Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Farming Fresh: An Interview with Mike Taylor

It’s hot.

It’s hot and dry.

It’s hot and dry, the hills are on fire, smoke has made the air orange and dense, and what we really need, what we need more than anything, is a drenching rainstorm.


My students, many of whom speak Spanish as a first language, call a cool, damp day “fresh.” In English, fresh and cool don’t mean the same thing, but in Spanish, they do. I wish today were fresh.


On Saturday morning, the weather was already starting to heat up. When I interviewed Mike Taylor, we had to escape to the shade of a eucalyptus to keep cool. Taylor is one of my favorite vendors at the market, and I felt lucky to be able to steal some of his time for an interview. At first, I had a bit of a struggle. Chatty and personable, he’s quite popular, and this trait, combined with the fact that his name had just been mentioned in LA Times’ Food pages, made it hard to get a few uninterrupted minutes to ask questions. But, generous with his time, he asked his equally affable son to cover the stand for a few minutes while we stepped away, under the shade of a tree. Leaning against his car, light-colored pet fur catching the light on his black guayabera, Taylor began to share with me some of his gardening philosophies.

Mike Taylor is unique among the vendors; instead of raising his produce on a large farm and driving 100 miles into the metropolitan area to sell us his goods, he drives maybe 15 miles or so, from West Covina. You see, Mike Taylor’s organic farm is his yard.

Raised by a family that grew their own food organically, Taylor began farming his own yard about ten years ago, turning the space into something that would give back to him and his family. He believes that everything he plants should have a purpose-- a scent, flavor, color, or nutrient. Therefore, grass plays only a small role in his yard: what there is of it is for walking on. The rest of the space is devoted to a huge variety of goodies, including multiple varieties of citrus, tomatoes, melons, corn, chard, arugula, garlic, and on and on. This mixed-up garden, full of diversity, directly reflects his own philosophy on the greater world, one of “giving back.” In order to keep the world from becoming more and more non-productive, more and more paved over or falsely greened with ChemLawns and Weed N Feed, he wants his land to benefit more than itself, just as he hopes to benefit the environment and the people that live around him.

Not everyone comprehends his goal to be an integral part of the environment and community. Occasionally, Taylor receives calls from the city, calls spurred by neighbors who don’t understand his yard and consider it unsightly. He’s made an effort to make his front yard beautiful, growing the loveliest of his crops in the front, rainbow chard, nasturtiums, and Japanese eggplant, but some people expect a yard to be manicured bushes and weed-free lawns, so he patiently takes the time to show his neighbors what it is that he’s growing, and explaining, just as he does to me, why he grows it.

When asked what problems he sees in the ways Southern Californians garden, he doesn’t even hesitate, answering that he observes “too much dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. People here don’t want to recognize that in the winter, a lawn shouldn’t be green—it should be dormant.” He argues that many Southern Californians, lulled by the natural beauty and temperate weather, don’t want to live seasonally, but want what they want when they want it, which is all the time. According to him, customers even ask him for watermelon in December. Taylor delivers even his complaints with a smile and a curl in the corners of his eyes. He’s not angry—he’s just passionate about what he believes.

This passion is the center of his success. I asked him for a useful garden tips, and he answered, “Passion . . . diligence. Don’t give up if things don’t grow for you at first.” According to Taylor, growing well demands gardeners recognize that lots of what happens depends not entirely on the gardener, but also on the whims of nature. He doesn’t chase nature away from his crops, but accepts it, even when it causes loss. He laughs and describes the parrots that sit in his fig tree, peeling the outer layer of the fruit off to get to “the good stuff.” Even when nature destroys his crop, he finds it fascinating.

Not all of Taylor’s advice is philosophical; he can be practical too:

  • Know your soil. If your soil is healthy, you can grow anything. Healthy soil will feel “alive with loam” when you pick it up.
  • Supplement your soil with compost and amend as necessary with organic LGM planting mix.
  • Since water usage is going to continue to be a problem with this drought, maximize your efficiency. Use drip and soaker hoses rather than sprinklers or surface watering, and sink plastic gallon planting containers next to your larger plants. Water directly into the plastic pots, which will then serve as reservoirs, watering deeply without wasting any water.
  • To grow blueberries in Southern California, choose varieties such as “Sunshine Blue” that can handle the heat. Plant in nearly straight peat to provide the acid soil the plants need.
  • Spend time with seed catalogs. They can be great sources of information.
  • If you grow vegetables in pots, a great way to have a garden on a balcony, remember to water more frequently.

Everything I’ve sampled that Taylor grows is fantastic, but without exaggeration, his blood oranges beat any others I’ve had elsewhere. They are raspberry sorbet drizzled with orange juice, a ruby dessert in a nubbly peel. They are beyond good. Praising his blood oranges, I ask him if there is anything he can’t grow. “Pumpkins. I don’t have the space for pumpkins. Someday, I’d like to grow a world-record pumpkin.” In the meantime, he’s thrilled to eat his delicious tomatoes, ripe off the vine, and to toss just-picked corn on the grill. We’re lucky he shares his bounty with us.


I haven’t seen Mike Taylor’s garden, but I can imagine it. I picture the deep shade under a healthy tomato plant, shade over soil “alive with loam” and bugs and happy worms. I hope that with time and experience, I can create as healthy and productive a garden. I hope that, like Mike Taylor, I can make the world a little more “fresh.”


sarahww said...

Excellent interview, C, and inspiring, too. Russ Parsons has nothing on you!

Susan said...

Neighbors do have a knack to complain about anything, don't they? They probably don't like bees, either. I'll take the tangled garden look over a lawn any day.

SO well done, Christina. A very nice and professional piece of reporting.

Lucy said...

What an inspiring man, passionate and infomed. That's my dream garden. A functional garden is far more interesting and inviting than an ornamental one.

A great post, beautifully written.

Christina said...

Thanks, friends, for the compliments. I had never written up an interview before, so it was definitely a learning process as to how to do it. I appreciate your kind words.

Anonymous said...

A great read!

Susan in Italy said...

Excellent gardening philosophy.

Christina said...

Thanks Kristan. And Susan in Italy, I'll pass your compliments on to Mr. Taylor.

Susan said...

P.S. - If the spirit moves you, there's a meme in your future, as soon as I can get my present post together.