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Urban Farmer Pulls Up Roots to Search for Gardening Stories

By Joseph M. de Leon
Hispanic News Online

(Editor’s Note: Due to the steady interest in urban farming, Treviño TodaMedia (TTM) is resurrecting the popular column Urban Farmist. We are not only keeping the column in the TTM family of content, but literally in family. The author of this second generation of Urban Farmist is the brother of our founding writer. Proof that the de Leon family has deep roots when it comes to celebrating urban farming in both words and action.)

Over the course of 7 years, my wife Denise and I turned our North Austin yard into an urban microfarm. What was once a lawn became lush veggie gardens, buzzing with bees. Up to a dozen chickens would scratch and peck, producing more eggs than we could eat. In an average year, we’d compost more than 10 tons of organic material collected from neighbors and nearby businesses. Many plants grew unusually large and surprisingly dense with flowers.

We didn’t start that way and it wasn’t easy.

Our first garden was a 2-by-2-foot herb patch with a handful of basil and cilantro plants that didn’t do so well. The compost kept drying out and wouldn’t break down. Reading, chatting with other gardeners, and experimenting led to more frequent success. As our confidence grew and hands calloused, our lawn shrank.

From left Artoo, Mabel, Pearl, and Noxema turn kitchen scraps into eggs and dead leaves into compost. Photo by Joseph M. de Leon
From left Artoo, Mabel, Pearl, and Noxema turn kitchen scraps into eggs and dead leaves into compost. PHOTO: Joseph M. de Leon

I built a chicken coop, then added a run, and added more nesting boxes. Fish and aquatic plants thrived in our 5 small ponds. We planted in the ground, in pots, and in raised beds. We experimented with hugelkulture, vertical gardening, and aquaponics. We tried different varieties of seeds, grew edible weeds, and harvested hundreds of medicinal flowers. No season was the same, weather or garden.

Through it all, we discovered some of our favorite foods, were surprised by the diversity of wildlife the gardens attracted, and experienced a dizzying range of frustration and joy. The magic of a yearly cactus bloom, gone in fewer than 24 hours. Losing a crop so close to harvest because of a freeze. The expression on someone’s face when we’d share the bounty. Timeless moments our ancestors experienced for centuries.

I grew up on San Antonio’s West Side, shadow to my grandmother Luz. As she’d tend her roses, pick nopales, or dote on the Easter lilies, I’d ask questions and listen to her stories that often started with “Allá en aquellos años…” She’d often make me huevos con salcita, with just a touch of chile pequin toasted on the comal, then ground in the molcajete. It’s still my favorite breakfast.

My most profound gardening experience is having a hand in nurturing the rhythms of nature. The simple beauty that is life, death, and renewal fascinates me. It’s made me wish I could earn as much money digging in the dirt as I do clicking a mouse.

I’ve had many jobs, some paid, others pro bono. Zookeeper. Computer literacy instructor. Production artist. Community garden manager. Web admin. Bike tour leader. Newspaper reporter. For 2017, my job will be to earn a living while touring in an RV. I’ll mostly work temporary jobs at national parks, offer gardening or compost workshops, and write.

The Urban Farmist will be a snapshot of how individuals and communities use small spaces, unconventional methods, and hard work to do such things as grow food, rediscover curandismo, or foster stewardship of the earth. My little brother Aaron started this column in 2015 before moving on to other projects and I appeared in a couple of his articles. I’m proud to follow in his footsteps for a change and share the magic that is gardening.  


FEATURED PHOTO: While large harvests are exciting, my favorite is succession gardening in which I stagger plantings every 2-3 weeks so I can have a steady, if modest harvest all season long. Clockwise from left: crumble cap mushroom, yellow pear tomatoes, eggs, Anaheim pepper, golden jubilee tomato, purple onion. PHOTO:  Joseph M. de Leon


jos-bioOriginally from San Antonio, Joseph has managed a community garden, led a food rescue nonprofit, and was recognized as a City of Austin Net-Zero Hero for his community composting work. He and wife Denise sold everything to buy an RV and travel full time.

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