by Sarah Hadler
Phyllis Hughes, the one woman wonder show who runs Star Mountain Gardens, remembers her first farmer’s market in Occidental, three years ago: “I made $86 and I was so excited to find that people wanted to buy the stuff I grew!” A self-described “back to the land hippie of the 70s,” Phyllis moved out to California from the east coast. She grew her own food for a while, then took a long hiatus from it, travelled the world, went back to school, and taught for awhile. She found herself back in California thirteen years ago, married her old sweetheart, and slowly got back into working with the earth.
Phyllis started out planting the land around her home and has expanded over the years to two more locations; she works the land and the landowners get as many veggies, flowers, fruits and herbs as they want—a sweet exchange, indeed. She sells a wide array of gorgeous cut flowers and a dizzying assortment of fruits, herbs and vegetables at the Occidental Bohemian Farmers Market. We are her one and only farmer’s market.
I spent two memorable afternoons with Phyllis. In Sebastopol, we chatted as we harvested for the next day’s market. I couldn’t help but sample as I picked, and the ripe pole beans were buttery and sweet, the carrots, crisp and earthy. When Phyllis started here, the land was covered in poison oak and blackberry bushes. She cleared it all, put up a fence to keep out the deer, augmented the soil with horse manure and got to planting. Phyllis inspires her neighbors to plant gardens; she is diligent, friendly, and generous. On that first afternoon, she sent me home with squash, tomatoes, carrots, beans, cucumbers, onions, and peppers. My saddle bags were full to bursting!
As I stood with Phyllis admiring her field on Coleman Valley Road, drivers and bicyclists would slow down, mouths agape, to take a closer look at the tall, healthy green cornstalks and the abundant, yellow sunflowers. The field is in a little valley and is sunny and not too windy—the perfect spot. Pests aren’t a big problem because there is natural predation; the birds eat a lot of the insects that would eat the plants, and the fence keeps other animals at bay (although she does battle with the gophers at times). A philosophy Phyllis holds dear is that “nothing goes to waste.” When she has leftovers from the market, she takes them to the low-income seniors at Burbank Housing in Sebastopol, and if there are veggies past their prime, they go right to the neighbors’ pigs who snort their appreciation loudly.
I threw my bike into the back of Phyllis’ unique flat bed pick-up truck; true to her nature, she designed the side gates on her truck so they can be raised and lowered depending on her load. We drove a couple more miles down Coleman Valley Road to her home on Star Mountain, a forested hilltop that resembles a star on geological maps. This is where it all began, and the land is so well taken care of, so well loved, it is just beautiful to behold. Phyllis’ husband Tom built several greenhouses that are scattered about and are home to a few varieties of tomatoes and basil, as well as other vegetables and herbs that require warmth. There are fruit trees, including a Kafir Lime tree whose leaves are used in many Thai recipes, a dahlia and gladiola garden that would make my grandmother weep, and fragrant herbs that she plants near her house, the mingling scents floating in the air. These are only a few of the many wonders to be found. Phyllis puts her heart, mind, soul, and muscles into her gardens. It is evident in everything she touches; there are delights around every corner.