Organic farmer Malcolm Beck
Organic farmer Malcolm Beck Credit: Courtesy / www.plantanswers.com

When Malcolm Beck, who has been called the Father of Organic Gardening and the Compost King, died on July 31 at age 82, one of his oldest friends possessed inside information on his interment.

“Malcolm always laughed that Delphine [Beck’s wife of 60 years] would compost him when he died,” Jerry Parsons told the Rivard Report. “And that would have suited him fine.”

As it turns out, Beck was cremated. A memorial service was held Sunday at 10 a.m. at Roszell Gardens, 7561 Evans Road.

Parsons, who is a retired professor and extension horticulturist for Texas A&M University, said Beck didn’t attend college but he had a naturally inquisitive mind and loved to read. He enjoyed working as a switchman for Southern Pacific Railroad for 33 years, but was driven to study and experiment with soils on the side. The core belief of his life and career was that nature held solutions if you took the time to learn from it.

That made him a spiritual man, Parsons said.

Malcolm Beck with his wife, Delphine, in front of his corn crop.
Malcolm Beck with his wife, Delphine, in front of his corn crop. Credit: Courtesy / www.plantanswers.com

Though Beck and his wife both grew up on farms – he in Bastrop – he wanted to grow crops the modern way when he and Delphine married in 1957 and bought a small farm southeast of the city.

He described the early mistakes he made in an interview for the Texas Legacy Project in 2002, including spraying the potato plants with pesticides and killing all the ladybugs. Since ladybugs eat aphids, which eat potato plants, Beck’s plants died.

After that early mishap, a friend gave him copies of Organic Farming and Gardening Magazine in which he read about another approach: enriching soil with organic matter rather than “propping them up with chemicals” later on, as Beck told the interviewer.

“I got to weighing these two philosophies and thinking surely nature wasn’t designed where we’d have to use all these chemicals to grow the food we eat,” Beck told the interviewer. “Why can’t we just work in harmony with nature and do it her way.

“So, my wife and I, we decided we were going to take our little farm all-natural, organic, whatever you want to call it. And after a few years, it was beautiful. I mean, we had this little place manicured. It was just a little 11-acre place and we started getting all types of publicity. People were calling us backwards, old-fashioned. Some even have called us hippies. I didn’t smoke pot, so I guess I wasn’t a hippie.”

In 1968, Beck and Delphine bought a larger farm in northeast Bexar County where their four children would grow up. Firmly convinced that organic farming was the way to go, Beck sought to learn more about the natural world and how to maximize its power to grow things. In ongoing experiments, he mixed leaves, tree trimmings, manure, seaweed, and other organic matter with soil, then planted seeds into each.

“He’d have people come out and say, ‘Which of these [plants] looks better to you?’” Parsons said. “It was obvious. He made the best of them into new products.”

By the 1970s, nurserymen throughout the United States caught on to Beck’s philosophy of organic gardening. Sales of his soil and compost mixtures turned the Becks’ business, Garden-Ville, into a multimillion-dollar powerhouse.

Beck built larger and larger mixing machines to combine bat guano, mulches, sludge, and other organic material into soil-boosting compost. Bagged and in bulk, they shipped to nurseries throughout the country. Garden-Ville’s back lot was piled with mounds of organic materials in hues of brown, black, and ochre, as far as the eye could see. Farmers and landscapers bought by the truckload.

Parsons pointed out that before the organic revolution, San Antonio and Central Texas homeowners attempting to cultivate landscaping and vegetables had to “tough it out.” As anyone who has tried to grow even a zinnia knows, South Texas “soil” is nothing more than clay and rocks with little actual soil. Beck’s new organic mixes transformed the possibilities for home gardens, lawns, and farmland.

“He made other nurserymen a lot of money,” Parsons observed.

Scot Owens, an amateur botanist with a landscaping business, said he had spent about $20,000 at Garden-Ville when he lived on a limestone escarpment above New Braunfels.

“I realized I could plant azaleas in Garden-Ville’s high-acid mixes that were really designed for rose beds,” Owens said. “I planted two feet down and the azaleas thrived for 20 years and probably are still healthy today.”

Beck also studied the relationship between plants and pests. Demonstrating his common sense approach, he wrote, “When insects [and disease] attack a plant and are able to damage or destroy it, the organic grower asks why and searches for the cause. The non-organic grower ignores the cause and just treats the effects with pesticides, which may eventually worsen the problem.”

It wasn’t just agriculture and landscaping that benefited from Beck’s attention to nature, but also improved potting soil and healthier lawns.

“He came up with the idea of lawn dressing – putting a thin layer of organic material on your lawn,” Parsons said. “Before that, they put down topsoil, which didn’t do anything.”

What was happening underground also fascinated Beck. He developed the practice of planting rye cereal among crops because their roots trapped and killed root-eating nematodes. It became a nationwide practice and product.

Malcolm Beck lays sweet corn on the grill for roasting in 2002.
Malcolm Beck lays sweet corn on the grill for roasting in 2002. Credit: Courtesy / www.plantanswers.com

Even Beck’s travels focused on organic gardening, as he was invited to speak and consult throughout the country and in South Africa. He also wrote several books on organic horticulture as well as articles for Mother Earth News. His books included Garden-Ville Method, Lessons in Nature, The Secret Life of Compost, and Texas Organic Vegetable Gardening: The Total Guide to Growing Vegetables, Fruits, Herbs, and Other Edible Plants the Natural Way.

Beck wanted future generations to understand organic gardening, so he furnished soil mixes for schoolroom gardens to begin in San Antonio.

Other than roasting corn at harvest time for friends, what made Beck happiest was learning about nature with Delphine at his side.

“Just like me, it’s plants and sleeping [that] are the two things he was interested in,” Parsons said. “Malcolm was focused on organics and gardening and was happy ‘til the day he died. He was very satisfied with his lot in life. A lot of people loved Malcolm and Delphine – they were a team.”

In addition to Delphine, Beck is survived by three children and seven grandchildren.

Nancy Cook-Monroe

Nancy Cook-Monroe is a local freelance writer and public relations consultant. She has written about San Antonio arts and civic scenes since she could hold a pencil.