STORY BY KIM PIERCE • PHOTOGRAPHY BY TERESA RAFIDI
If you’re a master gardener who loves growing fruits and vegetables, who connects powerfully to the land, how do you up your game?
Try full-on farming.
“I started out with a disc and a little tractor,” says Ben Walker, the “B” in B and G’s Garden. “I bought the farm back in ’96. It was just open grassland.” He and farming partner Greg Johnson (the “G”) sold their modest harvest at the Cowtown and Grand Prairie Farmers Markets. These days, they concentrate on Cowtown and Clearfork—sometimes with enough for Central Market and Roy Pope Grocery, too.
“A woman came out and said one time ‘I want to see your garden,’” says Ben. “And I said ‘You’re standing right in the middle of it.’ And she says ‘This is a farm!’”
Po-TAY-toe, po-TAH-toe. B and G’s Garden occupies seven acres on a gently rolling slope near Poolville northwest of Fort Worth.
That’s clearly a farm-size tract. Today, the grassland Ben tilled blossoms with peach and plum trees, apricots, heirloom pears, rows of squash, the farm’s signature blackberry bushes that bear fruit spring and fall, tomatoes, okra, French green beans (from imported French seeds) and more. Black irrigation lines snake around the property, providing the perfect drip at the perfect intervals from three wells. Ben and Greg make it look easy. But they never forget: It’s farming. That means setbacks—like the time a hail storm mowed down everything, crippling the year’s harvest.
Most of the time, their crop rows and orchard thrive. On my visit, after a barky welcome from protector-in-chief Frank the Chihuahua, I get to see the asparagus—one of nature’s oddities—growing out of the ground like green-tipped spikes. Jolly Green Giant fingers pushing up through the soil. B and G’s asparagus is legendary. Before the season ended, there was none fresher in North Texas, its vibrant flavor an eye-opener. But by June, the asparagus has run its course for the year.
“The male (asparagus) puts more energy in growing the spear,” Ben
says, trying in vain to light a cigarette in the blustery wind. “The female puts more energy into growing the berry, or seed.” And both are finicky about when they grow. “They’re very much like a person: When it’s cold, they want to stay in bed (aka the cozy earth).” Once they’re done for the season, Ben and Greg concentrate on the ferns, which put carbohydrates back into the ground for next year’s crop. (Visitors are welcome at the farm, and watching asparagus grow should be on your agenda for next year.)
Asparagus isn’t the only thing B and G devotees watch for. The tomatoes that the team holds back and dries are a crunchy surprise, little wheels bursting with tomato intensity. Also, the farmers always sell out of Ben’s apricot jam, made with B-and-G tree-ripened apricots. Ben’s insatiable drive to grow better and better fruits and vegetables shows in the finished product.
Ben took up study to become a master gardener back in the 1980s, but it was more a jumping off point than an end unto itself. Since then, he’s inhaled knowledge—scouring publications and networking with farmers in the area as well as university sources. Long before he took up the master gardener regimen, he earned a forestry degree and worked as a naturalist at the Fort Worth Nature Center. He traces his love of nature back to childhood summers with his great aunt and uncle in West Texas and the time they spent in the mountains at Tres Ritos, New Mexico.
He maps out his planting and irrigation strategy and records harvest yields on an old-fashioned yellow legal pad.
And he’s clear about where he stands now: It’s the success of each harvest that fuels the fire in his belly, not the income. The farm barely breaks even. “I’ve always tried to raise the best produce the market has,” he says. “This is just something I like to do.” Theoretically retired, he and Greg do less of the daily physical work than they once did, concentrating on supervision now that they have three full-time hands.
You might say Greg got into farming by way of Ben’s intense interest.
“It was Ben’s interest but, believe it or not, I enjoy it,” Greg says. “It was so refreshing to see things grow. So enjoyable. And I enjoy working with people.” You’ll find him manning the B and G table at boisterous Clearfork while Ben handles the more laid-back Cowtown. Thirty-plus years ago, they started out as fishing buddies. The friendship clicked from there.
“When Ben decided to be a master gardener, I tagged along on the field trips,” says Greg. At that time, he was still working at Sears in Fort Worth, where he started in high school unloading trucks for catalog orders and “progressed up the ladder” for a long retail and management career. He’s the people person to Ben’s plant-and-soil junkie.
On one particularly memorable field trip, Greg recalls, “all the master gardeners, twenty or thirty, got together, and they went to a peach orchard in Grapevine. We all got a tree and learned how to prune them. I remember the guy said, ‘When you think you’ve pruned enough, prune some more.’” Greg was dubious: He’d pruned his down to hardly more than a scarecrow. He pruned more. And when the season peaked, his pruning paid off in a bounty of peaches from that tree. “That was fun. I enjoyed it.” They both live in Fort Worth and commute to the farm. “We’d go from Fort Worth out to the farm every day,” Greg says, even while he was still working at Sears. “Asparagus, tomatoes, blackberries—peaches came along, and here we are.” They eventually added a couple of mobile homes to the property so they could stay overnight as needed.
One of those nights, Greg endured the worst hailstorm, a major spoiler that threatened to destroy their modest endeavor. “We’ve been hit by hail several times,” he says. “The worst would have been in 2004. That was in May. I was staying out at the farm. Me and a dog named Coyote. I looked out the window to the north, and it was black. The hail was so bad we had to have the trailer resided. I had to lean against the door to keep it from blowing open.” But nothing prepared him for the shock of the morning after. “The next day, it looked like someone had taken a lawn mower and cut it all down. The tomatoes had been four feet high.” Although some vegetables recovered, many simply had to be replanted from scratch. After 15 years, the gentleman farmers have settled into mutually beneficial accommodations with their enterprise. Ben, for instance, doesn’t “do” computers. He maps out his planting and irrigation strategy and records harvest yields on an old-fashioned yellow legal pad. But someone has to maintain the website and answer the inquiries that come in, so Greg handles that. He also serves on the board of the Cowtown Farmers Market.
While we were walking the rows of fruit trees on my visit, Ben explains that the Tarrant County Master Gardeners “put everything online.” That’s why he dropped out.
In order to maintain certification, master gardeners must put in volunteer hours and keep up with continuing education. Ben turned his attention elsewhere. But given his voracious appetite for knowledge, coupled with the way these two farmers work with their neighbors—sharing labor, information, harvest surplus and more—Ben maintains the spirit of the certification and then some. Once you sink your teeth into what Ben and Greg bring to market, fresh fruits and vegetables to home-canned jams and crisp dried tomatoes, you won’t need a credential. The taste will tell you everything you need to know.
KIM PIERCE is a Dallas freelance writer and editor who’s covered farmers markets and the locavore scene for some 30 years, including continuing coverage at The Dallas Morning News. She came by this passion writing about food, health, nutrition and wine. She and her partner nurture a backyard garden (no chickens – yet) and support local producers and those who grow foods sustainably. Back in the day, she co-authored The Phytopia Cookbook and more recently helped a team of writers win a 2014 International Association of Culinary Professionals Cookbook Award for The Oxford Encyclopedia for Food and Drink in America.