Life is a Garden…Dig It!


In another feature about “Who’s Impressing Me Now,” I stumbled across this amazing pocket of positivity: a community garden run by 26-year-old Phillip McGie Hall, an Ag Science major at Butte College. In the neighborhood I call “InMo” (the area of houses near In Motion Fitness) he has developed a plot of land across the street from his dad’s house, turning an empty lot into a garden bursting with beautiful tomatoes and a robust social conscience. He donates all the money he gets from his honor-system vegetable stand to the Torres Shelter. The next time you’re heading to or from the gym, swing down Kentfield Street and check it out. DSCF4444

Why a giant garden and why the Torres Shelter? 

Before my dad bought this property, they just had a sunflower and a tomato plant here. But my dad bought it and since then we started building this garden because his backyard was too crowded; I wanted to grow some vegetables and I needed something to do this summer.

The Torres Shelter seemed to be the charity that we supported the most in Chico. There are a lot of problems with the homeless right now and they [the Torres Shelter] are the ones who are really trying to solve that problem. We figured that since we don’t have an Ag license, if we make it donation-based and have all the money going to a non-profit, then nobody would give us any trouble. And we haven’t had a single problem with theft or anything like that—and I think that shows how much respect our community has for the Torres Shelter.

Plus, who doesn’t need drive-by tomatoes? 

The neighborhood has been really nice. Occasionally we’ll just find a $20 bill in the donation box, and we know they’ll grab some tomatoes for a couple days after that. Whenever we have too much, we just put up a sign on East 1st and by the next rush hour, it’ll all be gone.

100% of the money we get goes to the Torres Shelter. I’m hoping to get this small project to grow, or that other people will take this same idea and run with it.

How much have you donated so far? 

Somewhere around $750, just on donations this summer. If we can grow enough tomatoes, we get $25+ a day. We get so many positive responses from the neighborhood and people just stopping by that are so happy to have it here.

Yeah it’s a giant positivity bomb for sure. 

I think that if you put it out there, you totally get it back. I’m not positive at all when I’ve been pulling weeds for 6 hours—I’m just grumpy and curmudgeony—but I know I’m doing it for good reasons. When I meet people and they say, “whoa this is great!” or I hang out here with friends and the tiki torches at night, sitting out here until 1 or 2 in the morning, it’s just so much fun.

Yeah! It has this fun backyard garden vibe, but the social-conscience aspect is radiating from this space out into the community. 

I’m getting a lot of help from my family. Just by living in a society with places like Butte College—where anyone can afford it even if they’ve screwed up time and time again—if you’re ready for it, they’ll give you all this knowledge. It feels like this garden is a little bit of a return on their investment; the least I can do is spend some free time trying to help some other people.

I think more things like this will help Chico get through this hard time. 

I do too; there is just this great character about Chico, with really great people.

How did you choose ag? 

I was doing construction before the market crashed; I ended up doing landscaping and realized there were a lot of jobs in ag, and decided to change some things to see if I could get a good job.

Who else helps you with Kentfield Garden? 

When I’m busy my brothers take care of it for me, and my dad put the vegetable stand together. But 50-75% of the work is done by me.

I put in all the drip line, it was a lot of work. 20-30 hours a week for a month.

Playing some ‘shoes on your breaks? 

I put the horseshoe pit in because you DON’T need to water a horseshoe pit—and I was so sick of putting in drip line that it seemed like a good use of space.

What are your plans for the future of Kentfield Garden? 

I have an idea for this place over the next couple of years. Since our location is so good, we’re in a really good place to sell produce. Over the next year or two I’d like to link up with a couple other community gardens and have extra produce go to a good cause, instead of just rotting on the vine. I was really active with Food Not Bombs when I was in high school; they’re a little too political for me now, but I still like the idea of helping people get the food that would normally go to waste.

Taking a walk around the garden… DSCF4454

It’s a total learning experience. You can see the different versions of the tomato supports. The first poles… I got sick of digging holes. Then I found a way to do it with crossbars. If I had to do it again, I’d put in twice as many rows but not do any side-to-side support—have it be like a vineyard where they’re in a line. That’s what I’m hoping to do next year. I thought 65 tomato plants would be more than I could ever get rid of, but ends up I could have put in a hundred and we’d still be selling out.

Here, we made the mistake of not separating our bells and our spicy peppers, so they all cross-pollinated and made it so everything was medium-spicy.

Also we’re making our own compost now; some of our neighbors are giving us their lawn clippings to combine with some of the weeds we pull. We have a problem with a lot of clay in the soil so I’m trying to get more organic material in there.

You know we planted these sunflowers thinking they’d be purely aesthetic, but we had so many bees coming off there that every tomato flower we had was pollinated. When it was a full wall of sunflowers we had an incredible amount of bees. And we haven’t had any problems with insects; haven’t had to spray for anything.

And the shed, I just love how that turned out. My brother painted it. My dad used a template and my brother painted it.

We planted a bunch of shiso and discovered that if we soaked it in a brine and put it in vodka for a couple days, it made great Bloody Marys. (Then he made me eat a leaf that was totally strange and delicious.) We have a bunch of jars of the dried shiso leaves that we crushed up and put into 4-ounce containers that will be for sale soon.

Have you thought about doing stuff with kids? They have tiny hands—excellent for weeding and digging little holes. 

I hadn’t thought of that, but I could see where that would be something cool. They could help with spring planting so they could come back later and see what happens; that’d be a fun partnership. And as you can see, we’ve got plenty of weeds to pull.

This is a perfect example of what makes Chico great. Can the community participate and tend their own plot in your garden if they want to? 

Stop by next spring if we’re working out there and you see us, let’s talk about it. 1125 Kentfield. It’s a lot of hours and a lot of sweat, but I’m really proud of this place. You ever read Candide by Voltaire? They go off trying to prove who has the most miserable life, and everyone they meet says they have the most miserable life, and then they realize the secret to happiness is to never talk about politics or philosophy. The way it translates is to ‘tend your own garden.’ I took it way more literally, but it works. I get a lot of happiness out of this place.


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Sara makes the words happen.