By Carolina Keating
On an unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon, Lavell and Andrea Merritt are toiling in their expansive garden. Lines of neat dirt rows crisscross with a few red and green lettuce sprouts joining tiny carrot tops in peeking through the soil. Nearby, chickens cluck in their homey coop.
Passersby could be forgiven for thinking they have stumbled off the sidewalk and onto a country farm. The Merritts are city homesteaders, part of a movement that has brought the farming mentality home to backyards inside city limits. The Merritts’ College Station home is minutes from Kyle Field but miles from traditional backyards. Homesteaders are more likely to tend fruit trees and vegetable plants than topiary; the more intrepid also raise chickens and even bees.
For some, the idea is daunting. For others, like the Merritts and Brazos County Horticulturist Charla Anthony, farm scenes are a natural part of life, even in the city. “I grew up in agriculture,” explains Anthony. Lavell and Andrea Merritt share similar experiences and memories.
“My grandfather was a gardener and a farmer in the D.C. Metropolitan area,” says Lavell. “I remember chasing grandpa and picking potatoes, apricots, peaches…all that kind of stuff.”
Raised in northern Michigan, Andrea fondly recalls growing up surrounded by orchards. “It was a constant influence,” she says.
For the Merritts, childhood may have waned, but the importance of gardening did not. “Our first date was actually in a garden,” recalls Andrea, laughing. When the pair moved to Texas from Lanham, Maryland, to pursue Lavell’s doctoral degree at Texas A&M University, establishing a fertile yard was the first priority.
“Before we even painted the walls, we dug up the garden,” says Lavell. When the couple had children, the importance of fresh produce only increased. “It was a high priority to us to feed our children this way,” explains Andrea.
The Merritts have recognized a healthy trend line marking a growing interest among city dwellers. “Within the last 10 or 15 years, it seems like people have really embraced this idea of gardening,” says Lavell. “It’s been neat to see the way the community groups have adopted homesteading.”
Anthony agrees. Her work with the Brazos County Master Gardeners program spreads information about gardening in the B/CS area while encouraging the community to get involved. “We are teaching people how to do all the processes that we always did,” says Anthony. “The dynamics of the population are much more urban and much less experienced with homesteading – and all that entails – than in previous generations.“
Despite her agri-aware background, Andrea, who teaches yoga in College Station, insists anyone is capable of gardening. “People in my class know I garden, and they come up to me sometimes asking about gardening. I always tell them to start small. A lot of times people get too ambitious and get overwhelmed,” she says. “But people are doing it when they see that it is easy to do, and more and more, it is catching on.”
Fortunately, B/CS can be a fertile gardening environment. “We have a unique climate here,” notes Lavell. “The dead season here is actually at the end of the summer.” Mild winters and bushels of sunshine mean crops can be grown year-round. In the winter, greens and spices flourish; produce like kale, collards, arugula, cilantro, rosemary, and sage abound. Summertime yields bountiful squashes, zucchinis, pumpkins, tomatoes, peppers, basil, and sunflowers.
While the Merritts admit homesteading is occasionally a tough row to hoe, they both say it is well worth the effort. “It is a lovely, laborious activity that is valued by other human beings,” says Lavell.
“The quality of the food – you just cannot compare; you can taste it,” adds Andrea.
Homegrown crops yield other benefits. “The self-sustainability factor of growing food becomes really empowering,” says Lavell. Both agree it is the bond of planting seeds then nurturing seedlings that keeps the couple close to the earth.
“There is real value in the process, says Andrea. “It allows our kids to see the process of growth when we grow something small and insignificant, and it grows into something huge and powerful.”