In the evening, he’d tuck me in and say, “On your walk to school in the morning, I want you to count the number of birds you see. Tell me about them when I get home from work. I want to know what they looked like, and what they were singing about.”
At Bill’s nursery, I find myself keeping a tally of the birds I spot.
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In 1974, When Bill Tall was 18, he bought a 15-foot trailer and moved from his parents’ home to the nursery. He was eager to be on his own, but more importantly, he loved the nursery. After getting married, he bought a mobile home and he and his wife moved in. Before long they had three children. They all lived in the mobile home at the nursery until Bill’s father passed away.
“I was going through my dad’s estate,” says Bill, “when I found out that he’d set up a savings account for me with all the money I paid him in rent to keep my nursery on his land. It was amazing. I had no idea he’d done that. With that money, I was able to move my family out of the trailer we’d been in for 15 years. We built a home right here on the property.”
The Talls moved into their new house in 2000. Their older daughter Rebecca was 15; their son Sam was 13; Sara was 11.
Bill’s dad had worked for airplane factories his whole life. It provided a secure income. He’d wanted the same for Bill, the opportunity to care for his family without a lot of stress.
“My dad always wanted to have his own business. That’s why he bought the land. But he’d lived through the Depression, so he was hesitant. He wanted to put up a building here at the nursery and go into business for himself.”
When Bill’s dad was in his 80s, he and Bill opened a deli at the nursery.
“We tasted every bagel and pickle in all of San Diego. We opened on his birthday. We called it Nate’s Cafe, after Dad. He died three weeks before the deli opened. I learned from that. If you want to do something in life, just do it. The next morning, you might not wake up.”
Bill says that until he had his third child, his dad never told him he was proud of him.
“A lot of people might see that as a bad thing. Not me. It made me work harder, to try to be better than him. It made me strive to prove I could do this. The drive I have is because of my parents. I thank my dad for this. The reason why I got into the nursery was because when I was a kid, my mom would tell me that my vegetables out of our garden tasted better than Dad’s. In the back of my mind, I knew I was good at this.”
∗ ∗ ∗
A sign in front of Bill Tall’s house reads: “Private Residence, Farmer Bill’s House.” That doesn’t stop people from wandering inside.
Sam Tall, Bill’s only son, says, “When I was a kid, I’d be at home, eating breakfast, and people would wander into our house thinking it was part of the nursery.”
Sam, 25, lives with his dad in exchange for working one day a week at the nursery.
“Rent he would be paying somewhere else is put aside in a savings account,” says Bill. “In four years he’ll have enough money to purchase his own home. My children are the most important people in the world to me. I want to give them what my dad gave me.”
Most Sundays, Bill hosts free classes in his living room on subjects such as organic farming, beekeeping, raising chickens and goats, and solar cooking. He has a kitchen table that seats 35 and a large butcher-block island perfect for demonstrations. For a recent class on raising chickens, a tweet was sent out to all his followers suggesting they bring their own chairs; it would be standing room only.
That day, customers piled into the living room. Some stood in Bill’s bedroom, peeking out through the doorway. The class was so full, Bill opened a window so that people outside could listen in.
Bill’s Sunday-afternoon classes were born out of an unfortunate tragedy involving his horse and a turkey.
“Clyde, my horse, stepped on a turkey and killed it. A couple of workers were carrying the turkey away to the dumpster when I stopped them. ‘Wait a second,’ I said. ‘I can probably eat that.’ That’s how the class on raising chickens got its start.”
Rebecca, Bill’s older daughter, says, “When we began doing classes, we got the same four people coming week after week. Now we always have a full house. That’s how my dad is. He always has his finger on the pulse.”
Bill’s next new thing will be a “How-to” YouTube video — he always has a new thing. At the moment, it’s the baby chicks. In a few months, he wants to host olive-oil classes; after that, he’s considering selling brew kits.
∗ ∗ ∗
Rebecca says: “I grew up thinking that all adults love their job the way my dad loves his. It wasn’t until I was 17 or so that I realized that most people hate their jobs. It blew my mind. My dad was always very supportive. If there was something I wanted to do at the nursery, he let me do it. I managed our restaurant when I was in the ninth grade. If Sara, Sam, or I came to him and said, ‘Dad I want to be an astronaut,’ he would say, ‘Okay, let’s figure out how you can do that.’”
I speak to 23-year-old Sara Tall by telephone. She lives in Hastings, Oklahoma. “It took me moving away to college for me to really appreciate what a great dad he is,” she says. “I’m really thankful for the way he raised us. When I was a kid, he let me do the signage around the nursery.