By Suzanne Labry
When the last of Debra Brooks’ four children were entering their final years of high school, she started thinking about her soon-to-be empty nest. She told her husband that they needed to find something to replace Friday night football games and all the many school activities that had consumed the highly involved parents’ time. As a result of health problems when she was young, Brooks had long followed healthy living practices, but she decided that she wanted to incorporate more outdoor activities into her life, especially gardening. That year as a birthday present, her husband and her son dug her a garden plot in the family’s backyard. The only problem was that she had them dig it in a spot where nothing would grow.
As a girl in Georgia, Brooks had been expected to help harvest the backyard garden that was an essential part of her family’s provisions. Her parents and grandparents gardened, and one of her uncles owned a vegetable truck, but growing vegetables was something she took for granted rather than something she was interested in learning about. Fast-forwarding a few decades to her misplaced garden plot in Houston’s historic Third Ward, Brooks realized not only that she wished she’d paid more attention to her gardening relatives when she was little, but also that the growing conditions in her home state of Georgia didn’t necessarily apply in Texas.
Starting with that garden plot, for example. Brooks selected it in winter when the leaves were off a nearby tree. Once the tree leafed out in the spring, the plot was shrouded in shade from morning until night, the soil did not drain well, and everything she planted withered and died. Not the sort of person to give up easily, however, the next season she started over, this time picking a sunny spot in her yard and making raised beds. From there she learned by trial and error, drawing on what memories she had and seeking out guidance wherever she could to find out what did and did not work in her Houston garden. As her experience and skills developed, her friends started asking her for advice in helping them start gardens of their own. “It was about that time that I decided to create a website,” recalled Brooks. “I didn’t want my friends to make the same mistakes I made. And by that time, I had pretty much made them all!”
So began Brooks’ popular website, City Girl Gardener, A Beginner’s View of Organic “Nature’s Way” Gardening for Better Health (www.citygirlgardener.com). In addition to gardening information, the site offers a welcoming blend of healthy living advice, suggestions for entertaining, and life-skills counseling as well as a frequently updated blog that expands these topics. Under the heading of “Gardening 101,” Brooks provides gardening tips, how-tos, timelines and recipes for using the garden bounty, along with plenty of photographs and step-by-step YouTube videos of her own three 4’×8’ garden beds to help her readers along.
The YouTube videos frequently feature Brooks’ four-year-old grandson, Ashley Don. Brooks has been gardening with him since he was two, and his involvement often prompts questions from followers of her site who want to know how to get their own children and grandchildren interested. “Getting kids outside in the fresh air and sunshine and away from the TV and computer devices is a pet project of mine,” Brooks said. “You just have to keep exposing them to gardening and make it fun for them. You may think that they’re not listening, but they really are. Last summer, the grandson of a neighbor was visiting, and he came over to play. I was surprised and happy to hear Ashley Don naming all the vegetables for his new friend. Ashley Don always wants to go out to the garden. If we don’t, he’ll ask me, ‘Grandma, are we not going to pick any greens today?’”
Brooks’ husband, Dan, whom she jokingly refers to as “General Labor” because he does all the heavy lifting in the garden, has become similarly intrigued. At a banquet the couple attended recently, she noticed that he was talking enthusiastically to other husbands at their table about gardening. “He enjoys it as much as I do, even though he doesn’t come right out and say so,” said Brooks. “And the other day I was going with a friend to get her a load of compost in our truck when he said, ‘I think you better let me drive you there and help.’ By his actions, he reveals his interest. It’s kind of cool.”
Her children, now all grown and “off living their lives” are nevertheless proud of their mother’s gardening expertise. Reflecting the way that the younger generation uses social media to communicate, they direct friends to the City Girl Gardener website. Her daughters who live in Washington, D.C., will use Twitter and Facebook to share such things as the fact that they received a box of fresh herbs in the mail from their mom, who grew them in Houston.
The family-sharing aspect of Brooks’ approach to gardening spills over into her website, and that is one of the things that makes it so appealing to her readers. Anyone who follows her blog becomes a member of what she calls “The Garden Buddy Club.” Quick to say that she is a “backyard gardener, not a master gardener,” Brooks’ style is friendly and accessible, which is especially inviting to those who are brand-new gardeners. It’s sort of like having a good friend and life coach who also teaches you about soil quality, composting and when to plant your squash. Here is an example:
“We like to start working on our spring vegetable raised gardens in late January, early February. We start by cleaning out our 3 raised beds. That is so tough. ‘Why,’ you ask. Because the winter vegetables are still growing. Then, why do we take them out? We acknowledge that there is a season for everything and winter plants do not do well in Houston’s heat (which can start in April). The leafy plants attract more pests during the summer months. Therefore, we need to get our spring/summer plants in the ground in February/March. So, winter veggies must vacate the space. Note: I know you seasoned gardeners grow greens, cabbage, broccoli, etc. year-round, but I am just giving my 2-cents-worth from a backyard organic gardener who does everything I can to keep the pests away while minimizing the work. So, there!”
A quote by George Washington Carver featured prominently on her website underscores her gardening philosophy: “Whenever the soil is rich, people flourish, physically and economically. Whenever the soil is wasted, people are wasted. A poor soil produces only a poor people — poor economically, poor spiritually and intellectually, poor physically.”
“My readers are like me — they’re busy,” said Brooks, who holds a degree in Business Administration from Tennessee State University and works fulltime in the oil and gas industry. “I try to give them pointers that will show them there really are no barriers to having a garden. I tell them to order things from the Internet if they don’t have time to go to a garden center. I’ll even help them put their garden in. I try to make it as simple and easy as I can for them. And I always try to promote the healthful benefits of getting outside and moving around.”
Brooks doesn’t just share online. Her gardens are so productive that she always has more produce than she and her family can consume. She takes baskets-full to give to her co-workers and she’ll send out an email saying that there are vegetables for the taking in the break room. The baskets are emptied within minutes. She regularly gets requests saying things like, “Can you please send me an email before you send out the email about the vegetables, so I’ll make sure to get some?” Her neighbors are also generously gifted with whatever is in season. “Sometimes I bring them so much that they get tired of seeing me coming!” she laughs.
Brooks’ enthusiasm is contagious. “The garden is my refuge. I love to come home from work and see my garden full of vegetables,” she said. “It takes all my stress away to see a big tomato there ready to be picked. Last summer I had a bumper crop of cucumbers and as soon as I got out of the car, before I ever went into the house, I’d start pulling cucumbers. It is just so delightful to me. I used to enjoy traveling with my job, but now I don’t want to be gone away from my garden too long because my okra will get hard!”
Even the most experienced gardeners may feel refreshed and encouraged after a visit to Brooks’ City Girl Gardener website. Here is her invitation and her promise as she welcomes us all to share her passion for gardening: “I will chronicle my steps as I garden, providing you the condensed versions of how-to … share secrets that I discover to improve health … join in the fun as we reap the benefits of healthy living.”