Garden of Eatin'

How Phil Nabity transformed a trashy utility easement into an inner-city ribbon of produce

A few years ago, the stretch of alleyway at 34th Street between Virginia and Yale streets wasn't much to look at.

Sixteen feet from side to side, used not for trash pickup but for a chain of utility poles, it had become overrun with trash and debris--a four-foot-high junk pile of broken glass, palm branches, concrete block and barbed wire.

"It was mostly a route for the riffraff to ditch the cops," says local landscaper and odd-jobber Phil Nabity. The Tower West neighborhood association, he says, was considering installing a gate.

But Nabity is an irrigator. And when you irrigate for a living, there is something, he says, that just happens to you: You begin to sense the relationship between water and earth, the clinking of the food chain, the way each bit of life interacts with its cohabitants to keep the whole beautiful, natural machine humming--and how there's gonna be hell to pay, dammit, if people don't stop messing with it.

But now we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Nabity works the area around his verdant home in the heart of the Tower West neighborhood, an area bounded roughly by Thomas and McDowell roads to the north and south and 36th and 32nd streets to the east and west.

For years, he has lived by the clock of irrigation flow, overseeing the temporary lakes that form in the front yards of houses along Virginia and Yale. Some of the flow run-off pours into the alley between the two streets.

Three years ago, he discovered he could put that run-off to use.
"I started irrigating behind that brick wall over there," he says on a sweltering summer morning, pointing at a butterscotch-colored wall in the now-transformed alleyway. "I was planting chiles and tomatoes and making salsa. The production I was getting out of here was just phenomenal."

But Nabity, 37, didn't stop with one little patch of land. The neighbors saw what he had created, saw that it was good, and said: "Hey, do that behind my house, too." With help from residents, Nabity cleared the alley of its debris and worked his irrigational magic.

Where once was junk, now there is a third-of-a-block-long ribbon of produce and greenery--every winter and spring, anyway, when the garden Nabity created is in full bloom.

Celery, cabbage, asparagus, carrots, three kinds of lettuce, five kinds of radishes--the list goes on. "You can make the most outrageous salads," he says. "In the winter, it just goes nuts. Things come up by themselves."

Not much thrives in the summer. The watermelons are starting to peek through the soil, though, and Nabity recently planted pumpkins in early preparation for Halloween. "Right now, it's weed control, really," he says. "Which is why everybody likes me back there."

When he starts running short of water, he just talks another neighbor into signing up with the city for irrigation. And since some residents are already paying to manage the irrigation flow anyway, "the garden's just kind of a bonus."

Nabity sells some of his harvest, mostly tomatoes, to neighbors; the rest he eats himself or gives away. As production increases, he's hoping to enlist the help of a friend to get the produce to a local food bank.

Eventually, he says, he'd like to go into spice production, or maybe get an annual spring garden party going back there, when everything is in flower. He has this Dr. Who-like idea of installing a booth at the back gate, blindfolding participants and setting them on a turntable floor until they're disoriented, then releasing them into the garden.

But the project already is unique: Unlike the typical, conspicuously located community garden you might find in other neighborhoods, this is a one-person project, a secret garden you don't realize is there unless someone tells you about it. People who do happen to stumble upon it, Nabity says, "spend a half-hour back there, just tripping out."

"It's not something a whole lot of people are aware of," says Matt Andres, a neighborhood coordinator. "Phil has pretty much worked on it on his own. It's not like other neighbors have joined in to make it a cooperative effort."

Just the same, Nabity has the support of fellow residents near 34th Street, who are talking about funding fruit trees for shade and are encouraged that someone is putting the otherwise wasted space to good use.

"This he did all himself," says next-door neighbor Jake Beckman as he leads an impromptu tour through the heat-beaten garden. Water swishes through in a stream. And it's a jungle in there: To gain entrance, you have to fight through some overgrown bamboo and then negotiate the dirt causeways Nabity has engineered.

"He gets herbs, basil, some overgrown dill," Beckman says, pointing at one section of plants that has seen better days, and presumably will again. "See that long curly thing? That's Swiss chard."

Why would someone go through all this trouble?
Says Beckman: "I probably shouldn't say this, but he was having problems with a girl. This was his escape."

Nabity, who resembles a bearded, wispier version of comedian Dennis Miller, learned his gardening technique through hands-on experimentation. He has learned to deal with praying mantises, with lots of ladybugs and abominable aphids. Because most irrigation flow occurs by night, he spends many dark, caffeine-powered hours watching over the tides.

And out there, in the stillness, he thinks a lot, and if any of those thoughts include a girl, he does not say. He does say he ponders the tension between humans and Planet Earth. "Earth is gonna get pissed off," he says. "And if man doesn't get his act together, it's gonna cause turmoil."

And heaven knows there is already enough turmoil going on back there in Nabity's garden. Kids with nothing better to do sometimes wreak agricultural havoc. "It's pretty depressing to have tomatoes this high," says one neighbor, her hand indicating a height of about four feet, "and then have some kid come along and totally rip it out."

So some wonder if advertising the garden's existence might be a bad thing, whether it might attract unwanted foot traffic and undesirable elements. But Tower West is a neighborhood, Nabity says, where people care; petitions for speed bumps circulate without a hitch and folks park their extra cars in the driveways of people who are gone on vacation. As long as things are that way, he plans to stick around, chief engineer of his alleyway project.

"There's thousands of these easements through the city," he says, "and I've always wondered why nobody does anything with them.

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