Plant Answers  >  Sow, Grow, Savor: Delphine and Malcolm Beck

Sow, Grow, Savor: Delphine and Malcolm Beck

By Tracy Hobson Lehmann --- July 17, 2015

Delphine and Malcolm Beck
Malcolm Beck, a retired railroad switchman, said he and Delphine planted the pecan trees on their Comal County property in 1968. Now 79, Beck said he enjoys sitting on his porch and looking at the trees.

Malcolm Beck, a retired railroad switchman who founded Garden-Ville, enjoys watching citrus trees and other plants on his property. A successful garden, he says, starts with good soil and the right plant for the environment.

A successful gardener, says organic gardening guru Malcolm Beck, watches and emulates nature. “Nature’s got it all planned out. All we’ve got to do is sit back and watch,” he said.

Malcolm Beck said he discovered giant okra plants growing in a trash pile when he and his wife bought their property in 1968. Today, the variety is sold in heirloom seed catalogs and carries his name.

Delphine Beck tends the vegetable garden daily. She said she enjoys finding what’s ready to harvest for supper.

“People need to get back in the garden so they have quality food,” said Delphine Beck, a lifelong gardener.

Cantaloupe vines grow at one end of Malcolm and Delphine Beck’s garden at their home near Cibolo Creek. Their house sits between Garden-Ville to the back and the former Antique Rose Emporium to the front. The Becks sold the land for the former plant nursery, which is now an events center.

“You just mimic nature.” That’s the philosophy of Malcolm and Delphine Beck, a couple who built an empire off of organic gardening.

Who’s sowing: The Becks have gardened together since they married in 1957 and bought an 11-acre farm southeast of San Antonio. Both grew up in farming families, him in the Bastrop area and her on a peanut farm in Wilson County.

In 1968, the year the world’s fair came to San Antonio, the Becks moved, settling on 50 acres bisected by the Cibolo Creek. They still live and garden on a sliver of that land today.

The couple funneled their trial-and-error experiences in organic growing into Garden-Ville, the natural products business that opened in their backyard in 1973. Though Delphine says they were 10 years ahead of the organic gardening movement, Garden-Ville grew into a $4 million-a-year business, which they sold in 1998.

The tomatoes, peppers and okra growing in the space between the two tires sprang from plants left behind in last year’s garden. “That’s a good way to do it,” Malcolm said, explaining how they leave produce on the strongest plants and collect seeds for future seasons. Labeled seed packets go into the freezer or glass jars for preservation, but some seed inevitably lingers in the soil.

Flowers blossom among the vegetables. “I like to put zinnias in the garden for hummingbirds and butterflies,” Delphine said.

Namesake: Fat okra pods form on 6-foot-tall plants, a variety that’s sold in heirloom seed catalogs as Beck’s Big Buck Horn okra.

When Malcolm and Delphine moved onto the farm, Malcolm said he learned that okra growing in a trash pile had been brought — perhaps smuggled — from Germany to Comal County by one of his neighbors. The Becks propagated plants to build seed stock.

Despite the large size, the pods are tender. Delphine freezes the seeds to use for a nutty flavor in soups and stews.

What’s to savor: The garden decides what’s for dinner. “I love (to browse the garden) to see what I’m going to cook,” she said.

On a recent evening, she fried a mix of cornmeal-battered eggplant and okra. She doesn’t share Malcolm’s love for sliced tomatoes, but she does enjoy them in preserves.

They grill sweet corn in the shucks and dry hot chiles to use in making hot salt, a spicy blend of the ground peppers and salt.

“We eat as much as we can eat out of there,” Delphine said. The rest is shared with family and friends, and plenty is preserved. Fruit goes into the freezer for cobblers, and she makes bread-and-butter pickles and hamburger relish from cucumbers.

Deer share in the bounty, too, nibbling a little okra and a little pepper, Malcolm said.

If weather cooperates in fall, she will plant broccoli, cabbage and lettuce. Half the space will be dedicated to oats and rye, grown as cover crops to feed the soil.

Lay of the land: After years of operating Garden-Ville and growing acres of organic vegetables that they trucked to Waitz Model Market and other markets starting in the early ’60s, the Becks have scaled down their vegetable garden.

On the north side of their house, they started a vegetable patch two years ago in a sunny spot among tall pecan trees they planted when they settled on the land.

Nearby, on property where one of their four adult children lives, the Becks grow onions, garlic, pears, apricots, tangerines and figs.

Cultivation practices: Just as the Becks advise other gardeners, they started their new garden by amending the soil. They added gypsum to loosen clay, and they feed the soil with fallen leaves and weeds.

“I save all the pecan leaves,” Malcolm said. “Don’t rake them up and put them on the side of the road and then go buy fertilizer.” The fallen leaves, he said, contain minerals the trees’ roots have mined from deep in the soil.

Even weeds have their place. “Weeds have deeper root systems than vegetables,” he said, explaining those roots help to aerate the soil before the annual weeds wither, decompose and feed the soil.

For raised beds, Malcolm blends a fertilizer cocktail of iron, nitrogen, phosphorous and chicken manure scraped from under the hen-house roost. “I play with it and do a little batch in a tire and see which one does the best,” he said.

Water wise: In keeping with their practice of emulating nature, the Becks water with a sprinkler that rains down on the garden. A deep well on their property kept crops hydrated during drought.

Pests? What pests? “We never have a disease or insect problem,” Malcolm said. “The bad bugs move in when the plant is week.” When that happens, toss the plant.

Gardening their way: “When you don’t know what to do, look at what nature’s done for the last thousand years, and you’ve got your answer,” said Malcolm, echoing the message conveyed in four gardening books he has written and co-authored.

“I like to let nature do what she wants to do. We can’t improve on her.”

Tracy Hobson Lehmann
Home & Garden Editor | San Antonio Express-News

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