Bridgette Mongeon is not taking any chances.
The professional sculptor and grandmother from Kentwood Manor said she is at risk for serious complications from COVID-19, both because of her age and her chronic lung problems, so she’s going to great lengths to avoid contracting the upper-respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus strain. For the most part, that means Mongeon isn’t going anywhere or interacting with anyone – not even her 7-year-old granddaughter.
She still relies on others and especially for food, with delivery service from Kroger and Imperfect Foods providing everything she needs for sustenance. But if all goes according to plan, Mongeon will be more self-sufficient in the coming months.
She recently planted two gardens in the sun-splashed parts of her property – one in the front yard and one along the side of her house – where beans, cucumbers, eggplant, okra, peppers, squash, spinach and tomatoes are in the process of growing.
“It’s all within the square footage of my house that I’m going to be providing this food,” Mongeon said. “That is just a really satisfying feeling.”
Since March 9, two days before the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo was cut short because of concerns about the spread of COVID-19, Mongeon said the only times she’s left her home is to visit Wabash Feed & Garden at 4537 N. Shepherd Dr. That’s where Mongeon has secured her seeds and gardening supplies, and she pays ahead of time and stays in her car while store employees load her purchases into the trunk.
According to the Wabash owner and the co-owner of the other feed and garden store in the area, Quality Feed & Garden at 4428 N. Main St., Mongeon’s case is not unusual. Both said their stores have seen a significant spike in sales of garden supplies and egg-producing chickens during the COVID-19 pandemic, with more and more area residents wanting to replicate farm life in a big city.
In some cases, according to Wabash owner Betty Heacker and Quality co-owner Ken Cousino, their new customers are spending more time at home with their families and looking for an activity they can enjoy with their kids. In other cases, they’re bracing for extended stays at home and seeking to secure safe, long-term sources of food.
“I think there’s been a real interest in gardening and keeping chickens as a way of being more self-sustaining,” Heacker said. “That’s very clear.”
Heacker said there are “tens of thousands of chickens” in residential areas of Houston, even though the city has an ordinance aimed at limiting those poultry populations. Residents are not allowed to keep fowl in structures that are within 100 feet of another residence, church, school or hospital.
There also are neighborhoods that restrict the possession of chickens. They are not allowed in Oak Forest per the neighborhood’s longstanding deed restrictions, for example, although its homeowners might be OK with their presence.
“In my time as president, no one has ever complained about chickens in someone’s backyard,” said Oak Forest Homeowners Association president Elizabeth Villarreal, who assumed the role in February of last year.
According to the city, BARC Animal Shelters & Adoptions is charged with enforcing Houston’s fowl ordinance. Cousino said the city’s enforcement is generally based on complaints.
Ed Blackwood, who has kept chickens at his Timbergrove Manor home for 10 years, said the eight hens he has now are quiet and not bothersome to his neighbors. That’s at least partly because Blackwood, a bail bondsman, provides those neighbors with free eggs.
“I bribe them,” he joked. “And they bring their children over. Their little kids love coming into my backyard and hunting for the eggs. They like meeting the chickens and love feeding them.”
Blackwood and Oak Forest resident Kaitlyn Mark, who has had three chickens for the last four years, said the animals are low maintenance and get along with their dogs. And while there are some startup costs associated with raising chickens, namely the construction of a coop, the fowl themselves are inexpensive and provide value over time.
They said their chickens each produce about one egg per day, which provides more than enough for their families, friends and neighbors.
“The eggs they lay taste a million times better than the ones you buy in the grocery store,” Mark said. “The yolks are more yellow and the flavor is way better.”
Blackwood and Mark, who has worked at Wabash since December, also said their chickens have become part of their families and are considered pets. So they wouldn’t dare eat them. They even have names for them, with Mark calling her chickens Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria after the ships used by Christopher Columbus when he sailed from Europe and discovered America in 1492.
Cousino said he hopes the prevalence of residential chickens prompts the city to amend its ordinance and allow them more broadly, which would put Houston in line with most other cities in the state and country.
“The rodeo capital of the world still says you’re not allowed to keep chickens in your backyard,” he said. “It’s a travesty.”
Blackwood and Mark also have backyard gardens, with Mark having installed hers in early March. Much like with their chickens, they said there are significant startup costs but rewards down the line. Blackwood, who has had his garden for four years, said he and his wife rarely need to buy produce.
Heacker said the Houston climate lends itself to year-round growing, with different crops suited for different seasons. And along with selling the necessary pots, soil, seeds and garden infrastructure, Heacker said she and her staff at Wabash provide advice and resources to new gardeners.
Wabash offers gardening classes that temporarily are suspended because of the pandemic. Heacker said she’s considering posting similar resources to the store website.
Wabash also carries Bob Randall’s book, “Year-Round Food Gardening for Houston and Southeast Texas,” although it sold out and the store is awaiting more copies.
“We want people to be successful,” she said. “So we do a lot of teaching.”
Mongeon said she first gardened about 30 years ago, so she’s relearning as she goes. She said a friend in Oak Forest brought a tiller to help loosen up the soil in her two gardens, which she’s been tending to on a daily basis.
At some point, Mongeon hopes they provide a daily source of food.
“The labor we put into this will last for a really long time,” she said. “I’m excited we’ll be able to put stuff in there now and get stuff from it. But I’m more excited because it’s going to keep producing.”