Robert Gray Garden

Kale and Swiss chard grow right through the winter.

Who knew it could be so wonderful to watch a man, middle-aged with wispy gray hair, clothed in jeans and a cable knit sweater against the chill of the English countryside, talk about the qualities of compost on YouTube? The way the Englishman pronounces it, even the word “compost” sounds soothing.

Apparently I’m not the only one seeking comfort these days in Instagram posts of lettuce transplanted in freshly forked beds and videos on how to beat back the many things that kill tomato plants. According to The Yorkshire Post – “News you can trust since 1754” – Charles Dowding, the sweater-wearing Englishman, became “a surprise sensation during lockdown life last year, attracting 30,000 new YouTube subscribers and more than two million views of his videos in the space of three weeks.”

My slide down the slippery slope from “garden curious” to binge-watching compost videos began three years ago with a small keyhole garden in my backyard. I learned about them at the El Paso Zoo’s demonstration garden, set one up, planted some herbs and veggies, wrote a column about it in May 2018, promised to “let you know how it goes,” and then promptly forgot to provide an update.

One thing I’ve learned: El Paso is a wonderful place to grow a garden, despite the heat and poor soil, but a lot of gardening advice on the internet doesn’t apply here. More helpful have been Facebook groups that focus on El Paso and West Texas gardening (You’ll find plenty to join by searching Facebook for those keywords.) The Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service has good information for Texas online, including guides for specific vegetables and a planting calendar for El Paso County. So does the El Paso County Master Gardeners.

Something else worth noting if you are buying vegetable seedlings: Some of the varieties sold at big box stores don’t grow well here, and they are not always sold at the best planting times.

My biggest fail has been tomatoes. On my first attempt, I planted them too late, and while the vines grew like weeds, they didn’t produce a lot of fruit. Later I learned if tomato plants don’t start to flower and pollinate before temperatures punch into the 90s and into the 100s, they won’t produce much fruit. It’s tricky because they also are sensitive to frost, and the time between El Paso’s last frost and the arrival of 90 degree days is short. My best efforts to pollinate my tomato plants by dipping a cotton swab from flower to flower were futile.

My second attempt at growing tomatoes ended when ravenous flea beetles ate the leaves off the seedlings over the course of two nights. Thankfully, one of the benefits of having a tiny garden is failure isn’t very costly. This year, I’m giving tomatoes a pass, although others in El Paso grow them quite successfully. Maybe I’ll try again next year.

My biggest success has been my fall garden. One of the benefits of gardening in El Paso is how well some vegetables grow right through winter. Every fall, I’ve direct-sown greens – spinach, kale and swiss chard – and they have produced through fall, winter and into spring. As long as you only harvest the outer leaves and don’t cut the central bud, they keep producing.

Most of the herbs I’ve planted have also done well – Thai basil, parsley and oregano. The oregano is the champion. It’s a perennial and grows year after year with no care. My thyme lived but never thrived.

The kids have enjoyed the garden as well, especially the dirt and the worms that wriggle in the compost.

A colleague of mine, Erin Pfirman, and her husband, John, are turning their front yard into a regenerative urban farm. You can read more about it at It was Erin who recently introduced me to Charles Dowding on Instagram. “He just looks so happy,” was her comment. And that’s how I’ve found myself watching the happy Englishman’s videos about compost and seed tray design.

As tiny as it is, one thing I love about my garden is it stubbornly resists the ever-accelerating pace of life.

The seasons won’t be rushed, that bean is going to sprout when it’s ready and the tomatoes are going to grow as fast as they please (or not at all). Testing a new variety of vegetable, soil mix or planting technique? You’re going to have to wait for the results. It’s wonderful.

If nothing else, the garden is something besides work and politics to obsess over – a low-stakes something to fail at, share with others, fill column inches and, ever so slowly, get better at.


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