A gift that grows

Longtime gardener Michael Cannon on growing vegetables and flowers to give away at the Endangered Species Faire

Michael Cannon in his Butte Creek Canyon greenhouse with the hundreds of plant starts that will be given away at May’s Endangered Species Faire.

Michael Cannon in his Butte Creek Canyon greenhouse with the hundreds of plant starts that will be given away at May’s Endangered Species Faire.

photo by Claire Hutkins Seda

Earlier this month, Michael Cannon walked into a local Raley’s supermarket and saw a small display for vegetable seeds. He purchased a packet of basil seeds and tossed them into the back of his forest-green Cadillac. But, unlike most gardeners’ purchases, the plants grown from these seeds will end up growing in backyard gardens all across Chico.

They’ll join the thousands of other seeds Cannon has already amassed this year from nurseries, box stores, grocery stores—“You can’t name one place I haven’t been to in search of seeds,” he said—to start the 800 to 1,000 plants to be given away during May’s popular Endangered Species Faire, an annual environmental-education fair and parade sponsored by the Butte Environmental Council (BEC) and held in Bidwell Park’s Cedar Grove.

“It’s an integral part of the event,” said Cannon of the plant giveaway, as he walked through the rain to visit the vegetable and flower starts inside his greenhouse in Butte Creek Canyon. “Growing food and eating are a communal, family affair,” and the giveaway pairs well with the environmental message the Endangered Species Faire promotes, he explained.

The popular plant giveaway began over a decade ago, when Chico activist Kelly Meagher purchased a few hundred vegetable starts and gave them away during the fair, which Meagher and other early environmentalists at BEC had been running since 1979.

The plant giveaway was a hit—and Cannon’s then-wife, Marilyn, saw a way to reduce the cost. “Marilyn came along and said, ‘Let me grow some for you,’” because the couple’s greenhouse was empty, Cannon said. After the first year, Cannon inherited the vegetable-growing task as part of his wide-ranging job working for Meagher as his gardener, groundskeeper, errand-runner, assistant—”and drinking buddy,” he offered. The gift of plants continues to be funded by Meagher, while Cannon does the growing. “Kelly’s the man,” said Cannon, “and it was his idea.”

The preparation for the fair’s giveaway starts months before the event; Cannon begins planting in late January. He chooses varieties based on his past experiences growing them. “There are certain varieties that I like, and that Kelly likes,” he said, and so the Endangered Species Faire will feature Cannon’s favorites, like San Marzano and Celebrity tomatoes and Joe E. Parker chili peppers, along with squash, cucumbers, zucchini, eggplant, spinach, and herbs such as basil and cilantro.

And, this year, he’ll have a new plant to offer—zinnias, easy-to-grow colorful flowers favored by butterflies.

“[Meagher] likes bouquets around the house,” as a reminder of his mother, said Cannon, and so he began growing cut flowers. “It attracts the bees,” Cannon noted, and “every vegetable gardener needs to have cut flower bouquets in their house.”

In addition to the nearly 1,000 plants he’s planning for the event, Cannon is planting for his backyard garden, Meagher’s personal garden, and for senior centers, community gardens, and friends across Chico. “I realized that I could start them, and it’s not that much more work” to significantly increase the number of plants once the system was in place, he said. Cannon estimates he will plant more than 5,000 seeds this year.

Like most gardeners, he is thinking months ahead of harvest. In his case, however, there’s a strict deadline for when the plants need to be presentable. Cannon worries most about his peppers: “They seem to be the hardest to get big by May 5,” the date of the fair, and so he plants them first.

This time of year, Cannon drives roughly every other day from his home in Chico to Butte Creek Canyon to check on the starts. The greenhouse sits in a large parcel he lived on for 22 years, until he moved back into town.

On a recent rainy morning when Cannon entered the greenhouse, a gray bird fluttered out the back of the structure. The glass ceiling dripped rain in a few spots onto the thousands of plants he has been growing since late January. He pulled out an empty seed tray to demonstrate his planting technique. After piling in a seed-starter mix made with peat moss and perlite, “you wet [the seed tray] down, stick a pencil in to make holes, take the seeds and drop them in. Then I come back and pinch them,” he said. He finishes by adding more dirt over the top, and labeling the flat.

By mid-March, his 30-foot greenhouse was more than half full of tiny plants. In early April—three weeks before the Endangered Species Faire—Cannon said he will spend a few days transplanting the starts into larger pots, which will be given away on a first-come, first-served basis.

Despite the stress of a deadline, Cannon—who once tended a perennial-native-plant garden and a commercial vegetable farm in the greenhouse and on the plot adjoining it—advocates for a stress-free approach to gardening.

“I’m more of a ‘garden-when-you-can’ type. Don’t stress,” he advised. “When the spirit moves you, you get in there and do what you can, when you can.”