The overall beauty in this Palo Alto garden is all thanks to Drew Harwell, the expert gardener who manages the space. Harwell is a professional garden consultant who helps clients plan and maintain their gardens for the purpose of growing food. Though this garden belongs to local chef Jessie Cool, Harwell plans the planting calendar and manages the space.
Harwell's garden will be featured in the sixth annual Edible Landscaping Tour on July 21. The tour, which is organized by Common Ground in Palo Alto, will showcase 10 gardens that emphasize growing food. A myriad of plants occupy Harwell's garden because Cool uses the garden's produce in her restaurants. For this reason, the size of Harwell's garden is much larger than the average residential bed.
"The amount of food we grow here would be ridiculous for a normal garden," Harwell said with a laugh. Inspired by Cool's need for varied produce, Harwell has made sure that the garden has many different components ranging from berries and an orchard to leafy greens and a bee enclosure. Although the layout of the garden was already set before Harwell arrived, he made several adjustments like changing the irrigation system, re-locating plant beds and expanding the orchard. However, he is most proud of how he has integrated each element to give the space a feeling of cohesion.
"I constructed a chicken coop, but I also built a 'chicken tractor' (a rolling, wagon-like device chickens sit in). The chickens get in the tractor and I take them to the orchard where they eat down the weeds around the trees. They get to eat something besides dry feed and the manure they produce helps the trees grow. I love developing connections between things and I think the connection between the fruit trees and the chickens are a perfect example of developing that connection."
Harwell, a Palo Alto native, has enjoyed gardening as a hobby for the past 18 years. As a child, he became hooked on gardening when he helped his mother plant seeds in her community garden plot. This experience nurtured his love of planting crops and his admiration for nature. Because of his love of nature and the outdoors, Harwell planned to become an environmental researcher or ecologist while continuing to pursue gardening as a hobby. However, he never considered gardening professionally until he studied abroad in Kenya in 1994. There he helped local farmers in Kitalle, Kenya, return to cultivating traditional crops and growing organically as part of an independent study project.
"I was amazed and inspired by the Kenyan farmers' knowledge," he said. "I realized being a researcher wasn't for me because I just wanted to garden." Inspired by his experiences in Africa, Harwell worked on farms in Vermont, Arizona and later in California. He returned to the Bay Area in 2002 to manage the Stanford Community Garden; he also managed the garden at Common Ground.
Despite his experience, Harwell faces daily challenges when caring for his garden. Because each plant thrives in a different environment and each has specific needs, he claims it can become hard to perfect the timing.
"It's all about the timing and adjusting to conditions like the soil moisture and location," Harwell said. "Even though the skills are the same, you have to adapt them to different climates and conditions. For example, growing beans in Vermont can be very different from growing beans in Arizona because the timing and location are so different. It's easy to keep plants alive but you have to have the timing down to make them thrive."
Despite these challenges, Harwell personally feels the positives of having a garden far outweigh the negatives. "(Gardening) teaches you to value and work with what you have; it's how I cook, and it has allowed me to create an ideal job for myself. I love seeing everything come together and it's a sharing experience."
Harwell shares his gardening expertise by teaching. The class Harwell teaches at Common Ground, called "From Design to Harvest," is a five-week course that covers everything from planning planting cycles to landscape planning and reading soil. "(The class) is really fun because students come to class each week with questions because they got to experiment. I really like the feedback and the whole system of trial and error is cool because you don't usually get that." Harwell also taught a program for participants in Stanford University's teacher training program (STEP) on how to integrate gardening and the harvesting process into curriculum.
In addition to teaching and building connections, Harwell enjoys the health and environmental benefits of edible landscaping. "I think gardening can be a great way for people to change their lifestyle and live in an environmentally conscious way," he said. "The beauty of the work is being outside all of the time, in the actual environment. By creating an abundance (of plants) for ourselves, we're making the habitat around us nice as well."
Patricia Becker, Common Ground's director and the tour's organizer, echoes Harwell's sentiments and hopes the event will inspire people and make them aware of the many benefits of growing their own food.
"You have the opportunity to grow your favorite foods, improve your nutrition, connect with nature, and share with others," she said. "It's also joyous to see something grow.
"I think (Harwell's garden) is magnificent," Becker said. "(His garden) is diverse, abundant, experimental, productive and fun."
Even though Harwell enjoys the fresh produce he grows, he believes the most rewarding thing about his garden is the "real" connection he gets to make with both the land and people.
"I really enjoy passing my knowledge and skills along to my daughter," Harwell said. "She comes out to help with the harvest and I just love the real connection we get to share while we're outside. Life is all about connections like that."
READ MORE ONLINE
For more Home and Real Estate news, visit www.paloaltoonline.com/real_estate.
What: Sixth Annual Edible Landscaping Tour
When: Saturday July 21, 10:45 a.m.-3 p.m.
Where: Self-guided tour of 10 gardens begins at Common Ground, 559 College Ave., Palo Alto