Farming fundamentals

Local gardening presentations embraced by the community

GREEN THUMB <br>Al Vogel shows how he uses a simple tool to control weeds in his garden. Vogel’s small Durham farm was the site of a recent gardening workshop.

Al Vogel shows how he uses a simple tool to control weeds in his garden. Vogel’s small Durham farm was the site of a recent gardening workshop.

Photo by Sarah Hubbart

Gardening 101—and then some: For information on the next series of gardening workshops, visit

Al Vogel’s hands tell his story. They are weathered and bandaged, a layer of dirt still under his fingernails from the day-to-day workings of his small but productive farm in Durham.

“I have this green thumb and I like eating good food and I like seeing happy people,” he said, quickly summing up his motivation for farming.

His stand—known as Al’s Pretty Good Produce—has quite a following at the Saturday farmers market in downtown Chico. Vogel started farming in 1984 and now cultivates an astonishing 350 different products from his 1.47-acre plot, a feat accomplished by good old-fashioned hard work instead of chemicals and high-tech equipment.

Throughout a recent crisp, clear Sunday, a carpool of minivans, Priuses and Suburus lined the farmer’s driveway as he led presentations to four groups as part of an impressive series of comprehensive—and extremely popular—organic gardening classes organized by David Grau.

Grau, a bespectacled man with a thoughtful way of speaking, has lived in Chico for 32 years and was one of the original founders of the farmers market back in the early ’80s. He left the farming business to get a degree in psychology because organic prices were low, but recently returned to the garden and now makes and sells gardening tools.

He has coordinated virtually every aspect of the series of 11 workshops hosted (mostly) at the Chico Grange Hall, and at Vogel’s place served as the official event photographer. The classes began in January, and Grau said attendees have ranged from first-timers to experienced home gardeners to local farmers wishing to learn a new technique.

Teaching comes naturally to Vogel, who taught at Chico High School for more than 30 years. Throughout the day, he welcomed more than 100 eager gardeners to his operation to learn tricks of the trade that only a seasoned farmer could provide. His wife, Sharon, encouraged visitors to help themselves to tea and coffee served up in a collection of homey mugs.

The couple’s green-trimmed white farmhouse, built in 1919, sits a few yards from the main garden, a 120-by-60 foot rectangle. Each of the numerous rows of produce is put through a different three-crop rotation every year. Vogel also manages an orchard of about 100 fruit trees, including almonds, apples and peaches, and has a flock of 35 Rhode Island red and buff Orpington chickens.

“The whole thing is time-consuming,” admitted Vogel, laughing.

His enthusiasm for this way of life appeared to be contagious. Participants scribbled down notes on pads of paper as he explained his drip-irrigation system and gave demonstrations on the simple hand tools he uses to keep weeds at bay.

The group chuckled knowingly as Vogel voiced the common challenges of a gardener, including difficulties growing cilantro (a tricky crop to transplant), and his war on gophers (he has tried virtually every way of deterring them, including bubblegum, garlic, and even road flares).

SUNNY SPOT<br>Al Vogel’s many varieties of produce get their start in his small but efficient greenhouse, which is also used to dehydrate figs.

Photo by Sarah Hubbart

His presentation included a tour of the main garden, greenhouse and chicken coop, with participants often cutting in to ask questions ranging from “what’s the best chicken feed?” to “where did that magnolia tree come from?” Vogel happily obliged the queries, so, on more than one occasion, his wife gently reminded him to stay on topic.

Chicoan Jill Bailey, a beginning gardener with a one-third-acre lot, said seeing Vogel’s garden and his ideas was extremely helpful. Another participant, Christianne Langford, has been gardening on a small scale for 20 years. She came on the trip looking for ideas to bring back to Biggs Elementary School, where she is a teacher.

“I kind of want it to be just like this,” she said, referring to a school garden she started a year ago and is now planning to expand.

Langford hasn’t missed a single session in the gardening series and said it has helped her learn to live more sustainably. The workshops motivated her to attend a garden-raising, and she is looking into starting a home chicken flock for fresh eggs.

Chicoan Doug Sturm, a local real estate broker, was busy working on installing irrigation at his own place before heading to the workshop. He lives on one acre just outside of town and recently started his first garden “in a long time.”

“You can’t get any fresher than going out to your garden and picking it yourself,” he said of his desire to grow his own food.

Grau said the participants were just the sort of people he was hoping would attend. He wasn’t surprised by the community interest.

“I was hoping there would be enough to pay the rent [of the Grange Hall],” said Grau, who modeled the series after similar workshops he once attended in Marin County.

About 170 people signed up, paying $10 per session or $27 for the full series. Grau plans to start up a second phase of workshops on April 19 and will then take a break for the summer before gearing up for the planned fall gardening presentations.

“I really want to get people to get back into growing their own food,” he said. “Organic gardening is the hub around which all of the other changes happen, on a planetary and local level.”

At about 12:30 in the afternoon, the members of the class began to wander back toward their cars as the next group of attendees began showing up. Many stopped to show Grau their appreciation for his efforts in organizing the series.

“I am really happy that we have this to offer,” said Bailey, the new gardener. “It reminds me of what a wonderful community we live in.”

Grau didn’t have time to bask in the afterglow of the successful field trip; he was already talking about phone calls he needed to make in order to line up future speakers.

“I have never been thanked so much in my life,” he said modestly.