How does your garden grow?
Gardeners weigh in on the vegetables they grew from free Endangered Species Faire seedlings
Two months—and right in the middle of summer, too—is a long time to be away from home for a gardener. I knew beforehand that the lengthy trip I took in July and August with my husband and daughter to visit family in the Czech Republic was going to steal away prime gardening time.
Thus, at the beginning of summer, I wasn’t willing to invest much in my backyard vegetable garden. After all, I’d probably miss most of the harvest. But the free vegetable starts at Butte Environmental Council’s 33rd annual Endangered Species Faire, held May 5 in Bidwell Park’s Cedar Grove, beckoned.
On that day, Michael Cannon, the grower of all the plants, and Kelly Meagher, who sponsors the giveaway, sat behind their stand of 1,000 plants and watched family after family take home the offerings of cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, spinach, basil, parsley, cilantro, zinnias and more. I was there to interview families for the second installment of a three-part series on the fair and its popular free veggie starts. For part one, I had interviewed Cannon in March, back when his plants were still seedlings; this article is the third.
But, I couldn’t be just a reporter: I simply couldn’t resist, and grabbed a few plants for myself. Not long after, I plugged an automatic drip-irrigation system into the backyard hosebib, bid adieu to my newly planted garden, and left the country.
My sister sent me photo updates of the plants growing in the yard, and news of all the veggies she was harvesting from my abandoned garden. Then, I returned. After more than two months of neglect (except for the drip irrigation), shiny dark eggplants drooped from their large plants; an unstaked San Marzano tomato plant, heavy with red fruit, rambled along the ground; and the zinneas were tall and colorful. Not bad for doing absolutely nothing.
Matt Brown, with the help of his 8-year-old daughter, Eily, had chosen 16 plants from the fair to plant in his Chico back yard. Brown’s garden, about 75 percent of which was composed of starts from the fair, grew a few surprises, including pumpkins.
“We had forgotten what they were—we thought they’d be watermelons,” he said. Brown is thrilled how his daughter has participated in everything from the planting of the starts to the preservation of the harvest. She’s even “taking [food she’s harvested] to school for her lunch,” he said. “She loves getting in there and harvesting whatever is there.”
For his part, Brown admitted that, were he to buy starts rather than getting them at the fair, he wouldn’t have tried so many varieties of tomatoes, or planted as much. “It’s really nice that they [Cannon and Meagher] do that, because it’s expensive to buy starts, and getting a whole bunch all at once for free is inspiring. You don’t want to waste them, so you make sure they go to good use.”
Scotty Hodgkinson, owner of Ital Imports and longtime gardener, said his Forest Ranch summer garden was “just about all … from Michael[’s starts], except I had a bunch of volunteer tomatoes, but those were probably seeds from his starts [from] last year.” Out of three raised garden beds, one wasn’t protected from gophers. “I lost his cucumbers, one eggplant, and a couple of tomatoes,” said Hodgkinson, whose remaining beds ensured him enough tomatoes for the summer.
Bernadette Ross Brockman took home three starts. “We were successful with both the tomatoes, but not the cucumber,” Ross Brockman said. Her two cherry-tomato plants are still thriving. “I go out every day and grab a few, either for a salad, or just to eat right then and there.” Tomatoes are a family favorite, as “it’s a veggie my boys will eat.”
The cucumber plant was dug up by Buster, her yellow lab, just a few days after planting. Ross Brockman, who has gotten starts at the fair for about a decade, says she’s thankful for the giveaway. “It’s the highlight of the day! Just going over, perusing the plants, and talking to other people about how grateful we are that they’re there every year.”
“It’s been a healthy year for plants,” said Cannon recently, who used about 300 starts from the thousands of plants he started in his greenhouse in Butte Creek Canyon in March to grow a thriving garden in his Chapmantown back yard. He loves the feedback he receives every year from the hundreds of Chicoans and others who partake in the annual freebie.
“Well, you know, everyone I’ve talked to [who took a plant]—they all have great gardens,” said Cannon. “I haven’t heard any horror stories.” He estimates that he gave away around 4,000 plants this season—a record number—to fair-goers, community gardens, friends and so on. Another record-breaker was Cannon’s own harvest: “I had the best backyard garden that I’ve ever done,” he said. “Peppers did great this year. … And there’s still so much out there.”
Cannon’s garden of 10 raised beds produced so much food that he’s been donating baskets of fresh produce three times a week to the Chico Outpatient VA Clinic on Cohasset Road. And many recipients of his plants each year include nonprofits and community gardens such as Murphy Commons’ Community Garden, which took a flat of veggie starts this year. More than 10 plots at the newly-opened Humboldt Community Garden were planted in May with his starts, said Mark Stemen, who helped establish the garden.
As for my handful of abandoned plants, they’ve already gone the way of the compost pile, to make room for a winter garden, which will in turn be ripped out in time for next year’s Endangered Species Faire starts, for the yearly gardening cycle to begin again.