Rice’s new holistic garden aims to produce healthy food, healthy people

The Betty and Jack Friedman Holistic Garden allows people of all ages and physical abilities to discover the benefits of planting and picking their own produce

“Farmers are some of the most creative people in the world,” Joe Novak says as he slips the blade of his pocketknife into a fold of thin plastic tubing, slicing it into smaller sections that he will shortly transform into a clever, low-cost drip irrigation system that comes together in only a few minutes. A group of volunteers from the Rice community helps assemble the rest of the system that will water a stepped tetrad of raised planting beds that are among the many different beds Novak has installed in new holistic garden on campus.

Joe Novak, left, works with a rotating crew of volunteers in the new Rice holistic garden. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Joe Novak, left, works with a rotating crew of volunteers in the new Rice holistic garden. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Here in a nearly half-acre site next to the Rice Media Center there are also beds of various heights for people in wheelchairs, vertical wall plantings and rain gutter beds for those without room for a full garden, African keyhole gardens and French intensive gardens to showcase global methods for maximizing productivity in small spaces. Other attractions include an orchard of fig and citrus trees adapted specifically for Houston’s climate, and rows upon rows of traditional beds filled with everything from cucumbers and corn to a half-dozen varieties of basil and 24 different types of tomatoes.

The Betty and Jack Friedman Holistic Garden — named in honor of the Friedmans’ generous donation through the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston — is being tended by Novak, fellow Texas gardening guru Sam Stamport and a diverse crew of volunteers: grad students, faculty and staff alike — even a few Rice spouses and their children. Some are recent transplants to Houston eager to learn how to garden in a new climate; others are lifelong gardeners enthusiastic to learn new gardening methods from Novak, widely regarded as one of the state’s leading horticulture experts.

Novak, who received his Ph.D. in vegetable crops from Cornell University and retired from Texas A&M after 32 years teaching horticulture classes, leads a one-hour course each fall and spring titled Environmental Sustainability: The Design and Practice of Community Agriculture. In the past, Novak taught the course in one of Rice’s three residential college gardens. Erased by construction and flooding, those gardens — one of which sat atop an old parking lot, topsoil only, its root system constrained by the barrier below — taught lessons that have been planted in the new holistic garden.

Novak has planted two dozen different varieties of tomatoes in the garden. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Novak has planted two dozen different varieties of tomatoes in the garden. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Also planted in the new garden: a big box of gazanias, the only plants Novak and Stamport were able to salvage from the Hanszen College garden after a flood caused by a broken pipe washed it away. The gazanias sit front and center at the entrance to the garden through a red cedar gate and past a pergola, a welcoming committee of sorts. “They’re just so bright and happy,” Novak said of the colorful perennials that thrive in Houston’s midday sun.

Produce dominates the garden, however, and most of it is bound for Rice’s serveries. But teaching students — and this summer’s volunteers — how to plant and harvest fruits and vegetables is only half the lesson. Hence the multiplicity of planting beds for people of all ages and physical abilities, a water garden, a butterfly garden and a soon-to-be-installed apiary that will house Rice’s own colony of honeybees. Signage explaining various propagation methods and gardening techniques will come, too. There’s even a storytelling corner Novak had constructed in honor of his late wife, who passed away 12 years ago. “She loved telling stories and educating children,” Novak said.

Standing in the storytelling corner, Novak noticed that a few pavers were too close to the cedar benches. “Sam, we’ll have to move these,” he said to Stamport, gesturing to a narrow turn. “I want a wheelchair to be able to fit through here.”

At Texas A&M, Novak coined the term “sociohorticulture,” which encompasses the psychosocial effects plants and gardening have on humans. Novak enjoys explaining how regular gardening can affect everything from the sympathetic nervous system (depressed by active interaction with plants, it can reduce physical and psychological stress) to osteoporosis outcomes in older women (gardening increases and helps maintain bone density). That a garden produces food is not a discovery; that it can produce healthier and happier human beings is a realization Novak hopes more people will come to, thanks to the Rice garden.

When Novak’s new crop of undergraduates arrives this fall, they’ll be greeted by a fully operational garden anchored by a cheerful red barn on one end (which will eventually be joined by a solar-powered greenhouse) and a proliferation of peppers and purslane among the various planting beds that greet visitors at the main gate. And when Rice’s serveries resume full operations, they’ll be serving the garden’s bountiful harvest of squash, sweet potatoes, summer melons and satsumas among many other fruits and vegetables.

The garden is currently filled with summer crops like these musk melons. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

The garden is currently filled with summer crops like these musk melons. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

But before that happens, Novak and his volunteers will first finish installing irrigation systems (designed to minimize water loss through evaporation), fertilizing with organic pellets and compost (the latter of which Novak is hoping can become its own large-scale, campuswide operation), planting rhizomes and pruning amaranth and basil flowers. Volunteers work four shifts per week, and Novak keeps every group busy with both these germinal tasks and the routine maintenance that follows.

It’s hot work, but fulfilling — certainly in the sense that each shift is invited to harvest anything that looks ripe and ready to eat. On a recent Wednesday evening, that yield included tiny eggplants in shades of royal violet, fierce little jalapeños and tomatoes just beginning to blush a crimson red.

Novak hopes the public embraces the garden as much as the Rice community has. To that end, he plans to install a place for guests to leave donations in return for the knowledge gained by visiting. Such impromptu tours were popular at his two-acre garden in College Station, he recalled fondly, adding with a laugh: “I couldn’t keep people out!”

The Betty and Jack Friedman Holistic Garden is located south of the Rice Media Center, at the corner of College Way and University Blvd. After a dedication ceremony this fall, it will officially open to the public. At this time, all volunteers must be Rice students, faculty or staff; a waiting list is open for non-Rice affiliated volunteers. For more information on the Rice holistic garden or to volunteer, email sociohorticulture.rice@gmail.com.

The nearly half-acre garden will be formally dedicated this fall. (Photo by Brandon Martin)

The nearly half-acre garden will be formally dedicated this fall. (Photo by Brandon Martin)

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.