By: Kirby Conda Tello Photos by: Rachel Benavides
The topic of gardening is a dichotomy of beauty and nourishment. Within these pages, you’ll discover the best plants to grow in our area, local organizers using gardening as community outreach, the artistry of landscaping, and more.
STEPS TO ACHIEVE A BOUNTIFUL GARDEN
Let’s face it: gardening can seem daunting even for seasoned growers at times. It encompasses a combination of desire, determination, skill-level, and just downright know-how. And while there is a certain finesse to gardening, there is no reason to feel overwhelmed by starting your own harvesting haven so long as your quest to turn a brown thumb green is one to which you are willing to commit.
We sat down with our resident Farm to Table and Gardening expert, Justin Butts, to see just how accessible backyard gardening is for a newbie.
For a beginner gardener, what is your initial piece of advice?
The most important element in gardening is soil health. In fact, soil health is roughly 90 percent of gardening, while everything else makes up the other 10 percent. Many beginner gardeners get caught up in the myriad details of botany. Instead, focus on the essentials: 1) Build robust soil health. 2) Locate the garden in full sun. 3) Plant according to the season. 4) Water only as needed. Find out what to plant in each season (we are in Hardiness Zone 9b) and then plant at the beginning of the season. Finally, water deeply and as infrequently as possible, when the top 6” of soil mostly, but not completely, dries out.
Talk to us about companion planting. If you’re creating a garden for harvesting is it okay to have florals next to produce?
Yes! Grow plenty of flowers with your vegetables. Always plant two, three, or more different plants together that help strengthen each other. For example, if you want tomatoes, don’t just plant tomatoes; surround each tomato plant with four collard green plants and a dozen marigolds. Collards and marigolds repel tomato pests while shading the soil at the feet of the tomatoes.
Flowers make wonderful companions to vegetables – flowers repel and confuse pests while adding beauty and fragrance to the garden. Plant nasturtiums with squash, Queen Anne’s lace with carrots, and cosmos with cabbage and broccoli.
What materials do you need to start a garden? Is there a soil you recommend?
The only tools needed to garden are a short, D-handle shovel, a soil knife, and a water hose. You might need a wheelbarrow to move compost to your garden, but if you build your compost piles close by, that isn’t as crucial.
The only materials required for the garden are compost; fertilizer (pastured poultry manure); homemade wood ash; and raked-up leaves to use as mulch. Then all you need are seeds or transplants. That’s it. Sunshine and the soil will do the work for you!
How should a garden be taken care of properly in each of the varying seasons?
At the end of a season, remove the remaining plants to the compost pile, then plant a cover crop over the entire garden. Hairy vetch (plant in December) and black-eyed peas (plant during summer) are ideal cover crops for the Coastal Bend. They are nitrogen-fixers, which means they fertilize the soil as they grow. Once the vetch or peas flower, mow them or till them into the soil, then plant your next garden.
If you want to take a break from gardening between seasons or longer, cover the garden with a thick layer (ideally, 12 inches) of native leaf mulch. The mulch will protect and feed the soil and prevent weeds until you are ready to garden again. Then, simply make a space in the mulch, plant your transplants, and push the mulch right back into place.
What is the best way to get your family and kids involved?
The best way to get your family involved is to let them taste success. Many beginners think of gardening as a ton of work, or they get caught up in the process. But gardening is really about healthy, delicious ingredients that come to life in your kitchen! Once the vegetables, fruit, herbs, and flowers from the garden begin coming into the house each day, the process becomes less about work and more about eating well and enjoyment. Kids will love gardening if you let them do the work. Pro tip: Let kids plant radishes from seeds. In just three weeks, they will harvest their own plantings, and you will be amazed at how happy they are to eat their own creations.
Feed Your Soil • Composting 101
1 Purchase the highest quality organic compost to start your garden.
2 After that, make your own compost from kitchen scraps and raked leaves.
3 Add plenty of organic pastured poultry manure and homemade wood ash (for potassium) from native trees.
4 Soil grows the plants, not the gardener. Never skimp on soil health.
Top 10 Plants to Grow in the Coastal Bend
As Recommended by Resident Gardener, Justin Butts
S P R I N G
Black-Eyed Peas ( S: 4”, H: 36” )
Easy to grow even in poor soil. Can take heat of summer. Requires no fertilizer, it actually fertilizes the soil by growing! To plant, prepare wide bed with well-tilled, well-drained soil. Draw parallel lines across width of bed, four inches apart and one inch deep. Sprinkle black-eyed pea seeds down each line and gently rake them into the soil. Harvest when pods are fully formed and purple.
Squash ( S: Varies by variety, H: Up to 30″ )
Plant by seed or transplant. Best grown with “Three Sisters” technique. Summer (bush) best varieties are Black Beauty Zucchini, Lemon Squash, Grey Zucchini, and Scallopini. Winter (vining) best varieties are Red Kuri, Butternut, Delicata, and Thai Rai Kaw Tok. Plant nasturtiums near squash to repel squash bugs.
Corn ( S: 10” to 12” )
Corn is heavy feeder: Heavily compost soil, plus extra pastured poultry manure and homemade wood ash. Corn is self-pollinated, or wind pollinated. Corn is ripe when pinching a kernel yields milky to clear juice. Best sweet corn varieties: Silver Queen, Incredible, and Peaches and Cream. Best field corn varieties are Oaxacan Green and Cherokee White Eagle.
Tomatoes ( S: Varies by variety, H: Up to 6′ )
Grow vine (indeterminant) in garden, and bush (determinant) in pots. Plant varieties that mature quickly (Early Girl, any Cherry varieties, Juliette). Look for VFN on plant label: means the plant is resistant to verticillium wilt, fusarium, and nematodes, which are diseases/pest. Surround each tomato plant with four collard greens or a dozen marigolds to repel pests.
Watermelons ( S: 36″, H: 36″ )
Plant one transplant or three seeds in one hole, one inch deep. Create large vine presence, up to 15’ long depending on spacing. Much can happen to hurt watermelons in 120 days to maturity. A heavy rain can cause them to split. Once they ripen, deer, raccoons, and rats eat them. Best to grow small varieties, which take only 70 to 90 days to maturity.
W I N T E R
Radishes ( S: 2”, H: 8” )
Prepare wide bed with well-tilled soil. To plant, use wooden end of a garden rake to draw parallel lines across the width of the bed two inches apart and 1/8″ deep. Sprinkle radish seeds generously down each line then rake them into the soil. Mature in 18 to 30 days. Harvest when root shows one inch across. Plant in between kale, broccoli, or cabbage to repel pests.
Kale ( S: 15”, H: 20” to 30” )
Best varieties are: Siberian, Red Russian, Blue Curled Scotch, and Nero di Toscana. If planting by seed, thin to 15” spacing and eat thinnings. If planting transplants, plant dill and coriander nearby to repel pests. Once mature (about 60 days), harvest up to 2/3 of leaves, then allow to regrow. Will supply leaves until warm weather, when it bolts and goes to seed.
Broccoli ( S: 15”, H: 30” )
Transplants only. Plant in 2-1-2 pattern: two broccoli transplants side-by-side 7″ off-center in a row. Move 15″ down and plant a single broccoli transplant in the center of the row, then move another 15″ down and plant two more broccoli transplants side-by-side. In the open spaces plant dill or cilantro to repel pests. Cut head when mature, then continue to harvest florets until plant goes to seed.
Carrots ( S: 2”, H: 24” )
Prepare wide bed of well-tilled, well-drained soil. In a cup of clean, fine sand, mix equal parts carrot and radish seeds. Hand broadcast the sand/seed mixture evenly across bed, then gently rake to cover the seeds. Carrots require three weeks to sprout, but radishes mature in 20 to 30 days. Pulling radishes gives carrots room to grow. Pull when tops show an inch or more across.
Cabbage ( S: Varies by variety H:)
Plant in Oct, transplants only. “Early” mature quickly (60 to 70 days), have small heads, and split at the first sign of summer heat. “Late” take 100 days or more to mature, have large heads (15 pounds), and can take some spring heat. Cabbage is a heavy feeder, add extra compost when planting. Side dress each plant with six cups pastured poultry manure and two cups homemade wood ash.
The Rise of Indoor Gardening
A conversation with BotaniCo owner, Gabriel Vega
Gabriel Vega’s mission has always involved getting people to invest in their communities. That phrase tends to refer to buying property, supporting local businesses, or boosting the local economy in purely financial ways – and after Vega’s first child was born, he too was eager to make real estate investments to give back to the community. Of similar importance, though, Vega knew another way to enrich the Coastal Bend was to draw on his passion for sustainable gardening.
In the early stages, Vega realized his neighborhood would be exponentially better off if more people started growing some form of food at home. His own home setup was a little more advanced, and having a background in indoor hydroponics, Vega envisioned opening a gardening store that specialized in hydroponic, organic, and various other forms of efficient gardening; however, he knew he first needed to rally his community around creating healthier lifestyles. Vega was finally able to see his dream realized. As the first garden store of its kind, BotaniCo was founded to increase the awareness of the importance of having locally grown, nutrient-dense food available throughout the community year-round.
“I would like to see more people involved in their gardening spaces at home,” says Vega. BotaniCo has gardening solutions for all skill levels, and welcomes the opportunity to educate those who are interested in investing more into their gardens. “Whether they have big outdoor areas or an indoor area with limited space, we at BotaniCo can help find the right products and knowledge to create an enjoyable hobby, as well as aiding the avid backyard food forester.”
Following the success of BotaniCo, a friend recommended Vega to KIII-TV News as the gardening expert for some of their on-air segments. By then, Vega had a growing follower base who subscribed to his particular form of indoor gardening, which sweetened the deal for Channel 3. “I met with the producer at the time and showed him some of our living displays that we’d been growing under 100 percent artificial light,” says Vega. “It was an indoor greenhouse, 4′ x 4′ and 7 feet tall, where we had an ebb and flow hydroponic system, growing nine different kinds of tomatoes that were days away from being harvested.” The producer was highly impressed by Vega’s scientific expertise and passion for gardening and asked him to share his knowledge with the Channel 3 News viewers.
Since then, Vega has been known as the South Texas Gardener and has had the honor of bringing hydroponic and sustainable gardening to a wider audience, as well as sharing all sorts of fun gardening hacks for the community to enjoy.
South Texas Botanical Gardens
South Texas Botanical Gardens & Nature Center has been one of Corpus Christi’s most sought–after attractions since 1983. Through the years, it has grown from a small botanical society that was housed on a one-acre cottage garden to its permanent location on Staples Street where the 182-acre property is abundantly fulfilling its mission of providing education of plants and the environment as it relates to personal and community knowledge, well-being, and scientific understanding. The South Texas Botanical Gardens & Nature Center offers a blend of floral gardens, natural wetlands, and native habitat, with a resident exotic parrot collection and resident reptile exhibit.
A great year-round resource is its “What’s Blooming” blog featured on its website. Each week one of its expert botanists closely examines different plants and offers tools and advice for those considering growing these plants at home. However, if you’re interested in a more hands-on learning experience, the Botanical Gardens offers classes and workshops featuring a wide variety of tropical and native plants.
The Artistry of Gardening
Gill Garden Center + Landscaping Co and their creative process
Landscape design is part technical analysis and part creative concepts. And for homeowners or businesses that are looking to add character to their outdoor space, there is no better way to do that than to embrace nature.
An art form by tradition, landscaping encompasses an in-depth analysis of each environment and the natural variables that can change that environment over time. Designing an outdoor living space that is aesthetically appealing means digging beneath the surface so that the design can be well-maintained and sustainable throughout changing weather conditions. In south Texas, while we experience more like three seasons instead of four, there are special considerations that need to be accounted for when choosing the type of plants to accompany each design.
That is where the experts come in! Gill Garden Center + Landscape Co. has been transforming outdoor spaces for 43 years. Take it from them, there is certainly an art to this science. Throughout the years, Gill has skillfully created an architectural process that is applied to each of their full-scale landscape installations. James Gill, co-owner, has a background in landscape architecture with advanced horticultural knowledge, and years of hands-on experience and is a Texas Master Certified Nursery Professional. Each professional landscape architect on the Gill team is highly educated, with a passion for helping the people of the coastal bend achieve functional and beautiful spaces for outdoor living.
Generally, there are a handful of basic principles for foundational landscape design, the first being unity. All the elements of a landscape design should be part of the same theme – trees, bushes, flowers, and grass should complement one another. This goes hand in hand with balance. Balance can usually be achieved in symmetry by mirroring a design on both sides of a property and highlighting a center point.
A well-maintained lawn often has an element of simplicity to it as well. Even those with a lot of foliage can appear “clean” so long as the color palette is kept simple. Considering the coastal climate, however, it is important to look beyond color schemes and seek plants that are native to this area and its weather patterns. To create a flow of continuity in a design, clearly defined lines allow for a smooth transition from areas of density – lots of hearty greenery or hedges – to places with more delicate flora or even a garden area for growing vegetables.
Allowing a design the freedom to explore these different contrasts is truly where a space goes from a lawn to a landscape–a place to gather, entertain, or just to quietly enjoy any day of the week. Installing the right trees and plants into an outdoor space is equally important as the art installed on a home’s interior. Each elicits an emotional response that should make you at home.
Gill Landscape Co. believes that while landscapes should be beautiful, they first need to be functional. And whether you hire Gill’s team of experts or are embarking on a DIY project, Gill offers a plethora of gardening knowledge that will elevate landscape and garden in a unique and tailored way that reflects your style and personality.
Corpus Christi Mutual Aid
Food Sovereignty Program
In a true bootstrapped fashion, Corpus Christi Mutual Aid was created with a single email address, Google phone number, and a presence on social media. At the time, there was a staggering number of Corpus Christi residents struggling to keep jobs and make ends meet, let alone stay vigilant in the pursuit of the health and well-being of themselves and their families during a pandemic. Although the government on city, state, and federal levels was scrambling to provide assistance, Beatriz Alvarado, CC Mutual Aid co-founder, saw the opportunity to get local aid to residents more quickly by reactivating the networks of care that responded to past crises like Hurricane Harvey and the 2016 tap water ban.
“During the early stages of quarantine, a diverse network of about 40 Corpus Christi residents began coordinating resources through a group chat,” says Alvarado. The group initially received a high volume of requests for aid, so a smaller team of seven administrators formed to process these requests, recruit volunteers, fundraise, and help develop long-term programs – one being the Food Sovereignty Program.
After one of CC Mutual Aid’s members was chosen as a grant recipient for The Mutual Aid Project for Youth or #Map4Youth, a temporary grassroots initiative launched by @prisonculture in which selected youth are awarded $2,000 to make a difference in their community, the organization formed a partnership with Tevin Gray from Keepers Of The Garden and master composter Melissa Zamora to help educate locals about gardening.
The program started with 60 participants who were provided with a grocery box modification, which included all the essentials needed to grow indigenous plants and herbs. With the help of Keepers, participants learned how to make meals and keep food on the table for their families. For household essentials that cannot be grown in a garden, CC Mutual Aid enlists a group of volunteer shoppers and delivery drivers to curate the modified grocery boxes and bring them to families in need. The initial 60 participants were “beta testers” for the program – asked to document their gardening process, either from home or at a nearby community garden, and share their progress.
“Our food sovereignty program stems from our team’s desire to evolve our grocery program into one that helps our community survive not only COVID-19 but also the next crisis,” explains Alvarado.
Since the start of the grocery program in March of 2020, CC Mutual Aid has delivered close to 300 grocery boxes with the help of about 40 shoppers and delivery drivers, supporting a total of 325 families with groceries and baby supplies.
For several months in 2020, CC Mutual Aid was the only entity offering cash assistance ($40 per week) to residents who did not meet the eligibility requirements stipulated by nonprofit and government institutions, added Alvarado. Since then, however, the program has been scaled down to a peer-to-peer system. As of Jan. 2021, CC Mutual Aid operates four programs: Food Sovereignty Program, Grocery Program, Peer-to-Peer Financial Solidarity, and Virtual Tutoring (English and Spanish).
With the help of their partners, CC Mutual Aid will continue to support and monitor the growing projects of the testers who received a garden kit. “We want to learn which projects first-time growers have the most success with in order to make our food sovereignty program accessible to anyone,” says Alvarado. The organization is already processing the next round of 10 boxes, just in time for spring planting.
Keepers of the Garden
Urban Community Garden
Tevin Gray is the outdoor enthusiast-turned-educator who owns and runs Keepers of the Garden. While Keepers is a new venture founded by Gray, the garden itself was operated for many years by Grow Local South Texas – and many community members poured heart and soul into the land that was formerly known as The Learning Garden, Gray included. Seeing how many people had invested in this space over time made the realization especially grim: It likely would have seen its end at the beginning stages of the pandemic … had Gray not stepped in to save it. Gray started Keepers Of The Garden during that uncertain period of March 2020 by opening his first business, taking over The Learning Garden’s lease with the city.
“I felt the urge and dedication not only to the land but what it provides,” says Gray. And his devotion for this local community garden goes well beyond seed and soil.
With a background working in restaurants and with different chefs all over Corpus Christi, Gray’s passion for cooking has been a constant in his life. It was when he started to grow food, however, that he realized the importance of honoring each process – growing and cooking – as its own, and the way they ultimately become intertwined. Thinking about food and its roots sparked a creative current in Gray, which led him to where he is today: teaching the community how to grow food and cook the food you grow.
“Outside the garden, I also work as an enrichment teacher at Corpus Christi Montessori School teaching outdoor education/nature enrichment,” explains Gray. Part classroom instruction, part extracurricular workshops, students learn basic survival skills like growing, foraging, and cooking plant-based foods, as well as how to build a fire and gardening 101.
“When you see students pull a radish out of the ground for the first time – and you see the look on their face – that satisfaction of growing your own food, harvesting, and then cooking and eating it … that feeling is worth holding on to and worth spreading to as many as possible,” says Gray.
The garden serves as the epicenter for outdoor youth and community-wide education and provides nutrient-rich foods to the surrounding community. Sitting on roughly two acres, the garden provides plenty of space for proper distancing and a plethora of learning opportunities for schools, families, neighbors, and anyone who wants to learn sustainable life skills.
“One of my favorite programs is our collaboration with CC-Montessori school and the weekly visits from our students,” Gray says. “They spend an entire day in the garden, beginning with school lessons from their teachers and ending with hands-on life skill development.”
Gray underscores the importance of involving children at this age level, to allow them to create a sense of ownership and desire for healthy living. For that reason, the name “Keepers Of The Garden” seemed fit. Whomever participates in the space is seen as a “keeper” of the garden.
Gray plans to continue supporting the community through his work with Keepers, and hopes to see more families and friends visiting the garden and becoming involved in various ways. He recently created a website for Keepers where community supporters can find seeds, plants, and workshops. And while every day hasn’t been a cakewalk starting a new business during a pandemic, Gray said there’s no stopping what momentum they have going.
Growth & Evolution
Grow Local’s Market Momentum
Behind Grow Local’s branding and social media marketing is Julia Dixon. Having recently moved back to Corpus Christi from years spent in Austin, Dixon set her sights on using her creativity, media smarts, and love for community to join the movement of revitalizing Downtown Corpus Christi. It was through unexpected connections that Dixon fell on the radar of Grow Local’s Executive Director, David Nuss. “To my luck, and with my experience in managing events and markets, the Market Manager position for the Grow Local Farmers’ Market was a great fit,” explains Dixon.
What makes Dixon’s role more enriching is her ability to select vendors for the market that not only have great produce to sell, but are also able to educate the community about gardening and growing their own food. “Each vendor has so much knowledge and skill when it comes to their product and craft,” says Dixon. “It really is the perfect recipe to not only know where you are purchasing your food, and from whom, but understanding and learning about the process and that business’ personal journey. It really does make buying those products all the more fulfilling.”
Dixon is a strong believer in supporting local growers every chance she gets. For her, it goes beyond supporting the local economy and lies deeply in stimulating the growth of the community’s culture in a way that is health-centric.
The market also encourages people tending to their homegrown gardens to consider selling their harvest from time to time. Giving any and every entrepreneur the opportunity to participate in an affordable and accessible market is extremely important, Dixon says. Whether you’re just starting out or gardening as a hobby, there is a place for everyone to come and share their stories, experiences, and knowledge with the community.
Alongside spreading the good word about the market, Dixon is excited for a new monthly program called Grow Local Artist of the Month. “Each month we are asking a local artist to design one of our A-frame signs. From there, we will feature them on our social media pages, in our weekly newsletter, and give them an opportunity to sell their artwork at the last market of that month.” This program will intersect local food production, art, healthy living, and outdoor activities, which is the true heart and soul of Grow Local Farmers’ Market.
Dixon sees the growth and evolution of the harvesting community through a lens of optimism and creativity. For the future, she hopes to build on Grow Local’s current momentum by offering even more opportunities where gardening, art, and everything local have a place to grow.
Reads & Seeds
During the past year, the Garden of Grace has been an outdoor sanctuary, providing growers with a little daily ritual of tending to the garden, watering, weeding, harvesting, and keeping everything alive.
“The garden provides a green space in the middle of the city–a place for neighbors to gather and get outside, and the opportunity to grow their own healthy food–something that most apartment dwellers don’t have.” Amanda Horne, Garden of Grace Member
The growers at Garden of Grace also created a Reads & Seeds Little Library that provides the community with free seed packets and books on gardening.
A Growing Community
Get involved with your local community gardens
Grow Local South Texas • 900 S. Shoreline Blvd.
Year-round community garden | Free personal plots available by application | Floral/Vegetation
Keepers of the Garden
Tom Graham Park • 3808 Up River Road
Year-round community learning garden | Education-based workshops and programming for students and community volunteers | Primarily Vegetation
Islander Green Community Garden
Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi • 6300 Ocean Drive
Year-round community garden | Personal or organizational use | Free personal plots available by application | Provides seed packets and downloadable how-to instructions | Floral/Vegetation
The Garcia Center Community Garden
Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi Affiliate • 2021 Agnes Street
Year-round community learning garden | Focus on educational programming for students and community volunteers | Organizations encouraged to volunteer as a group | Service hours can be verified | Donation needs: seeds, compost, and garden equipment | Vegetation
City Church • 3133 Swantner Street
Year-round community garden | Free personal plots available by reservation | Floral/Vegetation
Aquarius Park & Community Garden
The Island Community Garden • 15002 Aquarius Street
Year-round community garden | Individual plots available | Donations accepted for various approved projects including improvement of community gardens | Floral/Vegetation
801 S. Live Oak Street
Year-round community garden | Raised beds available for individuals and families | Good for beginners | Provides educational opportunities | Seasonal planting and solarizing | Floral/Vegetation
Rainbow Vegetable Garden
Nueces County Keach Family Library • 1000 Terry Shamsie Blvd
Year-round community learning garden | Organized by Driscoll Children’s Hospital WIC Program | Focus on early-learning, underserved communities | Volunteering and donation opportunities available | Vegetation
Masters of the Garden
Becoming a Master Gardener: Master Gardeners are members of the local community who take an active interest in their lawns, trees, shrubs, flowers, and gardens. They are enthusiastic, willing to learn and to help others, and able to communicate with diverse groups of people. What really sets Master Gardeners apart from other home gardeners is their special training in horticulture. In exchange for their training, persons who become Master Gardeners contribute time as volunteers, working through their Extension office to provide horticultural-related information to their communities.
The program offers a minimum of 50 hours of instruction that covers topics including lawn care, ornamental trees and shrubs, insect, disease, and weed management; soils and plant nutrition, vegetable gardening; home fruit production; garden flowers; and water conservation; plus 50 hours of volunteer service. Participants become certified Master Gardeners after they have completed the training course and fulfilled their volunteer commitment.