Toil for the Soil—Makeshift
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Houston’s community gardeners are seeking arable land on an industrial landscape

— Toil for the Soil

09. Navigation Local Hunts

At a community garden bathed in fluorescent streetlights, a midnight raid unfolds.

Jorge Lugo and five friends have come to salvage the garden’s dirt and plants before they’re bulldozed to make way for upscale townhouse apartments. They scramble out of a pickup truck and van, wielding shovels. In Jorge’s neighborhood on the East End of Houston, Texas—home to the world’s largest refining and petrochemical complex—soil quality is questionable. Here, away from the mega-facilities, it’s relatively clean.

Tonight is the first of many salvage missions to this gentrifying neighborhood. “At least we can save the plants,” Jorge says as he shovels earth into the pickup. Without it, he doesn’t know how else he’d get clean soil for a community garden project he and the crew are starting. (They also distribute the dirt to other gardeners in their East End neighborhood.)

The raids are part of a broader movement to work around (and within) the pollution, to discover arable land amidst sprawling cities and industrial zones, and to deliver fresh produce to urban residents who rely heavily on cheap processed foods.

At his garden, Jorge and his friends use cinder blocks gathered during the raid to build three raised beds, which separate the new soil from the contamination below. Finding water is a challenge, so they’re working on rainwater harvesting and experimenting with hugelkultur, a gardening technique that involves building large beds over buried wood. The wood decays over time and retains moisture. They learned about it from a neighbor who reclaims discard- ed logs, leaves, and branches from curbsides to construct fertile beds that require no irrigation.

In the East End’s most contaminated areas, procuring fresh dirt isn’t always enough. Plans are underway for a community garden in the Manchester neighborhood, but “if it’s raining and we’re getting toxic rain, it’s going to affect [the garden]”, says resident Yudith Nieto.

Manchester is hemmed in by a Lyondell-Basell refinery, a Goodyear Tire plant, a Texas Petrochemicals Corp. facility, a Solvay fertilizer plant, plus a scrap-shredding facility, industrial railyard, water-treatment plant, and massive Valero refinery, whose emissions regularly force residents indoors. Manchester’s residents are predominantly Latino; throughout the US, minorities live disproportionately close to dangerous facilities—hardly ideal locations for growing gardens.

Yudith is part of an organization called TEJAS (Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services), which conducts health surveys and community-based air quality testing, as well as advocates for better regulation and even the relocation of communities that abut industrial zones. This sort of research and advocacy is vital for winning concessions from polluting facilities or obtaining resources for community projects like the upcoming garden, which will be built in partnership with Houston’s parks department.

Yudith doesn’t expect the garden to completely solve the neighborhood’s fresh food problem but says it will “make space for discussions, planning and organizing. It facilitates this energy that people are feeling—but also lacking—because they don’t have a common place to go.” She explains that Manchester’s park is already a center of community activity and that “if there’s a garden there, you can start talking about food, food sovereignty, food stability”.

Two miles away, Rodrigo Villarreal’s neighborhood is less polluted, but he’s not taking any chances on Houston’s dirt—his backyard aquaculture system doesn’t use any soil at all.

To start, he bought used food-grade plastic barrels from a friend and cut the blue containers in half. He filled two halves with porous rocks and seed and filled another half-barrel with water and goldfish. A pump circulates water between the tanks. In the rock-filled barrels, leafy greens like kai-lan and other vegetables are nourished by the fish’s waste nutrients.

Rodrigo initially learned about aquaculture on YouTube and began building his system last December. He says the finished system has fewer pests, requires less work than a typical garden, and helps produce nutritious food in an area known for fast food and packaged snacks.

He hopes to build a much larger system and cultivate tilapia instead of goldfish. He plans to house them within a greenhouse he’s construct- ing for tropical trees that wouldn’t otherwise survive Houston’s winter. Rodrigo loves showing off his aquaculture project and hopes it will catch on. “It’s better for your soul to be connected to the earth like that, growing your own food,” he says, picking a thick sprig of kailan. His words are almost drowned out by the roar of an oil train on its way to a nearby refinery. He waits for it to pass, adding, “I would like for all my family and my friends, for everybody to try to do—maybe not exactly what I’m doing—but something similar.”

Rodrigo admits he’s got a lot to learn still about urban farming. “It may not look like a Garden of Eden yet, but I’ll still have fruit to pick.” Like other residents in Houston’s toxic East End, Rodrigo says he’ll continue to engineer his way around the industrial urban landscape and reap whatever he can.

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