoes and sweet potatoes. The charming little farm is also home to fig and olive trees, vines, flowers, lawns and bushes of all kinds. There’s even a tiny fishpond. It’s no wonder that Anne has little desire to ever leave home.
When the Barfields have questions about soil or the best way to shield specific plants from bugs, they consult Bob Webster, who runs the Shades of Green Nursery nearby. “It’s like child rearing,” notes Anne. “Every 10 years they come up with new ideas on how best to handle this or that gardening problem. Fortunately, Bob is very generous with his vast knowledge.” But they have also gotten ideas from their travels in Italy and France, where they love to look at gardens and local markets. The grapevine covering part of the original garden’s side and top fencing was inspired by similar arrangements they saw in Italy. It provides shade for species that need it and it looks … well, yummy! Chicken Paradise as a whole looks so inviting that it occasionally serves as a wedding venue for both family members and outsiders. The owners’ daughter tied the knot under the olive trees, and their 14-year old granddaughter has already told them that they can’t sell or move until she grows up and gets married in the same spot.
They have no intention of doing so anyhow. “The more you learn about commercial farming, the more you appreciate having organically grown produce,” says Anne. “But it’s also a great pleasure to go out and see what needs to be harvested and then cooking something out of it with the other things you have in the house.
What we don’t grow we buy at farmers’ markets.” Most Chicken Paradise guests like the idea of eating pesticide-free foods. “This is like coming to grandma’s house,” says the proprietress. Because it produces and uses locally grown products, the Barfields’ operation has been recognized by the “Go Texan” program of the Texas Department of Agriculture. When I remark that she and Joe have combined business, pleasure, green space and health concerns in a particularly harmonious way, Anne readily agrees. Though they are not in it for the money, the business provides enough revenue to keep the entire compound going, and everyone enjoys the natural environment and the fresh food.
So can she give some advice to a rookie gardener?
She hesitates a bit before listing a few basics: “Talk to experienced neighbors or local nursery owners to learn about the soil in your area and what grows best there. Read a little. You’ll have to prepare planting beds; you can’t just stick things in the dirt. Also learn about what needs sun and what needs shade. It’s also a good idea to make the beds fairly narrow so you can reach across from either side. Then you have to know what to plant, depending on the season.”
A COMMUNITY EFFORT
For those who are not inclined or cannot afford to set up their own garden, the Green Spaces Alliance of South Texas can help. Founded in 1998 as the Bexar Land Trust, GSA is a nonprofit dedicated to “sustaining our natural environment and enhancing urban spaces through land conservation, community engagement and education.” One way the organization realizes its goals is by working with landowners to preserve land over the aquifer, but it also fosters the creation and maintenance of green spaces within the city by encouraging citizens to plant and care for vegetable gardens. “We want to help people connect with the natural world, and the community gardens are a good way to accomplish that,” says Angela Hartsell, who manages the garden initiative for GSA. “Gardening is also good for both your physical and mental health. Just exposure to green spaces brings benefits. When you combine that with more nutritious food and the intergenerational nature of the activity, it all creates a happier scene in San Antonio.” There are currently 34 such gardens all across this city.
One example is the Jefferson Community Garden, which sits on a piece of land belonging to a Methodist church. GSA negotiates deals with property owners that are usually either private nonprofit entities or public institutions such as libraries, parks, churches or community service agencies. GSA also provides the initial materials needed to get things off the ground and stays “very involved” with all kinds of support. “We are here to help,” says Hartsell, “to make sure they use regionally appropriate techniques, and we have workshops on various topics throughout the year.” All that assistance is what made it possible for Sherilyn Strickland to become a volunteer gardener and the steward for the Jefferson area lot. “As soon as I moved into the neighborhood, I knew I wanted to garden, but I realized it was going to be expensive to get the soil, dig, compost, get the plants and the whole nine yards,” says the vivacious Strickland, who is a software license buyer for the Nature Conservancy by day. “My sister kept telling me to check into the community garden option, so I found GSA and called them.” They told her that there was one just around the corner from her house. She lost no time getting involved despite a fractured toe that was immobilized by a special boot. “I put a bag over my boot and went for it. I was so excited to be here,” she recalls.
“Here” is, of course, the garden where Strickland and two fellow volunteers, Bert Clayton and Jim Clink, are spending a late summer afternoon telling me about their enterprise. There are seven neighbors tending this plot, while others help with special projects like planting fruit trees. Twelve of those have recently been planted, including figs, two kinds of pears, two kinds of tangerines, a soft-seed pomegranate and more. While the space is divided into individual and communal plots, Strickland and Clink are more than willing to work in all of them and share the harvest with all. “I love to have my hands in the dirt and be reminded of the natural cycle of things,” observes Strickland.
“There aren’t many places where you can experience that.” On her own little parcel, she grows squash, eggplant, Swiss chard, tomatoes and zinnias right now.
With no fences or netting to prevent critters from sharing their bounty, the gardeners must pick the veggies just before they ripen. As for bugs, Strickland opens her arms to indicate inclusiveness and says, “You have to plant enough for both you and the bugs.” Both she and Clink say they get more than enough produce to satisfy their needs. What’s more, none of them has had to spend much money, and the church has not been charging them for the water they use.
There is also another benefit that they have come to appreciate. Neighbors who live in the immediate vicinity and passersby are increasingly offering to help with a variety of tasks, from watering and hauling materials to designing a shade structure.
“It brings people together,” says the obviously pleased Strickland. “This is what a community garden is all about.”
Clink, who has been rather quiet during this conversation, adds, “None of us could afford to have this much land available for such a big garden. Sure, it’s a hobby for us, but it’s a productive hobby.”