The Spirited Gardener — Harley Clark of Clark’s Farm

By Suzanne Labry

Freelance Writer

he frequently steep and deeply rutted road winding its way down off Highway 290 outside of Dripping Springs to the main compound of buildings that make up Clark’s Farm is definitely not for those with a need for speed or a low-slung oil pan. The road demands a slow descent, a good eye, a sure hand, and a steady pace. In other words, it requires patience — not at all unlike a garden.

Harley Clark has that sort of patience. He also has the kind of wide-ranging intelligence and curiosity that tend to lead a person in a variety of directions. As head cheerleader at the University of Texas in 1955, it was Harley Clark who introduced the “Hook ‘Em Horns” hand sign to an eager student body. In the 1960s and 70s, it was attorney Harley Clark who developed a successful career as a trial lawyer. In 1987, it was District Judge Harley Clark who ruled that the state’s system of public school finance was unconstitutional because it discriminated against students in property-poor districts. For the last three decades and fulltime for the past five years, it has been organic gardener Harley Clark who raises gourmet-quality vegetables on land nurtured by the Mill Seat branch of Onion Creek.

Clark’s Farm is a small commercial vegetable operation that supplies vegetables and herbs to various restaurants, including Asti and Fino in Austin, the Y Bar and Grill in Oak Hill, and Roscoe’s in Dripping Springs. In late winter the farm yields leeks, onions, and lettuce, primarily romaine. Spring and summer crops include potatoes, beans, cucumbers, and several varieties of squash, tomatoes, and peppers in addition to basil, sage, oregano and chives. Fall vegetables are usually peppers, cucumbers and beans. Sometimes a chef will request a certain item, such as a particular type of pepper, and Harley will grow it specifically for the restaurant.

The Clark property consists of 40 acres altogether, approximately two of which are in cultivation for the garden. Referring to the University of Texas’ original acreage, Harley quips, “I figure if 40 acres is big enough to start a university, it’s big enough to start a farm!” Three large, separate growing areas comprising 6,000 square feet each and named for their locations on the property — the Upper Garden, the Lower Garden, and the Dam Garden — enable Harley to rotate his crops and allow some areas to lie fallow between plantings. The crops are irrigated out of a tank and also with well water when necessary. Although a rainwater collection system provides all the Clarks’ household needs, none of it is used for the gardens. All plants are started from seed in a greenhouse built by Harley.

The soil in all three garden areas could easily inspire dirt envy in the heart of many a vegetable grower. Rich and dark with a fine tilth, the garden’s soil is the basis for Harley’s success as a commercial grower. After every growing season, Harley tills his permanent 48-inch wide beds, making trenches 12-inches deep and 18-inches wide down the center of each bed. At the bottom of each trench goes bone meal (0-10-0) for phosphorous at the rate of 2 cups to every 10 feet. He then adds a few tablespoons of Epsom Salt to help the phosphates dissolve. Next goes blood meal (10-0-0) for nitrogen applied at a rate of one cup every 10 feet. Finally, the trench is topped off with compost. This mixture is allowed to rest for a period of time. After the crops are planted, a heavy layer of “horse-feed-grade” Coastal Bermuda hay is used for mulch. The results speak for themselves: Last spring, the Lower Garden yielded more than a thousand pounds of romaine lettuce. From 90 Celebrity plants, Harley sold 2,900 pounds of tomatoes and he ate “about 500 pounds more.”

Through trial and error, Harley has settled on favorite varieties of vegetables. For his winter lettuce crop, he prefers Paris Island Cos Romaine, Bibb and Buttercrunch Butterhead, and Black Seeded Simpson Leaf. In late spring, he likes Jericho Romaine for its heat tolerance. Summer squash favorites include Eight Ball and Senator zucchini, Seneca Prolific yellow straight neck and Horn of Plenty yellow crook neck, and Gold Rush, an interesting hybrid of green zucchini and yellow straight neck. Celebrity tomatoes win Harley’s vote hands-down for their dependability and he also has had good results with the Juliet Hybrid grape tomato. Onion choices include White Contessa and White Bermuda, Southern Belle Red and Yellow Granex. Revolution and The Big Early are good picks for bell peppers.

Pests don’t seem to be much of a problem at Clark’s Farm. However, when bugs do get out of hand, Harley uses Bt (Bacillus Thuringiensis), Neem oil, insecticidal soaps, and Pyrethrin with a light hand. Although Clark’s Farm has not applied for an Organic Certification from the Texas Department of Agriculture, Harley strictly follows organic practices, never using herbicides and employing only those products and techniques that have been approved for organic gardening. The garden areas are fenced to deter deer, but armadillos, birds and other critters are tolerated with a philosophical attitude and a dash of humor. Biodiversity is key.

Harley’s wife, Patti, leaves the day-to-day gardening work to Harley and his right-hand man, Manuel Juarez. Patti keeps busy riding herd on the couples’ three Bassett hounds, two goats and 10 cats, as well as serving on the boards of the Friends Foundation, the Austin Zoo, and PAWS (The Public for Animal Welfare, Inc.). However, she takes an active role in the operation and as the “official head of procurement,” Patti is often called upon to help solve problems such as devising protective coverings to keep tender lettuce plants from being nipped by a late frost.

Harley himself appears to have found his true calling. He cites the calming influence of gardening, its spiritual connection, and its being an integral part of nature. “Gardening is satisfying to me in a way that nothing else is,” he says. “Once you give yourself over to it, you just want to be doing it all the time. And it leads off into all sorts of other interests, like learning about insects, or fertilizers, or weather patterns, or how to build sheds and so on.”

And what about that “Hook ‘Em Horns” sign with which he will be forever associated? For those who may not be familiar with it, the sign is meant to symbolize the horns of the University of Texas mascot, the longhorn. It is made by extending the index and pinky fingers while holding the second and third fingers with the thumb.

Harley tells a story about it. More than 50 years ago, when Harley proclaimed it as the official school hand sign, he did so without clearing it first with then-Dean Arno Nowotny. The Dean was furious and angrily asked the young cheerleader if he had any idea what that hand sign meant in Italy. Harley replied that he was only 19 and didn’t know anything. The Dean responded, “I’m just glad we aren’t the unicorns.”

Rival sporting teams use a variant of the sign by turning the gesture upside down, with the “horns” pointing downward, in an effort to be insulting. Far from being offended, however, Harley Clark has a different interpretation of the down-turned horn sign. It is the perfect tool for spacing onion sets.

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