Apr ’16-Scott Howard: Home and Market Gardening

At our April 11th monthly HUG meeting, Scott Howard, who serves on the board of Urban Harvest and co-chairs the Houston Food Policy WorkGroup, graciously joined us for a conversation on home and market gardening. He discussed his donation garden for the Loaves & Fishes soup kitchen, his new venture into market gardening, his gardening methods, and urban agricultural tax policy.

Scott’s journey in urban gardening began in 2004 when he was inspired to create a community garden. He took a class at Urban Harvest and got to work. He started out with only four beds, each at about 100 sq. ft. By the spring of 2005, his garden was growing food. His plan from the beginning was to make the garden a donation garden. He decided to donate to Loaves & Fishes, which is a non-profit that feeds homeless men and women fresh food on a daily basis. Scott was also quick to mention his volunteers who also have a passion for growing crops in urban areas and helped with the gardening and donation of crops. He has about 8-9 volunteers come out each week. Most are neighbors. In 2009, Scott added four more beds to his garden, increasing the area of the garden to about 900 sq. ft.

In December ’15, Scott retired and began to pursue his plan to become a market gardener, while also keeping a good portion of the garden as a donation garden. In January ’16, he began tearing down his family’s rent house next door. Once the house was gone, there was a lot of work to do to improve the soil and build the beds. Scott decided on cedar frames for the beds in the expansion rather than the concrete blocks in the donation garden, commonly used in Urban Harvest gardens. He said cedar is no more expensive and it eventually has a life–concrete does not decompose. Salvaged bricks from the tear down of the house and Scott were used to make bases for the cedar frames to deter rot. This expansion added 14 new beds and nearly 2,600 sq. ft. to the garden.

In Scott’s garden today are tomatoes, radishes, peppers, cucumbers, slicers, hickory and green beans. Plants that are coming soon are okra, long beans and southern peas (zipper cream and red river). There are also 12 citrus trees planted. He also wants to work on some pollinator plants soon.

The most important aspect of gardening that Scott learned early on is that it is all about the soil and replenishing the organic matter that the plants use. He believes that gardeners do not do enough of reintroducing organic matter into the soil. His garden is not certified organic, but he has never used chemicals and all of the compost used is made on site. Scott has about 6-7,000 worms in his vermicomposting system, which provide a great source of nutrients. He keeps the worms in his garage with ventilation. He suggests, if you are having trouble with worms, that they may have gotten too dense or too hot. Worms need air and water. Too much fresh food can heat up so much that the worms get burned up.

Scott makes 20 gallons of compost tea every 3 days and also declared himself a leaf thief, stealing the bags his neighbors set out for pickup. His neighbors also bring compostables to the garden. To brew compost tea, Scott has an air pump circulating in a barrel. He fills it with rain water, adds a cloth bag filled with compost and worm castings like a giant tea bag and steeps it with the air pump running for about 2 days. Scott and other gardeners have concluded that aeration of compost tea is critical in terms of increasing the microbial activity.

Scott’s strategy is to work in compost in the top 3 inches of soil and let it settle naturally. He teaches his volunteers not to till soil because the worms are doing the biology work for you. When removing plants from the garden, he leaves the roots in the ground and cuts off the rest.

Regarding water, Scott has 14 rain barrels that can hold 50-100 gallons each. In the past 11 years, Scott has only used city water on 3 occasions.

Scott is very interested in policy regarding agriculture in urban areas and has experienced the effects of it. He believes that the biggest barrier to local food and new small farms is the cost of land and property taxes based on the value of the property which is become quite high in Montrose & other areas. Even outside the city. For commercial farming, the state of Texas allows agricultural evaluation (basing taxes on the value of the crops or livestock rather than the value of the land itself. The Food Policy Workgroup is working on getting the state to recognize small diversified farms of any size to be commercial agriculture. Currently, it is up to the counties to do what is considered typical in their county. And they don’t tend to consider very small farms & growers of assorted vegetables or combinations of animals and crops–what we considered farming before the industrialization of our food system–to be agriculture. BTW, large industrial farms producing a single crop is extremely damaging to the environment. Such methods require artificial fertilizers & pesticides that destroy soil biology, kill our pollinators and pollute our waterways. It’s not a sustainable method. The Food Policy Workgroup believes that having many small local and diversified farms is the better solution to feeding ourselves, for better nutrition, and for the environment.

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