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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.

By Maria C. HuntContributor / August 19, 2008

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.

Mary Knox Merrill

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San Diego

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.

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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.

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.”

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