Planting new ideas | July 15, 2011 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - July 15, 2011

Planting new ideas

Edible garden tour inspires local enthusiasts to grow organic

by Casey Moore

Avid backyard gardener Jake Hartinger meanders within the waist-high green forest that sits prominently in the center of his Palo Alto backyard. He reaches inside one of his Sun Gold tomato plants and pulls out two yellow, marble-sized fruits, rinses them under a hose, and pops one into his mouth.

"This is my family's favorite tomato," he said. "My kids come out and eat these. They forage and eat as many as they can find."

Hartinger's edible garden will be one of 10 featured in the fifth annual Edible Landscaping Tour on Saturday, July 23, presented by Common Ground Organic Garden Supply and Education Center and more than two dozen community partners. This year's tour will showcase the most physically broad array of gardens to date, including gardens from Palo Alto, Los Altos, Mountain View and Menlo Park.

The popular tour annually brings together around 250 local gardening enthusiasts for a tour of organic, sustainable gardens in the area, from which participants can draw inspiration and ideas for their own gardening.

"It's so great to share it with the community so that they can see: This is approachable," said Patricia Becker, center manager at Common Ground. "There's not just one way to do it. There's many ways they can do it. It's just an exploration and an adventure and fun!"

Hartinger's adventure involves growing more than two dozen different types of plants year-round. As he walks around the garden's border of stepping-stones and wooden planks, he points out cucumbers, peppers, chard, squash, beans, eggplant, four varieties of sunflowers and 15 types of tomatoes. His garden also boasts seven fruit trees — oranges, lemons, figs and apples — and herbs such as basil, rosemary and thyme.

"Most people have really well-defined beds," Hartinger said, motioning to a small, stand-alone corner spot where his bean plants grow. "But I change the paths and change where I grow things. ... I like to make different pathways every year."

Hartinger's green thumb sprouted in high school when he enrolled in an organic gardening class. The subject immediately sparked his interest.

"It's just relaxing and kind of fun," said Hartinger, who works professionally as a consultant at Cisco.

He was unable to begin large-scale gardening until he and his wife Amy moved into their Barron Park home nearly 20 years ago. The couple chose this house mainly for its large backyard and gardening potential.

"Or I did anyway," Hartinger said, laughing. His wife and three children are mainly "harvesters," he said, while he does the dirty work.

Literally. Hartinger picks up a shovel and thrusts it deep into the dark garden soil until the long spade disappears. The soil bounces slightly. When the shovel is removed, dirt falls off the spade with the delicacy of cotton fluff.

By contrast, "this is the soil of Palo Alto," Hartinger said. He stabs an adjacent dirt patch, and the soil merely dents a few inches.

Hartinger attributes the vast difference to double digging, a technique he learned in a course at Common Ground. This aeration process involves digging two shovel-lengths deep to prepare the soil for planting, he said.

"The most important thing to grow vegetables is to have plenty of air for the roots," he said.

He also maintains a compost bin layered with "dirt, food scraps, green matter and straw," which he mixes and re-layers about once a month. His family contributes enthusiastically to the stockpile, he said. Today, the top layer is decorated with bright lemon and orange peels and white-larvae-spotted dirt.

Compost and double-digging, Hartinger said, are the keys to a successful home garden. Maintaining these practices means he only spends about four hours per week on his garden, he said.

"I consider myself a lazier gardener," he said. "The soil is so nice now that I can almost plant things anytime I want to, without even doing work."

Often, his vegetables even plant themselves. His homemade, organic compost is not sterilized, so any discarded seeds are re-scattered across the ground when he lays down a new layer of compost.

"See, that's a 'volunteer' potato right there," Hartinger said, pulling the fist-sized vegetable out from beneath the wooden pathway. "I don't know how that got there."

The composition of the garden is always changing, Hartinger said. The newest addition, chickens, arrived six months ago as a birthday present for his youngest daughter. Currently, he is growing radishes in a wooden flat and plans to transplant them in a couple of weeks.

"I bought a food dehydrator this year, too," Hartinger said. "I'm going to try and dehydrate some of the vegetables." He hopes to preserve zucchini, apricots, apples, squash and carrots for use in soups and stews.

Hartinger hopes his fellow Palo Altans will try gardening. "I think everybody should grow something," he said. "It's not that hard, and it's so rewarding to be able to just go out and grab food from your yard."

What: Edible Landscaping Tour

When: Saturday July 23, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Where: 10 gardens in Palo Alto and surrounding areas, beginning at Common Ground, 559 College Ave., Palo Alto

Cost: $35. Register at Common Ground or online.

Info: or call 650-493-6072

Editorial Intern Casey Moore can be reached at


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