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Forestiere Underground Gardens In Fresno

Updated on February 22, 2017

An Underground View

Underground Living as a Choice

Baldassare Forestiere's Original Vision

In about 1906, a 27 year old Sicillian immigrant, Baldassare Forestiere decided that surface living in Fresno County, California was too difficult with the many +100 degree days in the summer. After all, Fresno County was a plateau of desert in the Central California area until the advent of irrigation; the irrigation water brought with it much agricultural activity in this former desert area with its dry but rich soil. Living in the heat still remained an active factor, but with ample water applied to the wonderful soil of Fresno County, the former desert bloomed in most places. Various biographies point out that Baldassare had no formal education and that he, more or less, learned as he went along. Later biographical material inaccurately extolled him as engineer, architect, horticulturist, artist, builder; and he was all of the above, but he learned all of those degrees the hard way, through practical application of his talents. He also combined his personal knowledge of agriculture with his childhood memories of the Roman architecture of the Mediterranean area where he was raised as a young man and these memories acted as a guide as he hand excavated his useless farmland into the spectacular garden that still exists in family hands today. In fact, the Forestiere Underground Gardens are considered to be a historical site.The site is listed on the National Register of Historical Sites and also as a California Historical Landmark.

The Beginning of the Dream

Baldassare originally purchased 10 acres to farm citrus trees, but with poor results because of the poor soil and hard pan. But, after a long day of work in the local agriculture industry, he would return to his sweltering living quarters to rest until the next day. He got the idea of digging a 'cave' where it would be cooler and soon was spending the latter part of the day underground where it was much cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. The simple original room the he dug out gradually expanded into multiple rooms and, in fact, complete living quarters, all underground. He even placed a stove underground to have heat in the cold winters. He ended up digging almost one hundred rooms through sheer determination.

The Subterranean Gardens Begin

Next, he got the idea of planting a citrus tree underground and I suppose that he had seen similar underground plantings in the Mediterranean region where he had grown up. So, he made a planter underground, filled it with good soil and opened a skylight to the surface. The tree did well and was out of the danger of winter frost and freezes. This led to more underground activity and continuous excavation for the next 23 years or so. By 1923 he had turned about 10 underground acres filled with trees bearing luscious fruits and grape vines. Reportedly, he also grew many varieties of table vegetables for his own use. Some of the original trees that he planted are now over 90 years old. He was interviewed by the media of his day and he was quoted as saying, "making something out of nothing, now that is something."

The Horticulture Aspect of the Gardens - What Grows There

One of the important aspects of the life of the underground garden is the ability for the plants to avoid the winter frost and the low temperature conditions of Fresno County. This is also a major benefit with the lengthening of the growing season. Many plants grow here that would normally be planted as annuals, plants that are, in truth, perennials. Also, plants that normally cannot grow because of the weather conditions above ground can grow quite well with the protection. Many of the existing plants are over 100 years old at this point in time. The planting was planned throughout the various levels so that blooming and production of edible fruit and flowers are ongoing throughout the complex. Reportedly the variety of fruit trees consists of many types of citrus, kumquats, loquats, jujube, kiwi along with berries and vines. Baldassare had a way with his green friends and practiced the art of grafting his trees so that one stump might have two or three varieties of fruit or nuts on it which increased the variety..

During the Last 40 Years of Forestiere's Life

For the last 40 years of his life, Baldassare, labored with picks, shovels, wheelbarrows, and a scraper (Fresno Scraper) pulled by his two mules, Dolly and Molly. Departing this life at the age of 67, Baldassare left a gardening heritage that lives on to be enjoyed by his relatives who are the caretakers of this gardening monument and by those of us who care to visit this masterpiece of endeavor, we who are unfortunate enough to have to live above ground. In retrospect, all of that underground digging in our day and age would probably not meet the requirements of the local building inspection department. There wasn't very much activity in the building inspection department in 1906-1946.

Visiting the Forestiere Underground Gardens

The Forestiere Gardens are Open to the Public on a fixed schedule for tours weather permitting. The Forestiere family owns and maintains the property, keeping this treasure alive and available for future generations to visit and appreciate. Photos of the Gardens are only by permission of the family and none have been included from the various sites with this article and am awaiting permission from the family to do so (pending). The one photo placed on here is by permission of the owner on another site (again, if the family doesn't object).

Problems for the Gardens

Just recently, I read an article in the Fresno Bee that indicates that there are problems with the location of the garden and the proposed high speed rail system proposed to pass through Fresno close to the locale of the garden treasure; it seems that anticipated vibrations may cause problems.

Since I wrote the above comment, the problems for the preservation of this historical site have gotten worse. The California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) has forced the city of Fresno to consider having to construct an overpass over the rails which greatly impacts the gardens. Now not only the vibrations might cause a problem, but more will have to be taken from the decreasing size of the original garden for this new progress.

The CHSRA proposal is one of the most ridiculous ideas ever proposed for the financially broke State of California. The cost will be in the billions of dollars and today's Fresno Bee says that the newest plan to pay for this unnecessary boondoggle will be in form of Carbon Dollars; Carbon Dollars are on the order of Monopoly Game money. I read someplace that the real reason that the politicians in California want this boondoggle to be constructed is because the broke Federal government will print about two billion dollars and give it to the California politicians to spend on whatever; it is supposed to be spent on the rail system, but probably very little will go to pay the CHSRA bills, it will all be pork.

The Forestiere Underground Garden, A Pictorial Journey

The Forestiere Underground Garden, A Pictorial Journey
The Forestiere Underground Garden, A Pictorial Journey
A photo journey by Silvio Manno, expensive and dated, but still available.

Video by Huell Howell - California Gold Series

The California Gold Video #509 - Under California
is available along with many other fabulous Huell Howell videos taken of the California scene.


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