In East Austin, a Community Built Around a Garden

Austinites love local food so much that developers are building it into their housing communities.

(Photo: Steve Holt)

Jun 5, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

Last February, as Daniel and Brittany Wheeler navigated the white-hot Austin real estate market to buy a home after the birth of their son, the couple’s agent came to them with an unusual offer: Move an existing home from South Austin to a budding community in East Austin.

A guy named Moody Andrews, a designer and builder, had been buying houses cheaply in other neighborhoods, hauling them onto the property where his family lives, and fixing them up—a homespun housing development. One central aspect of Andrews’ idiosyncratic vision of an urban community built around shared space and relationships was an especially strong selling point for the Wheelers: an eighth of an acre in the middle of the four rehabbed houses specifically set aside for a large community garden.

“I really didn’t want to move somewhere where I couldn’t garden,” Daniel Wheeler says, adding that a shared music space further sweetened the deal.

So last summer, the Wheelers watched as their future home was split up and hauled across the city to Pennsylvania Avenue in East Austin, where the two pieces were reconnected and set on a new foundation. Once the couple had renovated the house to their liking, complete with a porch swing out front, they set their sights on the empty yard space the three families (and whoever will occupy a fourth home being built next to theirs) share behind the house.

Early this spring, Wheeler set to work tilling the soil, rich from the ragweed and sunflowers that had grown there for years. He formed several narrow beds, installed irrigation and a composting system, and planted an array of vegetables, native plants, and fruit trees to attract pest-fighting insects such as ladybugs and bees. In total, the sophisticated garden cost the community $1,200 (split three ways), and Wheeler says costs going forward will be minimal because of the timed watering system and money saved on buying food.

“Basically, we want to produce as much food as possible in our small little lot to feed four families and hopefully have some left over for friends who visit,” he says. “We also want it to be an inviting green space to walk around in and let our kids play in.”

In the increasingly local food–centric city, East Austin is ground zero for urban agriculture. Riding through the diverse, traditionally working-class section of the Texas capital, one sees restaurants sourcing ingredients from their own farms, one of the nation’s oldest organic urban farms, the possible future site of a permaculture-powered food forest, and several community gardens—arguably the most anywhere in Austin.

Wheeler notes that the prevelance of agriculture here has as much to do with geology as with gentrification: East Austin is more or less the dividing line between the Hill Country, with its primarily rocky soil, and the more fertile soil to the east. In terms of economics, other areas of Austin have been developed already, and land east of the interstate tends to be less expensive, Wheeler points out. These conditions, combined with a healthy demand for local food in the area, makes for a “happy marriage” between producers and consumers—and some pretty cool projects clustered in a small area. Case in point: Just over the fence a neighbor (whom Wheeler says he barely knows) started another experimental farm, complete with bees, small livestock, permaculture-grown vegetables and fruits, and chickens.

Back on this side of the fence is a plot that enjoys the best sunlight on the property, and the tomato plants growing there are already chest-high. The garden is also delivering an abundance of okra and plums, and all three families are buried in zucchini. New soil is being fed with the food scraps the three households compost.

The Wheelers found their way to Austin from East Texas; Wheeler grew up on a six-acre ranch, where his dad and grandfather both gardened. But the teacher and musician says he didn’t get serious about growing his own food until about three years ago, when he and his wife planted their first 4' x 4' raised bed. He was hooked, and Austin’s urban, ag-friendly culture supported his habit. He honed his skills by reading every book he could find on organic gardening and attended local seminars.

While the abundance of food is a sweet perk, Wheeler says gardening inspires him in other ways. “It’s the aesthetic of it, the taste of locally grown produce, the space of it, and the opportunity to work outside in it,” he says; last fall he even started an organic garden at the high school where he teaches. “I actually love working in the garden. It’s therapeutic for me.”

The therapy extends to the community’s children. The Wheelers’ 18-month-old son, Elliott, regularly wanders down the long, three-foot-wide rows, snacking on cherry tomatoes or a leaf of basil. His parents love that their toddler is developing such healthy habits so early.

Wheeler says the community is already scoping out new sites on the property to plant edibles. “We’re only one season into this thing, but I think everyone’s been so happy with the way it’s turned out, and we can’t wait to watch it get even better,” he says.