‘Compost King’ Malcolm Beck Helped Bring Organic Gardening to the Mainstream

Print Share on LinkedIn Comments More
Organic farmer Malcolm Beck

Courtesy / www.plantanswers.com

Organic farmer Malcolm Beck

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.

Courtesy / www.plantanswers.com

Malcolm Beck with his wife, Delphine, in front of his corn crop.

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.

Courtesy / www.plantanswers.com

Malcolm Beck lays sweet corn on the grill for roasting in 2002.

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.

7 thoughts on “‘Compost King’ Malcolm Beck Helped Bring Organic Gardening to the Mainstream

  1. In the early 1970’s , my husband and I moved from Los Amgeles, CA to New Braunfels for his job on the Southern Pacific Railroad. We were organic gardeners, and what would later be described as “back to the landers” I got a job at GARDEN-VILLE, which at that time was the name of the little health food store, on the farm; it was run by Beulah and Kale Valentine, who had a small house on the property. I didn’t see Malcolm too much, but looked forward to Delphine’s daily delivery of beautiful fresh produce. We ground wheat for packaging whole grain flour and made made yogurt. My son was born while I worked there (before the next transfer) So many happy memories! Malcolm Beck was an incredible man.

  2. THANK YOU FOR THIS WONDERFUL TRIBUTE!
    I am a long time friend of them both. I named them, The Organic Duo:)

    That sign of Malcolm holding the vegetables was taken by me at the back of my property. I have trails and paths cut through my 10 acres and this one I named for Malcolm and Del.
    I am curious as to how you got the picture.
    I gave my Organic Duo copied of every picture I ever took of them. My refrigerator is filled with their pictures.
    So anyway……
    One day I was showing off telling Del about what all I had planted for the wildlife. She was not impressed. She looked at me and said, “So, what are your growing for you to eat?” lol
    We have laughed about it for over 20 years.
    The plastic vegetables was a joke for them. I drove them down to their path and said, “LOOK DEL!” WE laughed and laughed and I got Malcolm to pose in front of their path sign.

    I adored Malcolm. Still do. But let me tell you something that Malcolm and I both said to each other one day. If it weren’t for her they would be broke.
    Delphine is a fragile German gal that kept it all afloat.
    She named Gardenville.
    She was the ‘founder’ of it all.
    She has a 6th grade education due to the fact she had to drop out when her mother passed over.
    She raised her siblings.

    She is nothing short of amazing and in my top 3 of the women on this planet that I admire most. My mother was #1:)

    I am blessed to say I have my memories of my time with them both!

    They were the first ones to ever see my 10acres when I bought it in 1998.

    Malcolm and Del got out of the truck after getting lost finding my very isolated land.

    He took off his hat and rubbed his head and looked at me and said, “Linda, Linda, Linda! How did you EVER find this place?”

    My heart sank because I thought he did not like it.
    Then he said, “ONLY YOU would have bought this place and seen the potential in it!”
    I called it my unscrewed up by man land:)

    Few people have ever been given a gate opener and keys to my home.
    They were the first ones to get them.

    I love them both dearly.

    Linda Murrell

  3. Wow. Thank you for sharing.
    My Dad drove us to Malcolm Beck’s farm to buy organic vegetables when I was 7 (1967). He showed us around his farm, and discussed organic farming. Beck helped us start our home organic garden. My parents grew organic vegetables for my brother and I while we were growing up. As a kid, I used to disparage garden chores, but now I am very thankful. My father, Jim D. Stoker, talked over pest problems with Malcolm, and they experimented with solutions.

  4. The Squash Borer Story:

    At my parents’ 61st wedding anniversary, our family was discussing squash borers. My brother has stopped growing squash because of this pest. My Father, Jim D. Stoker, remembered his frequent talks with Malcolm about pests. Dad had some up with a squash borer solution involving horse syringes and a common pesticide-free household item. Malcolm ended up publishing Dad’s article about the squash borer in “Organic Gardening”. I truly enjoyed the longer reply above.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *