Come back in a few months, Paul Reeb said. Then, at his farm in Point Loma, the grapevines will have started to grow and there’ll be tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers.
Right now, Reeb grows carrots, spinach and microgreen radishes on the farm in his mother’s backyard, smack dab in the middle of a residential neighborhood. And less than a mile from where Reeb and his son Steve tend to their vegetables, just on the other side of Rosecrans Street, patrons at the Tender Greens restaurant in Liberty Station eat their produce.
Local production for local restaurants. That’s their plan. And after working for decades in graphic design, Paul, at 53, is balancing his design work with pursuing a life-long interest in gardening and farming.
The idea for a farm began in the fall of 2008 when Steve came home from college. By the next spring, they’d begun growing for Tender Greens. Now they’re planning to expand their operation to sell to more restaurants.
Seven days a week, Paul and Steve walk the land, deciding what needs to be watered or weeded and when that week they’ll do the pick and the plant. They also grow some produce at their respective residences. They rarely use pesticides, and then it’s an organic spray, though their produce is not certified organic.
There’s a vineyard too, on the hillside, but the wine they produce is just for family and friends. And from the backyard, just over from the greenhouse, you can see the skyscrapers in downtown San Diego.
After a tour of the onions by the pool, the radishes in the greenhouse and the carrots in the area in between, Paul and I sat down to discuss how to deter skunks, the difference between supermarket vegetables and the ones he grows, and why he feels he’s earned it.
What were you thinking when you first started growing here a few years ago?
In the beginning we didn’t even know if it was going to work. We didn’t even know what we were going to plant. We tried different things and watched how it worked.
Sometimes it was horrible. We thought you could do corn sprouts. Buckwheat, that was horrible. You get this little handful of stuff and you get $10 for it, seeds cost you $35, and it’d take three weeks to get it.
The whole idea was to do it local, local grown, local sold. We never wanted to go sell it to food distributors that would then in turn ship it all over the United States. The idea was always Steve and I, doing it here, making a living on selling what we could grow to local places on a weekly basis.
What are some of the challenges of doing a farm like this in the middle of a neighborhood?
If they bring their dogs over, the dogs don’t know that’s $300 worth of lettuce and they’ll just go walking through it. Or if they have people over, they don’t know they’re not supposed to pick stuff like, “Oh look at this.” Snap. Or they’ll just, “Oh they’ve got so much of it, we’ll just help ourselves.”
We have a lot of wild animals — skunks and possums and coyotes and raccoons and rats all want to take their share of whatever we’re trying to grow. They do trample stuff, like skunks will completely dig up brand new beds of whatever we planted, not because they’re trying to kill the plants but because they’re looking for bugs in the soil, because the soil is all nice and soft and watered. We figured out different ways to take care of it. You just put wire around it or wire on the soil and they don’t want to hurt their little paws.
As we were walking through, you said you use all the space. Can you talk about that philosophy?
Well the philosophy I’ve always had at my house and I’ve tried to translate it over as much as possible is that all the plants we have for landscaping are for some sort of use. Rosemary for hedges. We grow onions because we like the way they look and you get something back from them when you harvest it. You have herb beds because again you can use them and they look good. It’s for beauty as well as for consumption.
There’s been a movement in food for the things that we eat to be local, sustainable, organic. Has that driven what you do?
I think in San Diego and Southern California it’s more a newer thing than in other parts of the state, like Northern California, that’s what they do all the time. There’s a younger crop of restaurateurs that want to do it that way and they have to want to do it that way because it actually is harder to be able to find sources, consistent sources for being able to provide local stuff. Plus you have to like it. You make money but you’re not going to get rich. You’re not going to be driving a fancy car or living in a fancy house by growing vegetables. You have to like doing that. How many people are going to be attracted to that? I don’t know.
Being outside, working with your hands and watching things grow and nurture them and watch how they develop and then being able to pick them and deliver then and watch other people enjoy it, that’s a good thing.
What’s the difference taste-wise between a tomato or lettuce that you grow here versus something someone would find in the store?
If you wanted a cup of tea and you had a teabag and it was hot water and you dipped it in once, that’s supermarket. If you put the teabag in and let it steep to its full potential, and you drank the tea, you get all the richness and aromas and fragrances and taste and freshness from the tea. That is the difference. It’s something you just don’t know until you’ve tried it. The best you can do is go to a farmers market and find someone that grows direct and try and taste it.
Do you feel lucky to get to do this?
Absolutely. I feel like we earned it. Didn’t happen by accident, like you wake up and go, “Wait I’m going to do vegetables for a living.” I do it because I’ve been in business for 28 years. Worked hard, put in plenty of hours driving back and forth doing the rush hour thing, 50 minutes to work one way and 50 minutes home when it’s dark and it’s cold and you’ve basically seen the sun for like 10 minutes out of the whole day because you’ve been inside a cubicle. I’ve done all that. This whole being able to be out here and working with Steve and doing the vegetables, it’s something I feel like I’ve earned.