Weather Roulette

Local growers may soon have some new and unusual products to peddle at their co-op tables, like Houston-grown mangoes, lychee, and coffee beans.

As weather patterns continue to change in bizarre and dangerous ways, pockets of our city are going through a downright tropical swing.

Crops that never would have tolerated our historic winter chills are growing without a hitch. However, if you want to know which part of town has the right conditions for tropical produce, don’t rely on the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They withdrew their growing maps three years ago and have yet to replace them.

Urban Harvest Director Bob Randall, who has seen traditional weather patterns enter a state of near frenzy, doesn’t try to hide his suspicion over the map’s disappearance. “Frankly, I suspect politics,” he says.

It’s not a hard stretch. After all, the Bush Administration’s has an extensive and well-documented pattern of squelching scientific research that adds credence to Global Warming worries. Well, here’s another direct hint: Vietnamese Lychee, Central American mangoes and coffee plants, of all things, growing in Houston.

“I know somebody that’s harvesting mangoes in Houston,” he said. “I’m growing coffee.”

And Lychee? “They’re not supposed to do that. It’s not supposed to be do-able,” he said. But it’s happening.

Randall is careful not to credit all of Houston’s climate pangs to Global Warming, but he knows climate change does play a serious factor.

“Somewhere between greed and the quest for an honest buck, the earth has gotten itself into a dilemma,” Randall says from his humble cubicle at MECA, an attractive older schoolhouse now used as a multicultural education and arts space on the fringe of downtown. “I don’t have any pretense, but my reading on Global Warming is that this stuff is very, very dangerous.”

Walking through the MECA garden in March, Randall was picking ripe tomatoes off the vine and popping them in his mouth. “Who ever heard of tomatoes in March?” he asks, a mix of delight and concern blending into his well-lined face.

Randall doesn’t need a USDA zone map to know the weather is changing. He sees it in the neighborhoods across his hometown of Houston. For years he’s been studying the micro-climates of the region. He knows, for instance, that guests outside the Natural Science Museum in central Houston and shell collectors on a sandy walk along Jamaica Beach on Galveston Island will experience virtually the same nighttime temperatures on any given night.

“They are very similar,” he says. “They are clearly in zone 10.”

Even within neighborhoods, the temperatures can be significantly different – to the point where they may even fall into different growing zones. It’s part warming trend and part design. Downtown’s skyscrapers change the way the wind moves through Houston and even where the rain falls; “heat islands” are created by pouring tons of solar-absorbing concrete; heavily-treed areas are cooler thanks to the shielding provided by their high green canopies.

The intent behind Randall’s coffee tree was to be able to write definitively that it did not grow in Houston for the 12th edition of his book, “Year Round Vegetables, Fruits and Flowers for Metro Houston.”

The plant, however, had other ideas. “It just got through its first winter and it looks pretty good.”

With all these changes in play it’s become even harder for Urban Harvest to accurately recommend what to plant and where.

“Basically, we know the way temperatures are here and we have to teach folks,” he said. But a recent cabbage failure and lettuce blight, thanks to unexpected weather, has shown the increasingly difficulty of their charge.

And if it’s hard for them, it’s got to be hard for the commercial growers too.

“It isn’t just food plants, it’s all these ornamentals. I mean, when do you plant daffodils? I am at a real loss as to why there isn’t more real research that has gone on on this topicâÂ?¦ the nursery industry, the landscape industry, everybody depends on the predictions about what the temperatures are going to beâÂ?¦ These are not issues we can just ignore.”

Greg Harman is a Houston-based freelance writer and editor of the online environmental news site, EarthHouston.net.

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