Early every Thursday morning, a handful of vegetable vendors gather in the shadiest part of the parking lot at the San Antonio Botanical Garden to set up their booths.
The backs of their cars and trucks are filled with the freshest fruits and vegetables to come from their farms. Tomatoes, okra, red onions, candy corn, potatoes and more line their tables as they wait for folks to come by.
The scene is nothing like the Saturday markets at the Olmos Basin, Leon Springs or the Pearl Brewery, where dozens, if not hundreds, of people come out in search of something to cook up fresh.
In fact, there are no lines at the Botanical Garden booths despite a steady steam of moms with children in strollers and senior citizens. Everyone is busy, but nobody is harried. And both customers and vendors like it that way.
The lax pace lets people on both sides of the table get to know each other as well as the produce being sold. That way, if you find a basket of new potatoes that reminds you of some joyous childhood memory, you know exactly where to return the following week for more of the same.
“We should have tomatoes through the fall,” said Celia Rios, who was helping her sister, Dora Peralta, run one booth. Peralta owns the farm in Natalia where most of her food originated, though they admitted the cantaloupes were from further south.
Okra will also “stay all the way through,” Peralta said. This green vegetable, so perfect in gumbo or fried to a deep brown, is a big hit with the customers.
“The biggest seller for me is okra,” she said. “I sell a lot.”
It’s also a favorite of hers. Peralta loves to stir-fry her okra in a little olive oil with some salt and pepper added to taste. “Just cover and let it cook,” she said.
The booths offer their customers plenty of information, from the fact that they accept WIC and senior nutrition vouchers, to simple cooking tips or recipes on how to use the produce being offered.
Peralta loves to grill her corn after soaking the unshucked ears in water for 20 minutes. “Then just put ’em on the pit,” she said.
Pickling cucumbers are better than the large, seed-filled ones you might pick up at the supermarket. Even the skin adds to the great crunch they have. “Once you eat these, you don’t want to go back,” she told one shopper.
Peralta likes the Botanical Garden stand as well as the one at Olmos Basin, where she can be found on Saturdays, because “they have the trees,” she said. The heat this year has been crazy, forcing the sisters to bring lots of iced tea and water with them to keep them hydrated.
The same is true of her crops, which had good rains this spring but now need irrigation, she said.
Chris George operates one of the other food booths. The produce is from his fiancée’s farm in the Fredericksburg area, Oma Engel’s. The family produces preserves under that label and you’ll find a few jars of blackberry and peach for sale alongside the squashes and tomatoes.
The family had to buy peaches this year for their preserves since a late freeze wiped out the Hill Country crop, but that didn’t stop the family from getting a few to sell from a farmer south of San Antonio.
It’s something people visiting the market expect to buy, and vendors like George are happy to oblige.
George stocks up on ice water and Gatorade to make it through the long, hot days. And he appreciates the shade of the lot while it lasts.
His favorite among the foods he sells are the squashes and zucchini, which his fiancée sautés in a winning mixture of butter and bacon. “You can’t go wrong with that,” he said.
The only non-food vendors at the market are the volunteers from the Botanical Garden, who sell a host of plants grown from cuttings of plants.
“We have a lot of plants in the greenhouse,” said volunteer Liz Malloy, as she rearranged a few to make sure all were as much in the shade as possible.
Customers love anything with flowers on it. “If it blooms, it’ll sell,” said Beth Wrockloff, who organizes the weekly sale.
That includes salvias, lantanas and other bloomers, as well as one or two herbs and a papaya that was quickly snapped up.
Prices now are reduced, Wrockloff said, “because we want to cut down on inventory.”
She did advise shoppers to look for low-watering plants because of drought restrictions.
Many of the plants moved quickly last Thursday, both because of their beauty and because, as Malloy said, “You’re carrying home a little of the garden with you.”
The farmers market at the San Antonio Botanical Gardens, 555 Funston, runs from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursdays through early December.