Twisting through a tall trellis in his greenhouse just off Buck Flats Road, Carl Robb is growing rare fruit for Houston—juicy clusters of red table grapes.
“Just a gardener’s challenge,” says Robb, standing in the leafy, 33 C heat of his largest backyard greenhouse.
When Robb arrived in Houston in 1972, he rode in on a motorbike. That led to a conversation with Bill Merkley who invited Robb on his first Morice Lake fishing trip.
“I immediately fell in love with the whole country,” he says.
By 1996, when Robb bought a five-acre lot off Buck Flats, the long-time Canfor millwright was ready to settle in, put his construction skills to home use, and see if he couldn’t grow some tastier food than what he could find at the grocery store.
“Gardening is a hobby to me,” he said. “It’s just fun, trial and error.”
But walking through Robb’s largest, 24-foot long greenhouse, it’s hard to believe it’s just a hobby.
Alongside his peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, and a flowering squash plant that grew a 34-pounder one year, Robb grows lots of tasty fruits and vegetables that go well beyond garden-variety.
A hot pepper, smuggled from India by a friend and fellow millwright, was already sporting some dangerous-looking fruit.
Several cantaloupe and honeydew melons, still maturing on the vines, hang in red and white onion bags along the south side of the greenhouse.
“I found that if they are in the ground you have problems with rot, but if you trellis them up they grow great,” said Robb.
A ceiling-style fan swirls the air at the peak of Robb’s greenhouse, and intake and exhaust fans at either end keep a breeze blowing through.
“You want to keep dry air and humid ground,” he said, adding that greenhouse growers need that balance to keeps plants growing well but fungus at bay.
Stepping outside, Robb says that for unwanted bugs and fungi, he avoids using any pesticides.
“I really question all the stuff they’re putting into the food chain,” he says. “An apple is sprayed 20 times by the time it gets to the shelf, the last time with wax.”
Just south of Robb’s property is Westgarde Lake—a small irrigation lake that waters his five garden beds but also gives mosquitoes a great home.
But mosquitoes don’t bug anyone in his garden, Robb says, smiling and pointing to some of the 35 swallow’s houses that crown nearly every fencepost around the yard.
“We can sit anywhere here right till dark in the evening and never see one,” he says.
Robb said the idea of inviting swallows to live by your house to eat the mosquitoes was inspired by his Grade 6 teacher, Arthur Peake.
“He was a real environmentalist-type guy,” said Robb, “far ahead of his time in his thinking.”
Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the 1962 book that detailed the devastating effects of DDT pesticides on birds, was prescribed reading in Peake’s Grade 6 class, he said.
Robb has since followed Peake’s example, avoiding “stop-gap” chemical solutions in his garden, and filling his kitchen table with foods that taste better for growing naturally.
But not all Robb’s field-to-table food is as easy to harvest as the stuff he grows in the mounded rows of his garden beds—peas, turnips, beets, beans, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, currants, cheddar cauliflower, Swiss chard, and potatoes.
He’s also an avid fisherman, with a smokehouse covered in bear-claw scratches, and a hunter of moose, bear and deer.
Robb says he’s seen up to 28 deer in his yard at one time, and has tall fences all around his gardens to keep them out.
But sometimes, like one lucky morning in the fall of 2010, it’s not so bad when they come close to home.
Robb says he was inside brewing a coffee that day when he saw some white-tailed deer walk right through his front yard.
When they went over to his neighbours’ yard, Robb knew it would start their dog barking. He grabbed his crossbow and waited, sipping coffee by his back window.
“Sure enough, we heard little Micky next door going ‘rowr, rowr, rowr,'” he said, laughing.
“And then here comes the doe, and here comes the buck, and it was just ‘twack,’ right out the window.”