One man created his own garden of Eden below ground in California's Central Valley.
Road Journals Blog—The brown historical marker on the outskirts of Fresno, Calif., finally lured me off of Highway 99. I'd passed it umpteen times, pondering the concept of an "underground garden." What were they growing, mushrooms?
But no, I discovered, the Forestiere Underground Gardens are the fantastical creation of one determined man, who hacked ten acres of chambers, tunnels, and courtyards out of hardpan, then studded them with fruit trees and grapevines.
During an hour-long guided tour, I learned how Baldassare Forestiere emigrated from Sicily, buying his worthless California "farmland" sight-unseen. To escape the Central Valley's punishing summer heat, he started digging out a few rooms in 1906. Four decades later he had more than 90 chambers, including a kitchen fitted out with a stove, icebox and built-in shelves, winter and summer bedrooms, an aquarium viewable though a window below, and subterranean courtyards where orange, lemon, grapefruit, kumquat, loquat, jujube, quince, and date trees flourished, protected from heat and frost, and flooded with sun from conical skylights.
Forestiere never put pencil to paper; he kept the entire plan in his head, fashioning it after ancient Roman architecture, with stone arches for structural support. Using simple farm tools to dig, he created a series of microclimates on three different levels, going as deep as 25 feet. Temperatures varied up to 30 degrees from above ground, enabling him to stagger his trees' growing seasons.
A religious man, Forestiere incorporated symbolic numbers as he planted. The Holy Trinity appears in a courtyard with three citrus trees and a nearly 100-year old grapevine that sprouts in three directions. Another tree is grafted to bear seven different types of citrus, while Forestiere's chapel has seven entrances.
Forestiere's dream of opening an underground resort died with him in 1946, but the monument to his singular determination lives on. They estimate he spent a mere $300 on all his building supplies.
"To make something with lots of money, that is easy," Forestiere once said, "But to make something out of nothing—now that is something!" Something definitely worth pulling off the highway to see.
5021 West Shaw Ave. (two blocks east of Highway 99 from the Shaw Ave. exit), Fresno, Calif., (559) 271-0734, undergroundgardens.com. Check ahead as opening times vary according to season.
Photography by Gayle Keck/courtesy of Forestiere Underground Gardens
This blog was first published in May 2014. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.