Barron Park residents build mini-farms in backyards

Gardens build strong sense of community

Oren Shneorson pulled up a Google Earth image of his Barron Park neighborhood, pointing out the green landscape dotting the yards between the suburban homes.

"Here's where we had a whole backyard of wheat. And here is where people raise chickens and bees," he said.

Shneorson's Laguna Avenue yard last summer had a wheat maze for his four children and a forest of large sunflowers shaped into a sunflower house, he said. Through a hole in the fence, Suzanne Keehn's granddaughters run and play with Shneorson's kids. The children have their own small garden plot at Keehn's home on Orme Street, and kids from both families play and care for Keehn's chickens.

These two gardeners are part of a growing network of neighbors who are, in their own way, bringing back the farmland that once covered this neighborhood. Fences may parcel off properties, but with the aerial Google view, parts of the neighborhood are, in a sense, becoming one territory, Shneorson said. And the gardeners, through their shared produce, fertilizer, compost and knowledge, are building a strong sense of community across the fence lines.

"If you look at Google Slides, you can look back over the years and see what this place was like. There was a big orchard there. Suddenly, the fences are there," he said.

People buy a house, and it becomes their private universe, he said. "But what if you could coordinate your plantings with other people? Save seeds and share seeds? Coordinate planting for pollination and decide who will do zucchini? If I have a few feet of zucchini and you have a few feet of zucchini, you are scaling it to a bigger scale," he said.

Shneorson is an avid gardener with six years of experience; Keehn has been gardening in some fashion for 40 years. Other neighbors around them do the same.

"It's very neighborly. It creates bartering. We can coordinate planting and help to maintain each other's gardens, and when you have problems, you can work to solve them," he said.

Last summer when white cabbage moths began to proliferate, neighbors discovered they all had the same experience. Some people had used yellow-jacket traps, and residents theorized that could have eliminated the pesky but beneficial predators, he said.

Shneorson sees the patchwork of mini-farms as places that together will help nature. Coordinated planting times can create fields of blossoms to provide nectar for pollinating insects, for example.

"Nature doesn't care about fences. Bees and birds, they don't pay any attention to them," he said.

Properties on Orme, Laguna Way and Amaranta Avenue have big lots, Keehn said. About four or five years ago, she had the idea that if they all got together, she and her neighbors could grow their own food. She started with her neighbor across the street, Ann Burrell, a master gardener.

"We got really connected and we had more fun. Ann supplies the beans. It's wonderful that this is happening. We split expenses, we divide eggs. It's kind of like a little farm: 'Come on over and get this or bring that,'" she said.

Now it's happening organically with other neighbors. "We're all friends. It's just really neat. I just love not having to buy vegetables," she said.

Burrell grows tables of pepper and tomato starts, which she shares with neighbors. She recently got a neighbor's grandson interested in worm composting, she said.

Three of her neighbors are now gardening. "People keep asking for advice. It's a really nice community network," she said.

And there's always more produce than she can handle.

"There's something very special about learning how to grow things. People say, 'What do you do with all of this lettuce?'" I say, 'If you walk on this property, you leave with it.'"

The connections are spreading across the neighborhood. When Shneorson wanted to learn about growing wheat, he was introduced to Maryanne Welton on Kendall Avenue. When she and husband Kirk's sons grew up, they ripped out the backyard lawn and planted wildflowers and wheat, she said.

She and her friends did a one-block feast, where locavores try to eat from within a small area of their community. Welton and friends had a harvest feast that even included butter and ice cream from a cow someone kept in Los Altos Hills, she said. About five or six families still gather three or four times a year for a potluck where all of the food comes from their gardens, she said.

Welton keeps bees and chickens and grows all kinds of vegetables. Earlier this week, her potato plants stood nearly 3 feet, and the red winter wheat was more than waist high. The Weltons get 15 pounds of flour from a 10-by-10-foot plot. "It's enough for 80 loaves of bread," Kirk said.

The plot of wildflowers has flowers that produce nectar at different times, providing the bees with continuous forage, she said.

Insects busily streamed back and forth to the hives.

"Last year, we had 27 gallons of honey," she said. "I love the contrast of living in Silicon Valley and producing our own food."

When the yard was merely a green lawn, Kirk returned from work and just went inside, he said. But the garden has changed the way he lives.

"I found when I came home I was intrigued to go outside and engage with the garden," he said. "It was interesting to see how natural it was to come home and engage with the outside in a fulfilling and soulful way."

Shneorson plans to build a mobile application for urban farmers to coordinate things such as planting and sharing. His urban farm app idea is one of two that were finalists in the City of Palo Alto's Apps Challenge. He is likely to complete just the parking app, but he does plan to develop the farm one in the future, he said.

"Putting tech behind it, you can pull up Google Maps and you can put in the word 'kale' and you can see where there is a field. There are options for sharing and bartering and you can see where master gardeners are," he said.

Burrell thinks that will attract new neighborhood farmers.

"We've lost an entire generation of farmers. Having something like an app would bring them initially into gardening," she said.


Like this comment
Posted by Nut Butter
a resident of Green Acres
on Apr 21, 2014 at 9:53 am

I think this is a great article and there is great potential for this sort of thing in Palo Alto and the bay area as a whole. Talk about sustainability.

Like this comment
Posted by Cheryl LIlienstein
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 21, 2014 at 11:49 am

Some may think this quaint, but I experience the growing of vegetables as a spiritual act: I am grateful to witness and enjoy the bounty of nature. This is one of the reasons I'm so concerned with the overdevelopment trends in our city and the region. Wiping out the natural abundance embedded in this land in favor of building out to the sidewalk to create high density commercial enterprise and housing just seems wrong. Perhaps there is a middle ground somewhere, but I'd like to see a slower approach, one driven less by profit and with more respect and consideration for what is being lost as well as gained.

Like this comment
Posted by Joel
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 21, 2014 at 12:34 pm

Joel is a registered user.

I am thrilled to see this happening in my neighborhood. I was fortunate to get a Below Market Rate Condo in Barron Square. The only problem is that I lost my ability to garden at the rental I had moved from in downtown Palo Alto. As a former Parks and Recreation Commissioner I tried to advocate for more community gardens. I still have the hope that when developers are allowed to build complexes that they provide a space for community gardening for their buyers and tenants. Local gardening and sharing of information and produce is the way to grow!

Like this comment
Posted by Jean
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Apr 21, 2014 at 12:49 pm

It is addicting. I started growing a food garden during and after WWII when I planted beans. i was 10 and I am still growing veggies and fruit. The biggest problem is rodents and having too much food. But each summer we have the pleasure of fresh food and giving it away to community services in Mtn View. We make jam and can tomatoes and make zucchini bread and supply many neighbors with fresh vegetables. It is a lot of fun.

Like this comment
Posted by Janet Dafoe
a resident of University South
on Apr 21, 2014 at 3:36 pm

I have raised beds and another garden space as well. But I'm so busy taking care of my sick son that I don't have time to plant and care for my vegetable garden. Perhaps someone would be interested in helping me do that in exchange for sharing the produce?

Like this comment
Posted by Neighbors Helping Neighbors
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 21, 2014 at 7:33 pm

Hello, Palo Alto neighbors, If you are inspired by this story, here's a fun way to explore your options...

We are so thrilled to read this story. And a couple of these urban gardeners and coopsters are known to us. Silicon Valley Tour de Coop announced it will begin planning for this year's tour which will take place on Sept. 21, 2014
(1) The first eventbright ticket registration is for coopsters and organizers. We will use this list to send emails to those interested in submitting their coops for the tour or wishing to help organize. People registering for this ticket will get weekly planning and organizing emails.

To register for this coopster/volunteer ticket – click here
Web Link

It isn't too early to get in on the fun.
Neighbors Helping Neighbors will once again, provide volunteers to man coop stop stations, while visitors mingle with coopsters and view all the inspiring wonders of these urban coopsters and gardeners.

Phone: 650-283-0270
P.O. BOX 113
Palo Alto, CA 94302

Like this comment
Posted by BacktotheGarden
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 22, 2014 at 7:15 am

Hooray for the backyard garden! It's the best vegetables you'll ever eat. No tomato in a store, vine-ripened or not, organic or not, can touch the tomato you pull off your own plant and eat standing right there gazing down at the ones you'll pick tomorrow. Great lessons for kids! Healthy and yes, "sustainable" (whatever that means). :) It also forces you to slow down just a little. I'm delighted to see Palo Altans getting this message.

Like this comment
Posted by cute chick
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Apr 22, 2014 at 7:33 am

Currently, the city of Palo Alto has a limit of 6 chickens per household regardless of how much space you can provide for them. I'm interested in getting this policy changed and could use help with research and presentation before the city council. A turnout of chicken owners in council chambers could be pretty impressive!!! Is there already a loose network of chicken fanciers in place that I'm not aware of?

Like this comment
Posted by ms. emma..
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 22, 2014 at 11:02 am

this is a glimpse of the best of many worlds coming together....very inspiring! plus, trying mare and kirk's honey or homemade bread is a worthy addition to your bucket list...

Like this comment
Posted by Midtown Mama
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 22, 2014 at 3:49 pm

We have 19 fruit trees, and the entire 5000 square feet of our backyard has been planted with veggies for the last 34 years. Due to the drought, we will plant only a few tomatoes this year. I'm glad to read that the enthusiasm is spreading!

Like this comment
Posted by milkweeed
a resident of Nixon School
on Apr 23, 2014 at 3:37 pm

Hello Gardeners- Please consider adding some milkweed to your plots for the Monarch Butterflies! Along the edges of the garden, in forgotten places along the fence, in the corners….. anywhere you can slip some in. Many of the milkweeds are native to Calif. so are draught tolerant and wont' need much of your water.

Like this comment
Posted by Farimeadow fan
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Apr 26, 2014 at 6:52 pm

Nobody has said it yet, so I will: What a lovely pic of Maryanne Welton :-)

Like this comment
Posted by Susan Stansbury
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 29, 2014 at 4:12 pm

What a great article! If you want to see more Edible Gardens in Palo Alto, come to the Edible Landscaping Tour on July 19th. To register go to Web Link

Perhaps the gardens in this article can be on next years' tour!

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Couples: So You Married Mom or Dad . . .
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 936 views

Eat, Surf, Love
By Laura Stec | 2 comments | 923 views

The Cost of Service
By Aldis Petriceks | 2 comments | 541 views