Dexter Girton knows the best way to defend his hard-earned backyard bounty from even the craftiest squirrel.
"Loose netting, with no holes," he said. "If the netting is too tight, the squirrels will crawl under the netting. Believe me; I've seen them do it."
He should know; he's been growing fruit and vegetables in his yard for 30 years and can offer invaluable advice ranging from fending off various pests to spacing one's plants inside their gardens.
Girton now shares his knowledge and experience with the community through the Midtown Garden Circle.
"I was part of the California Rare Fruit Growers that meets in San Jose for many years, but I wanted to make contact with gardeners closer to home in Palo Alto. I also wanted to make additional gardener friends; that's what it was really about," he said.
Since 2005, the Midtown Garden Circle meets once a month in members' homes to hear educational presentations, swap valuable stories or experiences, and of course, share the fruits of their labor in a variety of different forms.
The April meeting featured a homemade raspberry tart, avocados, oranges, lemons and various plant seedlings -- all from their gardens.
The group now consists of roughly 10 members, who possess varying degrees of experience in home gardening.
"My partner Paul and I wanted to start growing our own food, but we didn't have any prior experience," member Annette Isaacson said. "Paul had done some research, but we thought it would be really nice to have some practical knowledge. The members of the circle were so supportive and nice, even though we were just beginners."
Jacqueline Raine and Rosalie Shepherd are the master gardeners of the group. Master gardeners have completed a two-year program through University of California, and have made a commitment to sharing their knowledge and expertise with the community.
"Jackie and Rosalie get so much volume in their fruits and vegetables, and it's fantastic that they share so much information with us. However, even the master gardeners' crops can sometimes fail," Isaacson said. "Gardening can be a humbling experience because you're at the mercy of so much, whether it's a pest or the weather."
"Everybody is really supportive, and nobody is critical. There isn't a sure thing or guarantee in gardening. Every year you come up against something that will challenge you," she said.
For example, Girton is currently working on a repellant for the spotted-wing Drosophila, a type of fruit fly that attacks soft fruit, and has recently ruined his raspberries.
Debbie Mytels originally came up with the idea of a support group in hopes of spurring a "movement" for local home food gardeners back in 2005.
"Small groups were the best way to reinforce new learning and behavior, and they also provided an outlet for new social connections within the community," she said.
"The people and the friendships are the most important to me about the group," Girton said. "I have developed many gardening friends through the group."
Members also said that they would like to develop food sources closer to home. "Getting closer to the food supply is becoming even more beneficial for everyone due to the rising costs of gas," Isaacson said. "People have also developed an interest in where their food is being grown."
The members also found they desired fruits and vegetables that tasted better than their store-bought counterparts. "It's surprising how infrequent my visits have been to the grocery store," Raine said. "Our vegetables taste better than ones you can even get at farmers markets."
"It's nice to see something that you don't get to see in the grocery store," Girton said. "You learn about things you can't buy in the stores. For example, somebody gave me a variety of lettuce called the 'Red Speckle,' and I have made several salads with that."
In April, the group heard about "Bats, Owls and other Beneficial Predators."
"Bats eat enormous quantities of insects, to the benefit of people and crops," said member/presenter Michael Bechler, reading directly from the book "At Home" by Bill Bryson. "Without bats, forest trees would be chewed to pieces, crops would need more pesticides, and the natural world would become a very stressed place.
"Owls are beneficial to humans because they prey on rodents," he continued. "Burrowing owls can be found in Palo Alto's baylands, although their environment is diminishing with the companies that are being built out there."
Bechler and other members shared tips on creating habitats for predatory bugs and other bug houses that produce beneficial insects for a home garden.
The group also discussed starting their spring gardens and implementing strategies to keep their plants from freezing. Shepherd, who has had the most successful tomato seedlings yet, shared her heating and lighting system, as well as her plans going forward.
"I also won't start planting these tomatoes until May 1. … It's important to wait until May," she said.
Members' aspirations for this summer include tomatoes, peppers, squash, zucchinis, cucumbers, asparagus, kai-lan (Chinese broccoli), strawberries, peaches, apricots and plums.
The group welcomes new members at any time. "We really would love more people to come by," Isaacson said. "It would be great to have a few more people to share with."
They will meet again May 10 to discuss "Corn and Beans."
What: Midtown Garden Circle
When: Second Thursday of every month
Where: Members' homes in Palo Alto
Info: Group mail list: firstname.lastname@example.org or Annette Isaacson at email@example.com
Midtown garden offers alternative
For those who don't want to navigate dealing with squirrels, bats and owls in their own yards, the Midtown Community Organic Garden could present an alternative opportunity.
The Midtown Community Organic Garden provides garden plots for those with aspirations of an organic home garden, but lack the space or adequate environment in their own yards.
"A lot of people come who don't really have the sunlight in their own yards to grow their vegetables," said Susan Stansbury, the community's garden coordinator.
Located behind the Midtown shopping area since 1994, the community garden offers plots ranging from 40 square feet to 125 square feet, at 22 cents per square-foot.
The neighborhood oasis is sponsored by the environmental nonprofit organization, Acterra.
Plot holders are responsible for the maintenance of their own plots, as well as community clean-up days, which occur about every six months.
There is currently one family on the waiting list, and the average wait time can be a few months. Those interested in trying their hand at organic gardening should contact Susan Stansbury at firstname.lastname@example.org.
-- Junesung Lee (Editorial assistant Junesung Lee can be emailed at email@example.com.)