Spring Gardening Guide

How to Turn Your Black Thumbs Green

Patiovore owner Jess Haskins used to kill plants; now she teaches Houstonians the secrets of successful urban gardening.

By Katharine Shilcutt February 8, 2015 Published in the February 2015 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Jess Haskins is living proof that plant killers can be rehabilitated into productive members of society: the kind that actually produce their own food and go on to establish successful landscaping companies—such as her own, Patiovore—that transform other people into productive gardeners and advocates of outdoor artistry. You just need the right motivation. For Haskins, it was vegetables.

“I was spending too much money at Whole Foods, so I started growing my own food,” says the 33-year-old, who was undaunted by the many, many houseplants she’d killed throughout her teens and 20s. “I’d always been a black thumb, but when I started growing vegetables I got ahold of good information.”

For Haskins, that good information came from Houston gardening guru Bob Randall’s book, Year Round Vegetables, Fruits, and Flowers for Metro Houston, long regarded as the bible of Houston gardening. “You get that and local soil and MicroLife fertilizer”—an organic, all-natural compound made right here in town—“get rid of the MiracleGro and get some good seeds,” Haskins says, recalling the early days of her love affair with gardening. “That’s the hack. That’s a great start.

Before long, Haskins was doing much more than growing her own vegetables in raised beds. After graduating from UH in 2013 with a marketing degree, she found work as a coordinator at an IT firm. But it wasn’t fulfilling, not by comparison to digging in the dirt all day—so she quit. “They gave me a nice severance, I took that, I moved home, and I destroyed my parents’ yard.”

In six months, her parents’ suburban plot had become a farm complete with rainwater catchments, raised beds for planting crops, even chickens. Soon, family members and friends were hiring Haskins to transform their own yards, and not long after that Patiovore was born.

Today, her full-service landscaping firm transforms lawns big and small. Haskins has installed gardens in everything from a three-by-six-foot space at the base of a skinny Washington Ave. condo to a full-on “edible and native landscape” in the yard of a Heights home. 

“They’re going for LEED Platinum certification,” says Haskins. “It runs off of solar, runs off of rainwater, it has a thermal heating and cooling system.” And that’s not all. The yard is now replete with “butterfly plants and plants for the birds, and all of the things that support life.” Haskins’s method? “Fitting as many edibles in there as possible and arranging it all as artfully as possible.”

Artistry is the operative word. After all, she says, one of the benefits of a beautiful home garden is that it encourages you to spend more time outdoors—and more time digging in the dirt, like her. “Aside from gardening being just a naturally amazing experience,” she says, “it’s a good feeling to be more self-sufficient and to reacquaint ourselves with what it’s like to work with the earth and grow something for ourselves that we can really use.” And, says the reformed black thumb turned urban farmer, “it’s exciting to see how much better the flavors are, too.”

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