In the Garden

Camille Waters is the premier urban gardener of Houston, an earth mother who makes enough money from the lettuce she grows to vacation in Mexico every summer -- when it's too hot to grow lettuce here anyhow.

"Camille has shown that an urban gardener can make a fairly decent living by growing vegetables," says Bob Randall, executive director of Urban Harvest, a nonprofit organization committed to promoting sustainable urban land use to grow food and feed the hungry. "And she does it mainly with lettuce, so she doesn't even work during the summers."

Waters sits in a plastic chair in her tiny Heights-area oasis, surrounded by immaculate beds of salad fixings, including Devil's Tongue, Ibis, Tango, Tom Thumb, Merveille des Quatre Saisons and even a few edible flowers. With her silver hair, funky eyeglass chain and embroidered washed denim, she is the epitome of flower child grown into earth mother. She works about half the year, spends the hot summer months, when lettuce doesn't grow, at a semi-bohemian Mexican hideaway 40 miles south of Puerto Vallarta, and is the sole reason that Houstonians can dine on divine salads at the likes of Mark's American Cuisine, the Four Seasons' new Quattro, Cafe Annie, Mockingbird Bistro and Wine Bar and Riviera Grill.

"We cut off by April, because the weather gets too hot," says Waters. "The heat makes the lettuce bitter. I can't have bitter lettuce."

"She grows great product," says Mark Cox, owner-chef of Mark's. "With her it is a question of quality, it comes from her heart."

"All the chefs I sell to," says Waters, "are members of Chef's Collaborative; they are a very ecologically aware group of people." They are also some of the finest and most highly decorated chefs in the city. "They realize that salad mix that travels five days out of the ground doesn't have any taste left."

During the growing season, Waters harvests her crop from four gardens and delivers to restaurants by noon so the lunch crowd eats greens that were in the ground just three hours before. Anyone who has never eaten salad that fresh has no idea the difference it makes.

"Actually," says Randall, "it's amazing anyone can produce something that lasts longer that isn't rotten or squashed," referring to mass-produced greens that are shipped in from out of state.

Waters, who was at Woodstock, came to Houston in the '70s and opened the first vegetarian restaurant in Texas, the Natural Child, in 1974.

"For about three days we were the only one in the state," laughs Waters. "I knew there were these kids in Austin trying to do the same thing, so I really rushed to be first." She sold the place after a year but went on to run a succession of other Montrose-area eateries before going into the gardening biz in the '90s with a 100- by 175-foot green space behind Oak Farms Dairy off Westheimer.

"Camille has raised the visibility for urban gardeners," says Randall. "The difference is I can teach you how to grow food, but you have to sell it. She has the restaurant experience and connection to market her product. If Houston had a green market [a project Urban Harvest is working on], it would be easier for growers to sell." Randall says there are about 110 urban gardens in the metro Houston area, extending from Galveston to Conroe. But Waters is the grande dame when it comes to urban gardening. She teaches how she does it in a class at Urban Harvest, for which Randall is extremely grateful.

"People who wait tables, or work minimum-wage jobs, would be much better served growing and selling food," says Randall. "And the money would stay in the city instead of buying from outside producers."

Besides a green thumb, Waters has something else that makes her successful. "She's a showman," says Randall. "She puts on a great party, I'll tell you that," adds Cox.

"The first year," says Waters of her now famous garden party, "I had a harvest and decided to invite some of the chefs I'd sold to over to see the garden. We just walked around and picked stuff." As Waters tells the story, she walks her beds, alternately pointing out the life cycle of ladybugs and plucking tiny bites of lettuce that she offers her guests to pop directly into their mouths. "The party just kind of grew from there."

Today, Waters's garden party is a much-anticipated culinary event. She supplies her chefs, including Cox, Tim Keating and other award-winning masters, with ten to 12 pounds of salad fixings. They, in turn, create one-of-a-kind dishes that they bring and arrange on decorated tables for each restaurant. There's also wine flowing, jazz playing, a garden hat contest, craft tables and a kiss-a-pug booth. Last year, despite some forecasters' dour words of rain, 250 guests attended, sampling some of the best fresh culinary creations in town as well as raising money for Urban Harvest and the Chef's Collaborative. "I knew it wouldn't rain until after the party," she says. And she was right.

This year, the "Lettuce Have a Grand Picnic" is Sunday, March 30, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at Waters's garden at the corner of Jackson Hill and Blossom. Tickets ($25) are available at the gate. For more information on "Lettuce Have a Grand Picnic," call Camille Waters at 713-523-0650 or e-mail her at [email protected].

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Marene Gustin