Growin’ with Grau

David Grau hosts third annual organic-gardening-class series at Chico Grange

Organic gardener and toolmaker David Grau takes a look at an abundant kumquat tree in his backyard garden.

Organic gardener and toolmaker David Grau takes a look at an abundant kumquat tree in his backyard garden.

Photo By Christine G.K. LaPado

Learn to grow:
David Grau’s five-part organic-gardening series begins Jan. 16. Classes are held Sundays from 1:30-3:30 p.m. at the Chico Grange hall. For more info and to sign up, go to or call 342-6188.

While waiting for his guest—organic orchardist Carl Rosato of Oroville’s Woodleaf Farm—to arrive, local organic gardener David Grau walked through his spacious back yard, pointing out citrus trees laden with kumquats and Satsuma mandarins, and leafless peach trees, dormant for the winter. Piles of brown leaves lay decomposing in open-air wooden bins near a rustic toolshed. Grau’s property has the bucolic look of an old-fashioned farm, despite its proximity to Lower Bidwell Park, not far from downtown Chico.

Rosato—a cheery, bearded man who has been farming for more than three decades—arrived and sat with Grau at the kitchen table to discuss Grau’s upcoming series of organic-gardening classes at the Chico Grange hall. The popular series begins its third year on Jan. 16. Rosato will be teaching part four of the five-part series—a Mar. 6 class on organic-fruit production, with a focus on soil enrichment for high-yield crops with maximum nutrient density.

Grau will teach the opening class; the three remaining classes will be taught by local home-gardener Rob Atkinson, a former student of Grau’s; GRUB’s Lee Callendar and Francine Stuelpnagel; and Brian Marshall and Nancy Heinzel of Paradise’s Sawmill Creek Farms, who will discuss growing heirloom and hybrid tomatoes.

Grau expects attendees—as they have in the past—to range “all the way from brand-new gardeners to people who have been gardening for 30 to 40 years.” Each two-hour class, Grau pointed out, will consist of a one-hour presentation followed by an hour (after a short break) of “mostly Q-and-A.”

Rosato and Grau are steeped in years of organic-gardening knowledge. Grau has farmed locally since the early 1980s and was one of the founding farmers at the original Chico Farmers’ Market that began in the parking lot of the Safeway store on Mangrove Avenue in 1980. He is also the creator of the “wheel hoe,” a person-powered gardening tool that he sells widely via the company he runs out of his home, Valley Oak Tool Co. (

Rosato is responsible for starting the first farmers’ market in downtown Oroville in 1981. He is also an organic-farming instructor at Butte College. The two longtime friends, it seems, are capable of answering just about any question about organic gardening, from simple to complex.

Grau will open the series with an overview of organic gardening, focusing on how it’s become “the hub of the cultural transformation we’re in the midst of toward ecological harmony,” as he put it. He will also show slides of his early farming days in the ’80s in Little Chico Creek Canyon and “a couple of places on Dayton Road,” when making a living “was very hard work.”

Referring to the cultural transformation he sees taking place, Grau said, “Eventually, when peak oil overwhelms us, fossil fuel will get very expensive, transportation will get very expensive, and local food production will make a real comeback at that point. And it really is an issue of food security to have local production. We will need many more farmers’ markets at some point.

“I think the other thing about organic gardening as the hub of cultural transformation,” he continued, “is that we’re starting to become aware of how seriously pesticides are harming not only the environment, but also [the consumer].” He explained that organic gardening avoids pesticide contamination of food, adding that some popular fruits and vegetables that you buy at the grocery store that are high in pesticides are peaches, bell peppers, apples and strawberries.

“A lot of the focus in my class is on nutrient density,” offered Rosato, who grows certified-organic peaches, apples, pears, cherries, persimmons, figs, mandarins, kiwi and papaya at Woodleaf Farm. “How do you raise a crop to get the most nutrient-dense food? The same with soil—how do you balance the soil to get the most disease resistance, the best flavors, the most nutrients in your food?” Rosato will give a rundown on pruning techniques, sprays, irrigation and soil fertility—“all geared to the backyard gardener.” He’ll even analyze attendees’ soil samples in order to help them achieve optimum results.

“One of the interesting things about the gardening classes is every presenter has a different way of doing things,” Grau observed. “They’re all organic, but they have different things to say.”

“We’re each bringing 30 years of ‘this is what works,’ ” said Rosato of his and Grau’s organic-gardening experience. “How often do you get that? You get the farmers up and talking—and, hey, we like to talk!”

Atkinson will discuss raised-bed gardening and integrating bees into the garden, and Callendar and Stuelpnagel will talk about seeds and vegetable gardening.

“Nancy [Heinzel] and Brian [Marshall] are going to have a huge amount of heirloom tomato plants—beautiful tomato plants—they will make available for sale,” added Grau excitedly.

Grau will bring some of his tools with him to the Jan. 16 class as well, including his wheel hoe.

“I will also talk about how to use a shovel, how to sharpen a shovel—the ergonomics of using a shovel,” he said.

“Keep it clean,” he continued. “Because if you have rust on the shovel, the dirt sticks to the shovel and it makes you work harder. And if you’re doing a lot of digging, if you’re breaking up your soil for planting with a shovel, it’s so much easier with a sharp shovel.”