Flower Power on Animal Farm
As with most magical places, finding Animal Farm takes determination and a bit of faith. Along the 65-mile drive northwest from downtown Houston to Cat Spring, Texas, you’ll swap paved country roads for gravel, trundling over cattle guards until you’ve run out of road and are sure you’ve miscalculated. However, if you veer left through grass you’ll discover a narrow dirt path carved between the foliage. Wind through trees and a miniature horse and its standard-sized companion will serve as an indifferent welcome committee.
Scanning the scene, you’ll note classic tropes: large farm equipment parked here and there, a couple of barns, long greenhouses, a rooster crowing in the distance. The cultivated acreage, with its patchwork fields lined with tidy rows of crops, is contained by a dense tree line that’s actually part of the property. The remaining 50 of the 70 acres remain wild, loamy Central Texas woods, and that’s by design.
“¿Dónde está Gita?” I ask before continuing where a young farmhand has directed. A farmhouse resembling an eccentric hunting lodge comes into view—fitting considering the forest rising all around.
Co-owner of Animal Farm Gita Van Woerden leads me through the archway of a stone wall across from the house, and the magic washes over me. Beyond an underground pool, a whimsical gardenscape unfolds. Sweeping Gaudí-esque sculptural structures (that I later learn are made of a lightweight material called flying concrete—Van Woerden is also an artist), suggest fairies may flit by any moment.
I’m here to talk flowers, but I have so many other questions. Donning a floppy gardening hat and clogs, my guide answers one of them for me: "When we applied for ag exemption, they came and looked and said, ‘This is not a farm.’”
In fact, on Animal Farm, permaculture reigns; not embodying the typical farm is the point. Increasingly popular, the approach entails modeling ecosystems after nature with the goal of creating a sustain able, self-sufficient growing system. For Van Woerden and husband, Cas, this translates to maintaining a completely organic operation. Instead of using chemicals, they fertilize plants with compost. No pesticides are used, either.
"It’s more labor-intensive, but we give more care to the plants, and they thrive because of beneficial insects,” said Van Woerden. Since studies have linked agricultural methods reliant upon heavy use of pesticides to alarming fatality rates within bee populations, which, as pollinators, play a vital role in our food system, an alternative approach is imperative. As for the pests? “Healthy plants aren't attacked by insects.”
Stopping to consider my surroundings, the thrum of life abounds. Birds twitter overhead, a cool breeze rustles the trees, the busy buzz of insects surges; nature is hard at work.
Often overlooked, nourished soil is paramount to creating healthy, sustainable growing conditions. In tilled fields and open-air greenhouses, Animal Farm rotates families of plants each season. “If we grow sunflowers in one bed, we’ll grow something else there the next year to avoid depleting the soil,” said Van Woerden. They conduct regular soil and water tests, replenishing nutrients and minerals as needed.
Thanks to the farm’s unique microclimate within a shallow valley and in a milder region than the coast, Animal Farm can grow things that other area farms cannot. In addition to native species, they incubate and test new plants that grow in similar climates and altitudes, such as parts of Asia, South Africa and Australia.
“We fail often, but we also discover many plants that aren’t native species do well,” said Van Woerden. Plus, “I like to push the limits on what we grow here because I think diversity is a good thing to eat and for the soil.” When she began growing flowers, Van Woerden discovered this was a great advantage at market. Pointing out columbine, a striking perennial typically found in woodlands and high altitudes, she noted wryly, “People are jealous that we can grow it here.”
Her flower beds, woven under the trees on stepped plateaus and in the greenhouses, are flush with color. In the spring, bulbs like daffodils, tulips and ranunculus thrive. Summer yields zinnias, amaranth and dahlias. Edible flowers include violas, poppies, gladiolas, calendulas and dianthus, to name a few. Snap dragons survived the mild winter and bloomed again this past spring.
Despite purchasing the farm simply to house their large-breed pets (thus the farm’s name), Animal Farm now has nine full-time staff and is a vendor for restaurants and a regular at farmers markets in both Houston and Austin.
Find their booth of organic produce, edible flowers and bouquets of seasonal cut flowers—designed by Van Woerden herself—every Saturday at Urban Harvest’s Eastside Farmers Market and Tuesdays at Rice University Farmers Market. Stop by to say hello and to bring home a little piece of the magic.