Forestiere Underground Gardens, Fresno, California, USA

Going underground

Review: Victoria Michaels

Pictures: Forestiere Underground Gardens LLC

The extraordinary life’s work of Sicilian immigrant Baldassare Forestiere began in Fresno, California in 1905 where he had bought 80 acres of land.  Despite his Mediterranean background he found the 105 plus degree temperatures unbearable.  Then he remembered the cool underground wine cellars back home in Sicily.  Inspired, he began to dig using pick, shovel and wheelbarrow.  A few inches below ground he hit between three and five feet of hard pan (sedentary rock) before he finally discovered fertile soil and decided to create an underground home.

I first heard about Forestiere Underground Gardens while visiting the UK.  I had never heard of an underground garden and it was intriguing that someone would build such a thing, so of course a visit was a must.

The first thing we (my husband went along) saw on arriving at Forestiere was fruit - wonderfully healthy apricot, kumquat, loquat, pomegranate, lemon and oranges growing among roses and grapes.  This was at ground level.  We were lucky to find parking on the street, which was devoid of any other landmarks except for two food drive-ins and then waited for the next hourly guided tour at 12:30.

We didn’t know what to expect.  After walking under an 85 year old vine arbour the first thing we saw was a citrus in a rock planter.  This reached towards the sun where the oranges can be picked at street level.  You buy your tickets at a small gift shop ($15/person).

Our guide, Heidi, took¬†us through an¬†intricate maze of hardpan passageways¬†to¬†Baldassare‚Äôs bedrooms (summer and winter) with beds chiselled into the wall and curtains for privacy in front of each bed. For warmth, there was a¬†fireplace dug into the wall of¬†the winter bedroom.¬† A courtyard had¬†a Victorian tub that¬†Baldassare would fill¬†with irrigation water.¬† In the¬†kitchen was a¬†small stove and icebox.¬† The ceilings were about six feet high and it was very comfortable temperature-wise.¬† One person¬†on the tour¬†asked, “When can I move in?”¬† It did not feel claustrophobic.¬† It felt like a home!¬† It was quiet and peaceful.

Another passage led to a Chapel Garden where grape, lemon and grapefruit were planted in one bed into the sides of which had been built three benches.  According to Heidi threes and sevens were Baldassare’s way of acknowledging his Catholicism.

A short ramp lead to a second, lower level where a citrus tree was happily growing 20 feet underground.  It was grafted with seven fruit, one of which was Cedro (Mediterranean Lemon).  We also saw a glass aquarium which Baldassare would fill with fish so that he could watch them swim.  We got the impression that once he had carved out his bedrooms, kitchen and bath he kept creating as he went along.

But why?¬† Why would an Italian immigrant buy 80 acres of land to build a sustainable underground home with fruit trees and grape vines that are still producing fruit today?¬†¬† While he was alive,¬†local children made fun of¬†and called him ‚Äúmole man.”¬† Little did they know he was building a sustainable home that would be cool in the hot summer sun and provide delicious¬†citrus and grapes.

Not to be missed

For lunch, we found a Mexican restaurant called El Cochinito Contento (Spanish for The Happy Pig), just 10 minutes away at 88 East Olive Street.  They offered homemade corn tortillas and delicious salsa.

Quibble

You had to be guided, there is no chance of walking through by yourself.

Other gardens nearby

We didn’t find many.  The nearest would be the Huntington Botanical Gardens in Pasadena, California, approximately 356 kilometers away.  It is open Wednesday- Sunday 10-4 in April-October; weekends March and November; closed December, January, February.

How to get there

Forestiere Underground Gardens is located at 5021 Shaw Avenue, Fresno, California 93722; approximately 209 miles north of Los Angeles off state highway 99.  It’s easiest to get there by automobile.  Email  tours@undergroundgardens.com