Fresno's Underground Gardens

Founded in 1872, the city of Fresno, California has a long agricultural history as part of the San Joaquin Valley. It's located on CA 99, 174 miles south of Sacramento and 142 miles east of Salinas. As you travel through the area, there is a variety of crops to see; citrus tree groves to wheat fields. One of the most impressive agricultural sites in Fresno's history just might be right underneath your feet.

The Open Secret of Shaw Avenue

Tucked away beneath Shaw Avenue in the Fresno suburbs is a man-made series of courtyards, living quarters and connecting passageways. These are the Underground Gardens of Baldasare Forestiere. In 1901, Signore Forestiere immigrated to the U.S. and eventually settled in California in 1905. In his native Sicily, he had made his living cultivating trees and vines. His dream for his little piece of Fresno was to use those skills to raise citrus and other trees and vines. Unfortunately, he soon discovered that the land he purchased was not suited for his vision. It didn't deter Forestiere though. He simply decided to dig down a little further.

Hard Labor or Labor of Love?

Using only hand tools, Forestiere created an absolute wonder. He chiseled and dug his way through hardpan to eventually carve out 10 acres of courtyards, patios and other living areas and rooms; all of it underground. The gardens themselves are planted in the passageways and corridors that link together all of the various living quarters.

True to his vision, Forestiere planted and cultivated grape vines and fruit-bearing trees throughout the gardens. Among the many grape varieties he cultivated include Alicante, Grenache and Zinfandel vines. The trees he planted range from the traditional orange and lemon to carob, fig, loquat and kumquat. One tree Forestiere grafted over the years to bear seven different fruits. Many of these trees and vines are still producing today.

A Marvel of Architecture, Agriculture and Engineering

Light is provided to even the deepest part of the gardens with a series of skylights and various sized planters are used to block and redirect rainfall. Excess rainwater that does find its way into the gardens is redirected by the carefully sloped passageway floors into sump pits to prevent flooding. The corridors were carefully planned in terms of curvature and width to maximize air flow to not only assist in growth but to make Forestiere's home as pleasant as possible.

To make this even more amazing, Forestiere had no formal education or training in architecture or engineering. His basis for this incredible home was his personal study of Roman architecture in Italy and his personal experiences as a digger on the New York City subway system when he first came to the U.S. He never stopped making improvements to his home and at the time of his death in 1946, Forestiere had carved out almost 100 rooms over the 10 acres. These included space for an aquarium and even a fishpond!

Handmade History

In 1979, Forestiere's home and gardens were designated as an historic landmark. They are now open to the public and maintained by his family. The Underground Gardens are an incredible sight to see and a perfect example of what an individual can accomplish with hard work and dedication to his or her personal vision. This truly is a place where you have to see it to believe it.

Kevin Findley has lived in Roseville CA since 2009. He's a freelance commercial and fiction writer.