‘Farmer Bill’ Tall taught San Diegans how to grow for nearly 50 years
The founder of family-run City Farmers Nursery in City Heights died Tuesday after a long-battle with cancer
Long before organic gardening, native plants, sustainability and free-range chicken coops became the trendy ways to landscape backyards in San Diego, there was “Farmer Bill” Tall.
From the day he started his City Farmers Nursery in City Heights nearly 50 years ago, Tall taught generations of San Diegans how to garden in a planet-friendly way with enthusiasm, experience and kindness. He died Tuesday at age 64, following a long battle with cancer.
Local gardening author and expert Nan Sterman said Tall was always forward-thinking about gardening, even though his eclectic nursery has the look and feel of an old-fashioned mercantile and petting zoo.
“Bill was an icon, a very quiet, understated and very humble icon in the gardening community,” Sterman said. “He founded that nursery when he was a teenager because he was driven by his passion. He wanted everyone to grow plants and to love growing plants. It was a place way ahead of its time.”
Tall was just 16 years old when he started City Farmers on a nearly 2-acre plot of land his father owned at 3110 Euclid Ave. in 1972. It’s now the city’s largest all-organic nursery, and one of the few family-run nurseries left in San Diego. City Farmers maintained a loyal following, friends say, because he catered to the needs of his customers, who would line up on weekends just to chat with “Farmer Bill,” who was known for his keen listening skills, yardstick-inspired yellow suspenders and 1,000-watt smile.
“He was a selfless, honest, caring person who was at his happiest when teaching new gardeners all of his wisdom on soil, planting and pest control,” said retired landscape designer Cynthia Drake, who knew Tall for 30 years. “Bill generously shared his wealth of horticultural information, plant materials and supplies. He was my mentor, business supporter and best friend. There will never be another like him.”
William Tall was born in La Mesa and grew up in Clairemont, the youngest son of Nathan and Bertha Tall. As a boy, he and his dad tended side-by-side backyard vegetable gardens, and his mom would whisper in 6-year-old Bill’s ear that his produce was the best.
“Dad always took that to mean this was something that he might be good at,” said Rebecca Tall Brown, the eldest of his three children, who all grew up living and working on the nursery property and are still involved in the business today.
In his freshman year at Clairemont’s Madison High, Tall took a class in landscape architecture. When he told the teacher he was thinking of starting his own nursery, the teacher asked him “why wait?” A year later, he started bicycling every weekend to the Euclid Avenue property, where his dad ran a produce stand. With little money or resources, Tall built some sawhorses for tables and he’d drive to dairies, where he could collect cow manure for free and sell it to home gardeners for a buck a bag.
At 18, he bought a mobile home and moved permanently to the property. On weekdays he did landscape maintenance, on weeknights he took horticulture classes at Mesa College and on weekends he ran the nursery, Brown said. That year, Nathan Tall started charging his son rent for the land and secretly held every penny in a bank account that he left to his son when he died in 1999. With that money, Tall built a bigger home for his family on the property.
Over the years, City Farmers expanded into to a popular tourist destination, with ponies and goats to pet, an elaborate bonsai garden, a piano to play, displays of yard art and a children’s playground. In 2000, Tall added a restaurant in his dad’s memory, Nate’s Deli, now known as Nate’s Garden Grill.
One of his longtime friends and colleagues, Walter Andersen of Walter Andersen Nursery, said Tall had a unique business model. Unlike other nurseries that sell products they purchase from growers and vendors, Tall grew most of his own plants and he hand-mixed his own soils, potting mixes and mulches.
Brad Monroe, who founded Cuyamaca College’s ornamental horticulture department and serves on the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District board, said City Farmers was able to compete against big-box home supply stores because of his dedication to all-organic and sustainable products.
“He was a real old-school nursery person with a passion for plants, for the environment and for really maintaining landscapes that were not only sustainable but beautiful,” Monroe said.
Brown said her father embraced the melting pot of cultures in City Heights. He sold the hard-to-find fruit trees and vegetable seedlings that the local immigrant and refugee communities had grown in their native countries. He also gave many of these new Americans their first jobs in the United States and loved teaching classes to newbie gardeners.
“Bill found a niche that was filled by no one else,” said John Clements, the horticulture manager at San Diego Botanic Garden. “He was a visionary without even knowing it. He was basically setting the stage that you can eat food you grow on your own property, even if you’re living in the city. Looking back now, he was way ahead of the curve.”
Bill Homyak, who with Meredith Sinclair ran the horticulture program at Southwestern College from 1981 to 2011, said Tall was a well-recognized leader in the industry. Tall served many terms as chapter president of the trade group now known as the California Association of Nurseries and Garden Centers. Through that group, Tall helped establish a $100,000 scholarship program for horticulture students at Southwestern. Over the years Tall also donated thousands of plants, gardening materials and teaching hours for the creation of numerous community and school gardens.
“He was a real go-getter,” Homyak said. “He definitely saw the need for education in the industry and he was appreciated by everyone in education.”
Tall was diagnosed with a complex cancer six years ago and was tireless in seeking out experimental drug trials to prolong his life. Through it all, Brown said her dad barely missed a day of work. A few weeks ago, he went into hospice care at home and died surrounded by family. Online services were held Friday. He is buried near his parents at El Camino Memorial Park in San Diego. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to the Southwestern College Foundation.
Tall is survived by his wife, Elizabeth Gonzalez; his three children Rebecca Tall Brown, Sam Tall and Sara Tall; his stepchildren Jorge Isaac, Elizabeth Medina and Andres Medina; and his ex-wife, Patty Cordero.
Although Tall is gone, City Farmers will carry on under the leadership of the Tall children. Brown, who runs a marketing business, will take over the business side of the operation. Sam, the middle child, inherited the green thumb and has been working by his father’s side in the nursery for many years as his successor. And youngest sibling Sara, who lives in Nebraska, is a graphic artist who designed and runs the company’s website.
“This is our way to care for him and his legacy and make sure that all the employees are taken care of and we’re here forever,” Brown said.
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