Urban gardening's roots spreading throughout Texas

The Muddy PAWS limited-space urban garden at the Providence Apartments on Wall Street in northwest San Antonio is an example of urban horticulture supported by the Texas AgriLife Extension Service and the state's Master Gardener association volunteers. (Texas AgriLife Extension Service photo)

SAN ANTONIO – Managing the Muddy PAWS limited-space urban community vegetable garden at the Providence at Wall Street apartment complex in northwest San Antonio is “a lot more fun than it is work,” according to Margie Noonan, a Bexar County Master Gardener.

Noonan, also a Texas AgriLife Extension Service technician-horticulture in San Antonio,  coordinated with apartment management, residents and others to help build a 16-by-28 foot semi-enclosed community garden inside what previously was a trash compaction storage area.

With apartment owner and management support and funding, and Noonan, residents and the complex’s landscaping company providing vegetables, materials and sweat equity, they built four 4-by-8-foot raised, handicap-accessible garden beds. These now provide tomatoes, jalapenos, cucumbers, squash, bell peppers, strawberries and other produce for apartment residents, and wall baskets and other containers mounted on the interior garden walls produce a variety of herbs.

The garden was named Muddy PAWS in reference to the residents “getting a little muddy” working in the garden, plus the PAWS acronym for the apartment complex, explained apartment leasing agent Marlene Ramirez, who initiated the project.

“It’s been a great experience and a lot of fun for people of all ages in our community,” she said. “It helps them understand sustainability and provides them with a new interest.”

According to David Rodriguez, AgriLife Extension horticulturist and Bexar County Master Gardener program coordinator, other urban gardening involvement in the county includes the Children’s Vegetable Garden Program in cooperation with the San Antonio Botanical Garden and several youth “teaching” gardens in area public elementary and middle schools.

“We’ve also seen a growing interest in the county about container gardening, mainly from people with limited space or wanting a more controlled environment for their plants,” said Bexar County Master Gardener Don Hall.

Some planter choices by Hall and other container gardeners include barrels, flower pots, window boxes, cut-off milk or bleach jugs, Styrofoam coolers, plastic storage boxes, plastic-lined baskets and large-diameter PVC pipe.

A limited-space patio garden was among Texas AgriLife Extension Service exhibits at the Texas Experience pavilion during this year's San Antonio Livestock Show and Rodeo. Features included vertical and container gardens, including an herb garden using a hanging cloth shoe-holder. (Texas AgriLife Extension Service photo)

Home vegetable gardens, small-acreage gardens, various types of limited-space gardens and community gardens represent resurgent or growing trends in urban horticulture, according to AgriLife Extension horticulturist Dr. Douglas Welsh, co-author of the Texas Master Gardener Handbook, a statewide guide for Master Gardener volunteers developed at Texas A&M University. He said these trends are not like “the more indulgent, cocooning trend of a few years ago, but a smart and positive way to survive the economic downturn.”

He also noted that with urban landscapes becoming smaller and urban density becoming greater, choosing what to do with limited outdoor space has become even more important. This, along with other factors, has contributed to the development of square-foot ‘modular’ gardening and other types of limited-space gardening.

Welsh said an indication of the increased interest in gardening for self-sufficiency is the 200 percent to 300 percent increase in vegetable seed sales in nurseries, garden centers and feed stores throughout the state.

Home vegetable gardens, small-acreage gardens, various types of limited-space gardens and community gardens are recent trends in urban horticulture which are not like ‘the more indulgent, cocooning trend of a few years ago, but a smart and positive way to survive the economic downturn.’ — Dr. Douglas Welsh, co-author, Texas Master Gardener Handbook

He said future urban gardening may continue to evolve to a point where horticulture is an integral part of  people’s daily lives, with composting container, rainfall-capture systems and communities of gardeners producing fruits and vegetables for distribution through neighborhood markets and centers.

In response to these and other urban horticultural trends and community needs, AgriLife Extension and Texas Master Gardener volunteers are involved in numerous urban gardening and horticultural education-outreach activities throughout the state, Welsh noted. Some urban AgriLife Extension offices and Texas AgriLife Research and Extension  Centers have  demonstration gardens where county residents can see how to plant and maintain a home or community garden.

“Austin is one of the Texas cities on the leading edge of the sustainability gardening trend,” said Daphne Richards, AgriLife Extension county agent for horticulture, Travis County. “We’ve seen many more urban residents becoming interested in growing at least some of their own food and in more organic or environmentally responsible home-gardening practices.”

Richards said limited-space gardening also is popular in her area, partly because it’s easy to grow tomatoes, peppers and various herbs in containers, and partly because growing vegetables, herbs and plants in alternative containers such as ‘grow boxes’ – large plastic storage containers with drainage holes in the bottom – jibes with residents’ interest in recycling and the environment.

“The interest in community gardens also has grown throughout Travis County, and there are even ‘waiting lists’ for people wanting to become involved in community gardening,” she said.

In the Houston area, AgriLife Extension and Master Gardeners are involved in “cylinder gardening” at several urban elementary and middle schools, said Dr. Anthony Camerino, AgriLife Extension county agent for horticulture, Harris County.

“The Cylinder Gardening Program is a program of AgriLife Extension in Harris County that Harris County Master Gardener volunteers implement and support monetarily,” Camerino said. “Currently between five and seven thousand urban school kids participate in the program each semester. They grow vegetables and other plants in large open-ended cylindrical containers provided by Blue Bell Creameries. The AgriLife Extension office and Master Gardeners provide seeds and technical assistance — pretty much everything but the soil. Cash-strapped urban schools like this because it costs little and requires no additional infrastructure for the garden.”

Children's gardening activities are among the urban horticultural outreach and education opportunities provided by Texas AgriLife Extension Service and volunteers of the state's Master Gardener programs. (Texas AgriLife Extension Service photo)

In Dallas, AgriLife Extension personnel have been providing support  for the urban community co-op garden at the 12,000-member Friendship West Baptist Church.

“AgriLife Extension people have come here to present courses on food and nutrition and have done demonstrations on healthy cooking and eating,” said Danielle Ayers, minister for social justice at the church.

“It’s hard to find fresh fruits and vegetables in our area, so the garden gives our church members and others in our community access to them,” she said. “We have about 300 co-op members. We harvest daily and sell our produce to church and community members every Sunday. People involved with the garden enjoy the social interaction and helping fill a need in their community.”

Ayers said the church’s co-op community garden is about a half-acre now, but involvement, interest and demand is so great, they are planning to expand it to an acre or more and include additional classes on home and community gardening to be presented by AgriLife Extension staff and Dallas County Master Gardener volunteers.

Dale Groom, AgriLife Extension horticulturist and Dallas County Master Gardener program coordinator, said additional urban gardening efforts by AgriLife Extension and Master Gardeners in Dallas County include educational presentations at the North Texas Food Bank, more than 300 best horticulture management practices presentations throughout the county and providing technical assistance at Paul Quinn College, where an unused football field has been transformed into a working urban farm.

“There are a total of seven ongoing urban community gardening projects in Dallas County with Extension and Dallas County Master Gardener program involvement,” he said. “And the Dallas County Master Gardener program also has five school gardens in collaboration with Dallas ISD.”

In nearby Tarrant County, AgriLife Extension county agent for horticulture Steve Chaney and area Master Gardeners have been involved in building and maintaining the two-acre Resource Connection community garden on Fort Worth’s south side. There they provide instruction on best practices for growing vegetables, fruits, herbs and ornamental plants in an urban setting. Produce from the garden is taken home by members of the community and given to the area food bank.

“The garden gives people in the city a chance to do things they haven’t ever done or haven’t done since they were young,” Chaney said. “It’s like bringing a little rural life into the city and giving people the opportunity to learn new and useful things that are also fun and rewarding.”

He said another successful urban gardening project in that county has been the community garden collaboration with the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office.

“AgriLife Extension and the Tarrant County Master Gardener association worked with the sheriff’s department to teach work-release program participants how to grow vegetables and other produce,” said Master Gardener Norman Moreland, who volunteers about 20-25 hours a week at the garden. “The participants learn useful, productive life skills, and the food they grow each year, which amounts to a ton to a ton and a half  of vegetables – squash, zucchini, black-eyed peas, cantaloupe, onions, potatoes and more – is given to Tarrant Area Food Bank recipients in at least 13 counties.”

In all, AgriLife Extension and Master Gardener volunteers are currently involved in five community garden projects in Tarrant County, Chaney noted.

“These urban gardening efforts help address a variety of individual and community needs,” Welsh said. “We’re proud that AgriLife Extension staff and Master Gardener associations in these and other urban areas of the state are helping people produce their own food and providing them with means to feel reconnected with nature.”

More information on cylinder gardening can be found at: http://cylindergardening.tamu.edu/.

Information on container vegetable gardening can be downloaded free of charge online at the AgriLife Extension Bookstore website, http://agrilifebookstore.org, and searching for publication E-545. The site also has several additional free publications on best practices related to growing fruits, vegetables and ornamental plants.

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