Between 1986 and 2004, Bob Randall pumped out 12 editions of his book on growing fruits and vegetables in Southeast Texas. “The Bob Randall book,” Houston’s serious gardeners called it reverently, or “The Urban Harvest book” or just “Dr. Bob.”
The self-published, spiral-bound book overflowed with charts, lists and nitty-gritty advice — precisely the information needed in a place with gumbo soil and a wet subtropical climate, a place that renders standard gardening books useless.
This fall, a whopping 15 years since the last edition, Randall, 77, has finally released an update. But this time, the new “Year-Round Food Gardening for Houston and Southeast Texas” is no incremental update.
When he sat down to write it, Randall said, he realized that the time-honored advice he’d been giving no longer worked. Houston gardening itself has changed. Global warming has up-ended what grows here and when to plant it, he said.
Bob Randall’s tips for gardening in global warming
1. Grow your own food — even if it’s just a single pot of lettuce on a balcony. Food gardening cuts your carbon footprint. It sharpens your awareness of the natural world. And it’s a good way to fight depression about global warming.
2. If you’re a long-time gardener, accept that the time-honored planting dates you used 10 years ago may no longer work for certain crops. If old reliables such as corn or lettuce are now failing year after year, ask yourself: Is it because the average temperature is too high for germination, pollination, or some other crucial stage of plant life? Adjust your planting schedule accordingly.
3. To cope with both flooding and droughts, add a pond or rain garden to your yard. During heavy storms, it will store rainwater. And over time, it will release it into the water table below your yard, keeping deep roots happy for months to come.
4. When doing your long-term planning, remember that Houston’s summer is hard both on plants and people. Plan to do as little hard outdoor work in your garden in the hot months as possible. Water with a soaker hose and automated timer. Plant cover crops to recharge the soil and keep out weeds.
5. Plant what grows well here in the warming subtropics — even if it means trying new foods or plants. Citrus trees, blackberries, figs and persimmons grow especially well here. And even in the dead of August, you can harvest crops such as longbeans, tindora perennial cucumbers and leaf amaranth.
Randall and his wife, Nancy, landed in Houston in 1979. Both academics, both former Peace Corps volunteers, they’d landed university teaching jobs. Randall, who has masters’ degrees in math and chemistry, had gotten an anthropology doctorate at UC-Berkeley, researching food-system ecology.
They bought a ranch house in west Houston and planted a backyard garden, a little echo of Berkeley, where the organic-food revolution had been in the air. Randall had grown up in cold New Jersey. He’d grown peanuts on the edge of the Sahara and tapioca in the Phillipines. He expected sunny, wet Houston would be easy.
But the gumbo-clay soil stymied him. The clay stuff seemed as sticky as bubble gum. Beets wouldn’t grow in it. Water ran off it. He tried tilling in sand — and ended up with sandy bubble gum.
Finally he realized that the thing to do was not to change the dirt in his yard, but to build raised vegetable beds on top of it. Soon he and Nancy were growing the vast majority of the produce their family ate. Randall being Randall, he kept meticulous notes.
In 1986, amid the tight budgets of the oil bust, the University of Houston denied him tenure. He and Nancy considered other jobs in other cities, but realized, he said, that they “kind of liked this place.”
At some point, someone suggested that Randall teach an organic-gardening class. So for about six hours one Saturday, he gathered people in his living room. Word spread, and he found himself teaching the class four or five times a year, cramming 25 people or so into the house each time. Students would drive from places like Beaumont. Slowly, Randall realized that no one else was teaching these things. He — born in New Jersey, not long in Houston — had become an expert.
For the Interfaith Hunger coalition, he helped create community gardens in low-income neighborhoods. In 1994, that effort morphed into Urban Harvest, a nonprofit that launched community gardens, taught people to garden at home, and hosted farmers markets. Started with a $500 annual budget, Urban Harvest grew faster than a grapevine in spring.
Randall taught ever more classes. To cover the tedious bits, like the address to order organic fertilizer, he printed handouts. Eventually those grew into the first edition of his book. Officially, it was titled “Year Round Vegetables, Fruits and Flowers for Metro Houston: A Natural Organic Approach Using Ecology.” Hardly anyone actually called it that.
As Randall incorporated new discoveries, each edition grew a little fatter, a little more complete. Each of the 11 times he released an update, he believed it would be the last. But it felt especially true after the 12th edition. He planned to retire. What more could he possibly have to say? It wasn’t as though Houston gardening was going to change.
‘Growing starfruit, for goodness’ sake!’
“Corn used to be something you could plant all summer,” Randall said mournfully in his living room, where sometimes he still leads permaculture classes. Through the window, the view was of his jam-packed garden/orchard/permaculture demonstration. A wall of fruit trees and flowers hid the orderly vegetable plots.
After figuring out the soil, growing corn back there was relatively easy in the ’80s, he said. Randall planted it all summer, harvesting three, four, even five crops.
He didn’t think much of it when he got a lousy midsummer harvest in 1991. Things are always going wrong in a garden. Maybe he hadn’t watered right. But the same thing happened again. And again. He talked with other gardeners: same story.
And it wasn’t just the corn, or just the warm-season crops, that were behaving differently. For instance, the lettuce-growing season grew shorter. Fall seeds planted at the same time as ever yielded wimpy plants that bugs attacked: a sign, most likely, that the struggling plants’ immune systems were weak.
Ever the academic, he researched the problems. And for crop failure after crop failure, the same culprit emerged: Average temperatures had become higher. Houston gardening had changed.
And once again, as in 1979, Randall took up the challenge: “I had to figure out, how do you do it?”
The key, he realized, was to grow plants at the temperatures they needed — not according to the old time-honored planting schedules, but according to the temperatures we can expect now. He surfed the web, searching for hard-to-find (sometimes nonexistent) information about the temperatures that plants need to sprout, grow, germinate. He talked to experts. He tried things in his own garden.
To his relief, he found that his new methods worked. Planted at the right times, his vegetables thrived. Since different parts of the Houston area have very different average temperatures, he began charting what to plant where — for the entire region.
He even found upsides to an ever-more tropical climate. Since 2000, he says, his backyard fruit trees haven’t endured a temperature below 20 degrees: “I’m growing starfruit, for goodness’ sake!”
He completely rewrote the book. Gone are the lists of organic supplies that are now easy to find in Houston. Gone is any advice about ornamental plants; other people do better jobs of those, he says. But the recommendations have changed vastly. Despite the cuts, the new book, with its super-specific geographically targeted advice, is a whopping 200 pages longer.
In the living room, he worried aloud whether Houston will adopt a city climate plan, and despaired that the larger world, too, may not get its act together.
Then he took his visitor outside to the garden. On a cloudy day in late October, the blue mistflower was still blooming, still attracting pollinators. Eggplants and okra were still producing, but the long beans on the trellis had given up for the fall. Heat-tolerant lettuce varieties had just sprouted. Tangerines, blood oranges and grapefruit weighed down branches. The two-year-old papaya plant — tall as a tree, but not properly called one — was loaded with fruit.
Surrounded by the bounty, his mood lifted. “This is still,” he said, “one of the easiest places to grow things.”
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