If you are wondering how to emulate the success of the vegetable gardens west of the City-owned Canseco House (Chihuahua Street at Seymour in the Heights), take the lead from Berman Rivera, construction superintendent for City Park and Leisure Services’ division of urban horticulture and forestry.
The secret is in the soil and what Rivera did to it to transform a fallow patch of earth in District II
I into a verdant, productive food plot.
“We went down a foot with a backhoe and found the soil to be workable. Testing showed a high pH and a bit of salinity. A six-inch cap of compost from the Asmussen stables told us we were headed in the right direction. We added green sand, lava sand, an organic poultry based fertilizer, iron, sulfur, and humate (a microbe growth stimulant) to bring us to a pH of 7, much closer to the ideal of 6.2,” Rivera said, adding that he used software to calculate how many plantings per row and Google SketchUp to render what the garden would look like.
The Canseco plots were ready last September for the first planting of a winter garden. Rivera and his incredibly efficient small crew planted 50-foot rows of broccoli and 30-foot rows of other uber-healthy brassicas that included kale, cabbage, cauliflower, and leafy greens.
While the winter garden flourished and its bountiful harvest of greens were distributed to food banks and pantries, work was underway at the City’s Slaughter Nursery to germinate trays of seeds for the spring plantings. Among the sprouted plants were heirloom tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, herbs, and some brassicas.
Where kale and other winter greens had grown, Rivera and the division’s crew of four planted tomato seedlings, radishes, herbs, sweet potatoes, okra, green beans, and cucumbers, as well as high heat-tolerant beans that would add nitrogen to the soil. These included cowpeas and Anasazi beans.
Rivera said that in Laredo’s unforgiving summer heat, timely watering is critical to any garden’s success.
At this writing plans are underway for the next winter garden on the Canseco House grounds, as is a Xeriscape demonstration garden on the Seymour Street side of the old home. “This will focus on low maintenance, drought-tolerant native plantings, some which are pollinators for bees and butterflies and have ecological value,” he said.
The City’s 90’ x 27’ hoop house at Slaughter Nursery has become an increasingly important part of the horticultural work of Rivera’s division, a facility he and City forester Victor Navarro continue to develop for propagation of seedlings and eventually for growing nursery stock for City landscaping projects. The tranquil setting near the old Slaughter home at the back of the park hums with the energy of the natural world, of plant growth in good soil. The ambience there is punctuated with birdcalls, including those of the two resident Chachalacas and their brood of chicks.
Rivera has completed a master plan for SoLa, a South Laredo riverfront birding venue and an eco/riparian educational center for children that the Río Grande International Study Center (RGISC) will operate.
The City-owned site, also in District III, is already a thriving birding and wildlife ecosystem that Rivera will landscape only with native species. “We are taking a calculated approach to what we plant there, including a wildflower demonstration garden and rhizomes of native prairie grasses that have aesthetic value and provide food,” he said.
Rivera and his crew coordinated last spring’s planting of a community vegetable garden at the Fasken Recreation Center in District VII. “We planted 15 3’ x 8’ raised beds formed by sheets of corrugated metal on a wooden frame. They are open on the bottom and rest on the soil below,” he said, adding that a special soil blend was made to fill the beds. A senior citizens committee of 25 area residents planted the beds with tomato, zucchini, and cucumber seedlings germinated at the Slaughter Nursery.
Rivera, who earned an undergraduate degree in botany and a Masters in landscape architecture at the University of Texas-Austin, said of his work ethic in horticulture, “I pride myself on delivering a detailed product. I put a great deal of thought into my execution of gardening and landscaping.”
He said that agriculture offers important lessons about the cycle of life. “Seeds germinate, plants grow to maturity, there is a harvest, and then it’s done. It touches on the inherent desire to understand our own lives. The garden imparts the wisdom that nothing is permanent and that life continues,” he said.
The Laredo City Council voted to create a 501©3 which will be called the Laredo Center for Urban Agriculture and Sustainability. It will be housed at the Canseco House and staffed by the City.
According to Rivera, once the Canseco House establishes its non-profit status, it can structure itself as a Community Supported Agriculture entity that can ask for grants, collaborate with school districts, become a valuable educational resource for sustainable gardening, and become a source for fresh food for many across the City who have no access to it.
Viviana Frank, an architect who has worked tirelessly with a team of 18 committed Laredoans to formulate the purpose of the Canseco House, said the Laredo Center for Urban Agriculture and Sustainability “will teach people how to grow food and find a revenue source in urban farming in containers, greenhouses, and home gardens. It’s an economic development tool that will empower the local public through education and instruction to have a healthy and just local food system.”