Texan by Nature is partnering with NRG Energy to build a garden to address food insecurity in the Leon, Freestone, Limestone tri-county area. The garden is located at the NRG Energy lignite mine reclamation project near Jewett, Texas. An initial one acre plot that includes row crops, raised beds, and butterfly gardens is currently under construction. Upon completion, the NRG Dewey Prairie Garden will provide up to 10,000 pounds of fresh produce annually to local community food pantries.
We recently spoke to our NRG Dewey Prairie Garden design partners, Patrick Dickinson and Daniel Cunningham of Rooted In (RI) about the project. Learn more about the vision for the garden and download the project’s garden plant guide below.
What was your initial reaction to hearing about the Texan by Nature NRG garden project?
RI: We were certainly intrigued! We were familiar with NRG but were unaware of the potential for a service garden at a mining facility. As horticulturists, we love all plants, but projects that help provide food for both people and pollinators are really near and dear to our hearts. What was really exciting was visiting with our new friends at NRG and learning that they have a shared passion for helping their community in a way that emphasizes stewardship of the land.
What was your approach to the project, and how is designing a farm different from a normal landscape?
RI: One thing we like to do with every project is to dig into it with a holistic mindset. It’s really critical to get an understanding of the common underlying goals and how they are connected with each stakeholder group. In this case, NRG and Texan by Nature were very helpful with providing their vision, along with the needs and desires of each local food pantry and community group. In that respect, it’s more intricate of a project when compared to creating a garden for a single entity or a design that focuses solely on aesthetics.
Rooted In has worked on a number of food garden projects over the years that incorporate edible plants in one form or fashion. While they offer their own set of challenges, food gardens offer so many ways to give back to the community: nutritious fruits and vegetables, teaching folks how to garden, and a place to bring people together to break bread.
Including environmentally sustainable practices to better manage natural resources like water and soil along with native plantings that provide habitat for pollinators are also important elements of the garden. They are not only sound from a conservation standpoint, but they also add resiliency, which sets up the NRG Dewey Prairie Garden for long term success.
From a food production standpoint, we worked with Texan by Nature to tailor the farm to focus on vegetables that are of highest need for the partnering food pantries.
Tell us about the plants that were selected for both the farm and the butterfly garden.
RI: We are really intentional with plant selection, making sure each species is adaptable to the unique challenges of the Texas soil and the harsh, sometimes unpredictable, climate. From a food production standpoint, we worked with Texan by Nature to tailor the farm to focus on vegetables that are of highest need for the partnering food pantries. We also needed to balance that with crop diversity to build resiliency from pests and disease problems while at the same time increasing productivity. The four-year food crop rotation we created has the potential to improve yields, limit weed pressure, break disease cycles, and limit pest infestations, while at the same time reducing soil erosion and improving soil health.
For the butterfly garden we also used similar principles to build resilience through diversity—focusing on native species that are heat and drought tolerant, adapted to the local soil, and provide a nectar source for beneficial insects. In Texas, our beneficial pollinators are really in need of improved habitat, and it’s inspiring for people of all ages to visit and interact with these species in a garden setting. Another advantage of an adjacent pollinator garden is that the beneficial insects they attract actually have the potential to help production on the farm by pollinating crops and controlling pest outbreaks.
Can you tell us about some of the sustainability features that are being implemented in the garden?
RI: Conservation is of growing concern in Texas, and we want to make sure that we are using our natural resources as efficiently as possible. To that end, we’ve utilized drip irrigation, which ensures the water we are using is being distributed as effectively as possible. It reduces nearly all waste in the form of evaporation or runoff. This can help us preserve our groundwater resources as well as protecting the adjacent creek. The solar well pump, which was repurposed by NRG from the mine, helps with energy efficiency but also helps build resiliency into the irrigation system by having two potential power sources. The garden also employs a rainwater harvesting system that will reduce the need to pump groundwater at all.
What is your favorite part of the garden design and why?
RI: I think one of the most exciting aspects is that there’s something for everyone. If someone really loves traditional fruits and vegetables, they can find them at the NRG Dewey Prairie Garden. And then there is the pollinator garden, which is designed to greet garden guests and volunteers. The plants we chose for that garden are some of the best performers when it comes to blooming. Every time I see a pollinator in one of our gardens getting tipsy with the abundance of nectar and pollen, we feel a little bit of peace and accomplishment.
What can home gardeners learn from this design?
RI: Most of the principles and goals of the NRG Dewey Prairie Garden can be easily adapted to the home scale! In fact, we would be delighted if people used the information they learn here to plant the seed of an idea for their next gardening project. We hope it will help people back to the root of where their food really comes from and cultivate a mindset that gives back to both people and pollinators.
The ultimate goal is that it will serve as a model for food security and creative reclamation; it’s a goal that’s shared by all of the amazing people that have collaborated on this project to date.
How do you see this project developing once everything has been planted?
RI: The ultimate goal is that it will serve as a model for food security and creative reclamation; it’s a goal that’s shared by all of the amazing people that have collaborated on this project to date. With the help of the amazing organizations and community that surround the area, we’d love nothing more than for the garden to grow into a demonstration that encourages folks to make small changes that can collectively have a lasting impact.
The garden is designed not only as a food source but as an experiential learning tool. From the moment you exit your vehicle you see large rainwater cisterns flanked by beautiful pollinator plants. As you enter the gate you are invited to sit at a table and enjoy the view and sample some of the edible plants in the garden. Every step is designed to inspire and engage each visitor. We continue to learn so much from the people, from the plants, and even from the pollinators with projects like this one. We can’t help but think others will continue to do the same for seasons and seasons to come.
To start a charitable food garden in your area, contact Texan by Nature at: firstname.lastname@example.org