Bill Tall: icon of back-to-earthism

Edible plants for a changing world

Bill Tall outside his City Farmers Nursery
  • Bill Tall outside his City Farmers Nursery

It’s a Friday night at Nate’s Garden Grill. The Drought Tolerant Bluegrass Band is singing their down home version of “The House of the Rising Sun.” Bill Tall comes across from the City Farmers Nursery that he has been running these past 45 years. He greets his sister and a bunch of music fan ladies known as the Grillbillies.

Even in this relaxed atmosphere, you can see people are a little in awe of Tall, this icon of back-to-earthism. He hasn’t just been the missionary of sustainability, he has also walked the walk. He lived two full years without entering a supermarket, surviving completely off the grid. Bought no food. Grew everything himself. Ate only what he grew, and didn’t seem the worse for wear. And he did it right here in City Heights.

So with the rising tide of climate concerns, Tall seems the logical guy to ask, well, where are we on this?

The Grillbillies

The Grillbillies

“We can tag major changes at my nursery here to climate change,” he says. “For years, people would buy plant material to decorate their house, and make it pretty and all. Now people are looking to buy something that’s going to be edible, or something that’s decorative and edible. We seem to sell things that are a little of both, for instance watercress, mint, garlic, the native lemonberry, Rogers wild grape, and of course cactus with its tuna fruit. There’s also a jade plant called Elephant Bush whose small leaves you can eat.”

But he says there are huge disagreements on how best to proceed. Even xeriscaping isn’t the sacred cow it once was. “With the craziness of what’s going on, there’s a fight between conserving water, and making the earth better,” he says. “Conserving water is one thing, but then again, keeping a green belt makes the air, everything better. There’ve been some studies now showing how a well-watered lawn has a cooling effect, how just 400 square feet, 20 feet by 20 feet, will produce enough oxygen for four people to live on.”

Bill Tall being presented to the crowd watching the Drought Tolerant Bluegrass Band

Bill Tall being presented to the crowd watching the Drought Tolerant Bluegrass Band

Over his time here, he has seen a huge reaction against chemical-dependent agriculture.

“They’re doing studies on the carbon developed in soils that are active as opposed to non-active, and there’s a huge difference, including the amount of pollutants [those soils] take out of the air. ‘Active’ means soils that are not dead. There is biological activity, there are bacteria, which creates living soil. But a lot of farmers are still growing with dead soil. That means they’re putting things in the ground that feed the plants, but kill the bacteria. There’s nothing else except what they put in.”

The problem? Chemical fertilizers teach people not to have patience. “For instance, years ago, when people would make bread, they would mix the dough, then they would put it in a bowl, and put it outside, because there’s natural yeast in the air. The natural yeast would make it rise and work it. But it’s not instant. People want instant gratification. My philosophy is the opposite: if something grows fast, it dies fast.”

The Drought Tolerant Bluegrass Band sings out into the night.

“Oh Mother, tell your children/

Not to do what I have done!”

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