The Godfather of Organic Gardening Is Bringing All the Millennials to the Yard

It’s barely dawn on a Sunday morning in July, and San Antonio talk radio host Bob Webster has already discussed blister beetles, root rot, the gloriousness of Labrador retrievers, and the state of his Boerne ranch with his callers. Currently on the line is Diego, concerned with his drooping sago palm, which is showing signs of distress after its owner’s return from a two-week vacation. Several remedies have proven unsuccessful, and Diego needs Webster’s guidance. After a series of intense and progressively gloomy questions, Webster delivers the verdict. The crown of the plant, where the root meets the stem, is dying, and swift action must be taken. But Diego is not left hopeless: a snip of the infected area and a dash of fertilizer called Superthrive, and Webster predicts Diego’s sago palm will have new life. “Now it’s on to Rita! Goooood morning, Rita!” 

Over the course of three hours, Webster doles out gardening advice to KTSA listeners across the state. A cast of characters files through the phone lines: Linda from Boerne, who wants to know how to keep rabbits out of her garden (“With a big dog,” Webster quips), Dan from Devine, who has an update on a pest-control tip he used at his feedstore, and Pat from Seguin, calling to ask Bob which kind of honey was it, again, that he recommended for allergies? (It’s tupelo.) There are countless greetings, several cheesy jokes, and a dropped call or two. And it’s been this way since 1991.  

The Garden Show, as it was originally called, evolved out of Webster’s landscaping courses at Trinity University. When longtime San Antonio Express-News editor Charles Kilpatrick got word of the unique classes, he persuaded Webster to write a weekly column, which became so popular it got the attention of the radio station. Now called South Texas Gardening with Bob Webster, the twice-weekly show regularly comes in at number one in its time slot. Webster preaches an organic method of gardening, born out of his childhood working summers at his grandparents’ flower shop outside of Dallas. There, he helped cultivate tomatoes and grow cut flowers, and over time, he realized they grew better when natural pest-control methods were used and the soil was rich with chemical-free fertilizer and compost from vegetable waste. After college at SMU, where he graduated with a research biology degree, Webster met several of his mentors, including Dallas-based organic landscaper and horticulturalist Howard Garrett and the “Compost King,” the late Malcolm Beck. Those early years shaped his gardening philosophy. “It is absolutely not true when people say natural landscaping methods aren’t as effective as chemical ones. Actually, the opposite is true. That’s what I try to get across in my work,” he tells me.

By the mid-1980s, Webster had written a book, lectured throughout the state, and opened Shades of Green, an organic nursery in San Antonio with his business partner, Roberta Churchin. An upscale oasis near the airport, Shades of Green serves as both a respite from the stress of city life and a valued resource for locals. The staff, employed year-round, act as mini-Websters, offering advice to customers who often come in with photos of troubled plants. When Webster does appear, fussing with a citrus tree or clipping at some plumbagos, customers tell me his focused intensity is hard to disturb. Frequent shopper Elizabeth says that, even though she knows he wouldn’t mind if she stopped him with a question (“Because he is so dang friendly”), the radio show is where she gets most of his advice. 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Shades of Green offered free seminars on topics such as vegetable gardening and composting, which were so popular they would quickly sell out and cars would overflow from the parking lot. The seminars have yet to resume, but sales at the nursery have only increased. “We used to see customers mostly in their fifties and sixties, but now they are in their teens and early twenties. It has been a huge change. Really remarkable,” Webster tells me one recent afternoon. “These young people, they read; they’re interested. They come in, and they know plant terminology. They’re looking for houseplants because they know having a plant inside can increase oxygen levels. They are very intentional about their purchases.” Research on the spending habits of millennials and Gen Zers backs this up. A 2020 report from predictive analytics firm First Insight showed that showed 73 percent of Gen Z consumers were willing to pay more for sustainable goods and organic products, and in June, a survey from consulting giant McKinsey & Company found that during the pandemic, millennials in particular sought healthier food. At the nursery, I ask Jake, a 22-year old college senior waiting to purchase a cactus, why he frequents Shades of Green. “Well, it’s much better than Home Depot down the street. The plants are better quality, so I don’t mind if it’s little more expensive.” Lauren, a shopper in her early thirties, is browsing the seasonal vegetable containers. In town with a friend, she decides that the trip from New Braunfels was worth it to walk around the nursery. “So relaxing,” she sighs. 

Compared to Shades of Green, the radio show can seem unpolished or even clunky, but the cast of characters always makes it an entertaining listen, green thumb or not. Frequent callers sometimes earn amusing nicknames, like “Chicken Joe” or “Fred from Frisco.” Friends are made over the airwaves. I have spent many hours listening to Webster’s radio show, the rhythmic tenor of his voice putting me into some sort of trance while I snip flowers or pull weeds. Since I am years from retirement age, I endure some light teasing from my friends (all of whom still appreciate my advice on the cleaning power of orange oil). But like many millennials, I find the importance of organics vital to the future of our world. For other listeners, Webster’s appeal is simpler than that. My aunt, a frequent caller on the show, compares it to a book club or a church group. “We share something, and you get to know the people. Listening is like catching up with family.” As evidence, she cites Linda from Seguin, who is now retired from teaching, something she only knows from listening last week. I suspect the show’s appeal could go deeper as she admits, “Really, I listen for the company.”

Asked about slowing down, Webster remarks that he does take a few days off here and there, and maybe travels a bit less for his lectures. But a life dedicated to education and the conservation of the Texas landscape doesn’t lend itself to retirement. And while there are “absolutely no plans” to close Shades of Green’s doors, Churchin and Webster have put in place a plan to continue teaching long after they’re gone: eventually, Shades of Green will become a public garden. It’s all part of a life spent learning, beginning years ago in the Dallas flower shop. “My grandpa taught me work could be fun. When it stops being fun, I will stop working,” Webster says. Somehow, I doubt it ever will. 

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