A garden in the concrete jungle | September 16, 2011 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - September 16, 2011

A garden in the concrete jungle

Neighbors find camaraderie at Midtown's 'Big Snail Ranch'

by Sue Dremann

Along a noisy stretch of Middlefield Road, beside Matadero Creek, a refuge from the sun and cement has taken hold.

Birdhouses hang from a flowering privet, buzzing with nectar-sipping bees. Sculptures ranging from dinosaurs to nudes pop out from between pink hydrangeas and herbs.

A tiny blue watering can and spray bottles encourage passing children to water the flowers, and a dog bowl filled with water from a miniature stylized "stream" serves passing canines out for a walk with their owners.

Welcome to the "Big Snail Ranch," a corner garden so named after the pesky mollusks that invariably lunch on the plants in Lynn Krug's garden.

The garden is the Midtown resident's work of art, populated with her own figure sculptures and plants rescued from construction sites and remodels. It's where Krug unwinds after a long day as a field inspector for the City of Palo Alto's Water, Gas, Wastewater Engineering Department.

But most importantly to Krug, the garden's main function is building community, she said.

"Parents used to race by with their kids pushed in strollers with one hand and talking on their cell phones with the other. I started putting stuff out to make them stop by," she said.

Krug's dream of building a corner space for residents began six years ago, just months after she moved into her apartment on the northeast side of the creek. She began putting out plants in the trash- and ivy-covered lot and eventually won over her initially skeptical landlord, she said.

After working out a deal regarding water use, she expanded the garden to a roughly 20-foot-by-60-foot area amid existing oaks, California pepper and palm trees.

Now the garden features a plethora of flowering plants, herbs and vegetables ripe for the smelling, gazing at and picking. Neighbors bring plant gifts, do plant exchanges and donate unwanted and rescued sheds, trellises, bird baths and other garden additions, she said. A once-scrawny avocado tree with three leaves came with a note on it: "Please take care of me."

Krug gazed about and smiled.

"The only thing I see from my apartment are the trees — no buildings. I moved here because I wanted an apartment that gave me a feel of the outside. There are tons of finches and chickadees and hummingbirds," she said, pointing out paintings on the birdhouses of each species that visits the garden.

A woman and her child come to the garden every Sunday morning to pick a strawberry from the planter strip edging the street. In summer, there are fresh tomatoes. Adults stop to pot up herb cuttings to bring home, she said.

"It really makes me excited. People are out here talking and friendly because of the garden," she said.

Every place she has lived has had a trash or weed-strewn alley nearby that Krug has transformed into a garden, she said.

Krug said people don't usually associate gardens with apartment dwelling, but she believes creating such spaces should happen all over town — especially in areas where there are apartments.

"I feel personally strongly about the garden, I want people to engage — to take the time to stop and reflect. People have sort of fortressed their homes. The garden encourages people to imagine," she said.

The garden is the only thing like it between Loma Verde Avenue and the Midtown shopping area, she said. "It's like having a park at the end of the street."

Each season brings something different; Krug "works with what the garden wants to become," she said.

On holidays, she decorates for Valentine's Day or Christmas or the Fourth of July. Twenty neighbors from adjacent Ellsworth Place gathered in the garden for a July 4 block party, she said.

If Krug isn't in the garden for a day or two, or if another neighbor who frequents the garden isn't seen, residents become concerned, she said. The garden has become a neighborhood destination. Sometimes, people don't realize she is the garden's creator.

"I'll stand out here and people introduce me to the garden. People feel a sense of ownership or place. It makes people feel homey," she said.

Krug, 55, grew up in upstate New York's Finger Lakes region, the daughter of a construction worker and mother who hung out with artists.

Krug studied art at Pratt Institute and became a sculptor. She has taught at the Pacific Art League. She lived on a stagecoach inn and dairy farm surrounded by nature, she said.

The Middlefield garden is not the only garden she has developed locally. Krug and her daughter, Rose, 16, created a garden at a women's and family shelter for a Girl Scouts project; Krug and city union volunteers also installed a garden on the side of the Palo Alto Municipal Services Center on East Bayshore Road, she said.

Sitting at a small wicker table among the trees in her "junior Stern Grove," Krug reflected on the changes the garden has brought to the neighborhood: friendship, sharing, a connection with nature — and inspiration.

People have started remodeling the front of a nearby apartment complex and new landscaping has been added at another building, she said.

"A guy said he bought his house because of the garden," she said. "People could do this all over town."

A video created by Lynn Krug about her garden and her neighbors can be viewed at youtube.com/user/mczoomin by searching for "Share a Garden."

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.


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