I always enjoy visiting interesting gardens, and a few days ago, when the thermometer again hit the triple digit mark, I enjoyed a cool respite from the heat and toured the Forestiere Underground Gardens. The gardens are located on a busy street on the outskirts of Fresno in California's San Joaquin Valley. The gardens were created over 100 years ago by Baldassare Forestiere (1879-1946), a Sicilian immigrant.
(click on photos to enlarge)
The gardens are so unassuming, with little signage, that you might drive by without ever realizing that behind the chain linked fence is a 100 year old garden that is one of California's Historic Landmarks.
You won't find a garden landscaped with flowers, but trees of many kinds grow in this underground home.
When he purchased 80 acres of land in the early 1900's, Baldassare had intended to farm and grow fruit. Unfortunately the land consisted of hardpan, layers of impenetrable compacted soil, unfit for farming. So he envisioned creating a subterranean "resort" as a refuge from the intense summer heat. In 1906, using simple tools: a pickax, a shovel, and a wheelbarrow, he began excavating and carving out a series of 50 underground rooms and passageways. He worked as a laborer during the day, digging ditches, and after work he continued to dig singlehandedly for 40 years until his death in 1946.
By 1923 he had excavated 10 acres underground. But it is unknown how many more acres he had completed in his last 23 years. After his death, family members sold off much of the land. Apparently many of those acres were filled in when years later freeways were constructed nearby. A nephew and other family members continue to maintain the 4.5 acres that remain of the gardens today.
Forestiere Underground Gardens is listed as a California Historical Landmark. A conservancy has been created, in conjunction with the Forestiere family, that intends to see that the gardens will be preserved for generations to come.
The gardens are truly an amazing accomplishment. Without engineering or architectural training, Baldasare designed and built his underground home which consisted of living quarters, patios, courtyards, a chapel, and even a ballroom, all connected through a maze of passageways and arches reminiscent of ancient catacombs. He was a deeply religious man, and motifs using the numbers three and seven are found throughout the gardens.
There are three levels from 10 to 23 feet deep, but with light provided by the many skylights, it doesn't feel gloomy at all. It is designed so that cool air flows naturally through the passageways. The skylights have covers for rainy days and a drainage system was constructed so that water would run off when it rained. An early day solar heating system provided hot water. In winter, fireplaces warmed the living areas.
He planted a variety of vines and fruit trees underground beneath the skylights. There is a 100 year grape vine that is still producing fruit, along with many varieties of citrus, including one tree that was grafted to grow seven different types of citrus fruits. Loquat, kumquat, quince, pomegranate, date, jujube, and carob trees can still be found growing throughout the gardens.
Although he never married, Baldassare was content to work on his dream of building an underground oasis for family, friends, and visitors. It was truly a labor of love, and hopefully his dream will continue on for many more years.
Click here for directions and for more information about Forestiere's Underground Gardens.
Happy Gardening and to those in the US, Happy Labor Day!