A green thumbs-up to urban farming

At City Farmers Nursery, Bill Tall tends to visitors, animals, plants – and his mission to get city dwellers to grow their own food.

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    How does your garden grow? Bill Tall takes a break with his dog, Abby. His nursery offers everything from roosters and koi fish to a cackling green parrot and a garden deli. And plants, of course.
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SAN DIEGO - At the end of an industrial stretch of Euclid Avenue occupied by an equipment rental yard, a liquor mart, and an auto repair shop, City Farmers Nursery is a verdant surprise. But even if this were an affluent area, City Farmers would be a striking departure from the typical corporate garden center.

Small plants that will someday bear Early Girl tomatoes, lemon cucumbers, and chili peppers sit in trays near the parking lot. Not far from burbling tanks of baby koi and albino channel carp, a yellow-and-black mutt named Abby sleeps beneath a table full of petunias and marigolds.

Inside the store, a bowl on the counter holds eggs, free for the taking. A high-backed chest is filled with jars of seeds and baskets of Yellow Finn, Purple Peruvian, and Bintje potato tubers waiting to be planted.

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There’s an old upright piano with ivory keys and a hammock strung across the room, not far from a poison-green parrot with orange shoulders and a yellow head. Presiding over it all from behind the counter is owner Bill Tall, ringing up sales and dispensing advice on growing plants of all kinds, pretty much the same way he’s done it for the past 36 years.

Through his advice, free classes, school tours, and community events, Mr. Tall is a grass-roots advocate for self-sufficiency and the importance of growing fresh organic produce at home, even if you live in the city. “There’s a uniqueness to being able to eat something you grew,” says Tall. “This is a place for city kids to come and learn something different ... to plant a seed [that will help them] later on in life to appreciate gardening.”

Joseph Serrano stops in after work one recent afternoon to pick up the schedule for upcoming classes. He’s already taken one on creating topiaries; now he asks Tall about learning to grow tomatoes hydroponically.

“There’s nothing like having natural foods at hand,” says Mr. Serrano. “I have a strawberry plant and my two young daughters enjoy looking at it. They can hardly wait for those strawberries to be ready.”

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Tall was just 16 when he started his nursery in 1972, on land he leased from his parents. He dug up his first batch of plants from his parents’ yard, and sold them in old tin cans and milk cartons. He got manure from a dairy, bagged it in old flour sacks he bought from a bakery, and sold the stuff – three bags for $1.05.

These days, Tall spends as much time as possible getting others excited about gardening.

“He’s always so busy saving the world,” grumbles an employee when a reporter calls for Tall, who can’t immediately be located on the two-acre grounds.

On a recent afternoon, Tall – wearing his usual green T-shirt, yellow suspenders, and jeans – shows 26 squirming 3- and 4-year olds from a local Head Start class around the nursery. The children, wearing matching royal-blue T-shirts, hold hands as they file past the rows of plants.

No toque nada,” a mother warns in Spanish – don’t touch anything.

In the herb section, Tall invites the children to pinch a mint leaf between their fingers and gently rub it.

“See, this one smells like toothpaste,” he says.

While half of the class plants flower bulbs in pots, Tall takes the others on a tour. They marvel at Clyde, the Welsh pony, who wanders around the same pen as black-and-scarlet roosters, chickens, a flock of geese, and a pygmy goat.

A pond next to the green clapboard house where Tall lives holds red-eared slider turtles; inside a picket-fenced pen across the way are two ancient tortoises. Except for Clyde – whom Tall purchased when one of his daughters wanted a birthday pony ride – all of the animals were donated by people who couldn’t keep them anymore.

Just past the garden, near an area that Tall hopes will become an outdoor classroom with tree stumps for seats, he shows the children his large garden, where he grows strawberries, carrots, onions, and lettuce. “This is where I get most of my food,” he says. “I don’t go to the grocery store.”

Walking up a slope to the fruit-tree nursery, Tall points to the plants growing in shallow beds on the roof of his shed.
“See the vegetables growing on the roof?” he asks. “You can grow vegetables on top of your roof. But be sure to ask your mom and dad first.” With older kids, he might talk about conservation or show them how to start a compost pile at home.

Tall recalls his parents telling him that, before World War II, they and many of their neighbors had vegetable gardens. But as buying produce from grocers – and growing flowers in what had been the vegetable patch – became a sign of postwar prosperity, growing vegetables became less fashionable. Tall believes that growing your own crops makes sense, especially now, with food-contamination crises and rising food prices. It’s also a way to teach children about complex ideas such as leaving a small carbon footprint and water conservation, he says.

“If you can plant an ornamental plant ... why not exchange it for something edible that uses the same amount of water?” he asks. “This is teaching kids conservation. Instead of asking for a new DVD, maybe they’ll go home and say ‘Can we grow vegetables in our yard?’ ”

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Tall feels good about what he’s doing. Three years after he visited one high school for its career day, a woman who’d heard him speak that day called him for advice on opening her own nursery.

Another time, he says, “a woman came in and asked if I remembered her,” Tall says. “When she was 8, her mom brought her here to see the horse, and now she’s bringing her own kid.”

His favorite story though, is of a 4-year-old boy who gives Tall $5 whenever he visits, to help buy food for the animals.
Adam Johnson, 16, started working at the nursery after he visited on a high-school field trip. Now he helps out with watering plants, loading bags of soil into customers’ cars, and whatever else needs to be done.

Tall is “one of those out-there guys who loves to interact with people,” Adam says. “He loves to answer questions, and he knows everything. He’s really cool.”

City Farmers attracts customers from afar, like Shannon Rizzo and her family of young gardeners who recently drove more than 30 miles to get here. “I only buy organic, and I don’t want to buy from a big-box store,” says Ms. Rizzo. “The first time I called, I was just looking for dirt, but he was so friendly on the phone, I decided to come down.”

On that trip, the family bought necta-plum and pomegranate trees. Today, the four Rizzo children – Isabella, Heather, Luke, and Jake, each of them sporting a different color of Crocs – look for items to add to their personal gardens, and settle on strawberries, lavender, butternut squash, corn, and cantaloupe. Isabella is thrilled to find organic chocolate mint and pineapple mint to add to her herb collection,

“The other places we went to were not very good. They didn’t have a lot of organics,” says Isabella, 11. “I like this place because it seems kind of mystical and like an island.”

Tall says he has lots of customers like the Rizzos. “I have so much diversity here. We get [people from] the professor over to the city employee. That’s what’s neat about gardening. It’s not for any particular type of person.”

Francisco Garcia, a teacher, stopped by one recent Saturday to pick up wood stakes for the garden he’s starting. He hopes to be raising half his family’s produce by autumn.

“There’s a paranoia about the food you buy at the store ... the more I read, the more I’m horrified,” he says, referring to recent contamination episodes. “We have a third of an acre that’s going to go from being a useless space to something sustainable for my family.”

Mr. Garcia pauses for a moment and adds: “I’m going to grow things in my front yard,” he says. “I don’t care what the neighbors think.”

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