Bill Tall Explains Ways to Help Your Garden Thrive

| December 14, 2020 | 0 Comments

In September, Mission Hills Garden Club was treated to a delightful presentation by the owner of City Farmers Nursery.  Founded by Bill Tall’s father in 1972, Tall is the current owner with his children ready to take up the reins when he retires.  Of course, Tall says, “It has never been just a job for me.”  For Tall, what he does is his passion.  He just happens to make a living at gardening. 

The first step in creating a terrific garden is planning.  Research everything first.  Understand your soil’s makeup.  Know where underground utilities and pipes are laid.  Cities and counties have maps.  Study the sun’s path throughout each day and throughout the year.  What kind of plants do you want?  What do they need to thrive? How large will they get and how fast will they grow?  What possible issues might they have, such as pests and diseases?  Every plant needs room for air flow.  Smaller plants cost less and grow, but leave room so they can spread.  Plants with similar soil, water, and light needs should be put together to save time and water. 

People rave about Tall’s beautiful garden, convinced his plants make it spectacular.  Tall says that the single most important factor in a successful garden is knowing what soil each plant needs, knowing the soil’s composition and how it behaves. 

A native plant growing in the wild needs no soil amendments.  While all plants need fertilizer, even those you might not expect, in the “outback” the creatures that live there naturally provide all the fertilizer those natives need: from wildlife’s excrement and decomposing dead bodies, plus from decaying plant matter. Nevertheless, Tall explained that must of us don’t have coyotes running in our front yards, so we must augment the soil properly.

No matter what kind of garden you have – raised beds, pots, or in the ground – the right soil is the key.  Topsoil or potting soil should have equal amounts of soil, sand, and organic matter.  Unbroken down organic material may burn the plants.  Plants’ needs for the chemical makeup of the soil vary.  The pH content is very important.  Some plants need a more acidic soil, others alkali.  Berries, for example, thrive on a high Ph content. 

Tall can help you determine the makeup of your soil if you bring him a sample.  You can also check it yourself by filling a glass jar 1/3 full of your soil.  Add water until the jar is full.  Shake the jar vigorously.  Allow the contents to settle into layers.  The rock and sand will sink to the bottom followed by silt and clay.  Organic matter will be on top and should not be more than 30 percent of the entire volume.   

When transplanting, the root ball’s soil should match that of the new plant’s permanent abode.   This helps lessen the shock so the plant can continue to grow.  Tall’s nursery can help you do this. 

If the soils match, dig a hole, but never dig it deeper than the root ball’s depth.  The width of the hole, however, should be at least twice as wide as the root ball.  This encourages the roots to spread, creating a larger base for collecting nutrients and for providing stability for the new plant.  Fill the hole with water to check the drainage.  If you are on a slope and water remains, a pipe laid at the hole’s base running downward until it surfaces allows the water to continue flowing downhill.  You may need to insert a small pump to get the water out.  Once your hole drains, you may plant. 

First loosen the root ball carefully.  Then place the root ball in the hole with the stem or trunk level just above the ground.  Back fill with soil matching that of the root ball. 

Tall elaborated on the relationship of roots to the canopy or branches above the ground.  The roots follow the canopy.  Even a tiny yard could have fruit trees espaliered against a trellis.  Tall hides a huge propane tank behind trellises of espaliered fruit trees.  He simply cuts short the branches facing the propane tank and facing the yard while encouraging the side branches to spread.  Should you need to prune a root ball, trim the canopy to match.  You can create a hedge of some fruit trees thus avoiding need for a ladder at harvest time.

If you start with seeds, remember the ground must be warm enough for the seeds to sprout. Plant them no deeper than twice the width of the seed because it has to break through the soil on its own; its energy must be sufficient to penetrate in order to sprout. A seedling needs very little water until it has at few leaves.  Without leaves, the roots cannot use a great deal of water.  Leaves give off the oxygen we breathe and let excess water evaporate.  Furthermore, until it produces six or more sets of leaves, your seedling needs no fertilizer. 

Tall likes drip watering for areas that cannot be reached easily, but for most plants he prefers a flooding bubbler system.  Building a moat beneath the drip line surrounding each plant with a bubbler in it distributes water and fertilizer to disperse more evenly.  A plant that is over or underwatered will get yellow leaves, which drop off.   To determine the cause, look at the roots of the plant.  Roots typically have a bark-like covering. If it slides off, your plant is getting too much water and may have root rot.  If the roots are dry, it’s desiccated.  This can be cured by submerging it in water for a few minutes; then replanting it.

Do make certain never to fertilize a dry plant.  Water it first.  Your fertilizer should be organic.  It must be broken down and have micorrhiza bacteria in it.  Non-organic fertilizers kill the bacteria needed in healthy soil.  Mulching can be good, but be careful what you use.  Tall likes pine mulch.  It is acidic and earthworms love it, which keeps the soil loose. Tall uses his own clippings for mulch.  For weed control he uses corn gluten, which discourages weeds and does not harm your plants or animals.  It also has been used as a rat poison with some sodium.   Avoid eucalyptus and olive trees clippings.  Both create oily soil and nothing grows happily in it.

The next topic was pruning.  A plant has one function:  to reproduce.  Everything it does leads to reproduction.  Wait until after production to prune.  If a tree produces too much fruit, will simply drop the excess, encouraging production of stronger and healthier fruit.

With colder weather, tree sap sinks to the ground where it is stored.  Typically, the plants’ leaves fall off forming a blanket helping maintain the roots’ protection from cold.  In cold climates, frost burns off the leaves and even some branches, allowing healthier branches to produce better fruit or seeds.  In San Diego, we sometimes have to force deciduous plants into dormancy.  Watch other people’s deciduous plants.  If several shed their leaves, it is time to force yours by stripping its leaves.  The plant rests all winter waiting until the soil warms and daylight hours are long enough for buds to appear.  Now you resume feeding.

Tall finished his talk by saying that he believes our lifetime duty is to help others.  This may mean sharing information or lending an ear to someone with a problem, but whatever you do, he says, criticizing does not help.  Share information.  Help, don’t hinder.

We will not meet this month, but in January Jeremy Rappaport will be giving us a talk on trees.  For information, visit

Goats provide another source of fertilization.

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About the Author ()

Barbara Strona is a native Californian who grew up in the Mid-West and Los Angeles. She and her architect husband, Carl, came to San Diego in 1968 and have lived in Mission Hills since early 1971. Barbara received a Bachelor of Arts from Scripps College with a major in English, and a minor in Art. She attended UCLA graduate school and received a General Secondary Credential. She taught English in Los Angeles, Pennsylvania, and at Point Loma High School. She has been a Realtor specializing in residential sales since 1984. Her passions include her job, reading, writing, foreign languages and foreign countries, animals (feathered or furry), theatre, and her family: husband, two adult children and two grandsons.