Thirty years ago, the land behind Mountain View's Fire Station 1 was a basketball court for the Police Officers Association. Three years ago, it was just a blanket of tall weeds. "A forgotten land," said Mountain View firefighter-paramedic Mike Robbins.
Robbins was in the process of building some large container gardens on the back patio of Station 1 at 251 S. Shoreline Blvd., where he worked. But one day, he looked over the fence beyond the patio.
"I saw the full southern sun-exposed lot with a bunch of weeds," the Santa Cruz resident said. "As I looked over, I thought: 'This would be a good place for a garden. ... A quarter-acre is sitting here.'"
His excitement grew as he toured the city property. He said he was hesitant at first, but that he then invited his friend to bring his tractor and rototiller to go over the area. Robbins said he pulled out rocks, concrete, pavement and other crud.
"It's tough to make tomatoes grow in rocks, right?" he said, chuckling. While on a call one day, Robbins saw some old wood heading to the dump. With permission, he took the wooden planks and created some raised beds in the fire station's garden. "Then, you start planting," he said.
But it wasn't an easy job. He toiled during his free time at the station -- between 7 and 10 p.m. and after his shift in the morning -- in his "civilian clothes." For the first six months, nothing in the garden would grow. It began to "catapult into a different league" after Robbins took some gardening classes at Love Apple Farms in Santa Cruz.
And soon enough, city officials were willing to help, supplying wood chips to inhibit weeds, removing a lot of dead brush and trimming the trees, he said. "When you put a plate of watermelon or honeydew or cherry tomatoes that are sweet, sweet, sweet like sugar, the smiles on their faces -- there was no need for permission."
Now, his lush garden has taken a life of its own, full of watermelon, onions, garlic, tomatoes, basil, lettuce and more. With a scarecrow in a firefighter's uniform, the garden provides ingredients for the chili verde, pesto spaghetti squash, caprese salads and other meals the firefighters cook.
"If you've ever tasted the difference in these vegetables, you would see it as well. It's not a watery tomato from the grocery store. It's like a steak when you cut into it. And you can taste that freshness," Robbins said.
The team switches off cooking responsibilities each night. One of the firefighters has made a beet cake several times that "is out of this world," Robbins said. He said he has seen others at the station become inspired to begin their own gardens, asking him for tips.
"You get to see your little baby grow and then at the end, you literally get to pick the fruit of your labor and put it on the plate and see people enjoy it," he said. "It's fun to nurture something like that."
While he spends time chasing off squirrels gnawing on his prized possession, the garden has become bigger than Robbins, bringing him some local fame. Recently, community members were invited to visit the garden and try the cherry tomatoes and lemon cucumbers as part of a Mountain View library event. Robbins' garden was featured in "California Bountiful," two radio shows and a TV news spot. But most significantly, Robbins received a congratulatory letter from U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Menlo Park, mentioning that she had forwarded the coverage to First Lady Michelle Obama.
"I thought someone was messing with me," he said. "I was like, 'What?' I just wanted to grow a garden ... Before you know it, the First Lady is getting wind of it." Robbins said Obama hasn't come to visit but that if she does, he will be there.
Robbins said he has no idea why people are hungry for his story, but he recalls his chief, Richard Alameda, telling him "gardening is really sexy right now. It's chic."
Robbins -- who's been given the nicknames Green Thumb, Green Jeans and Farmer Mike -- does understand the apparent irony of the story: the macho firefighter devoted to gardening. "It kind of deviates from the stereotypic role of a firefighter," he said. "But I'm okay. I'm comfortable with that. It's all good."
If anything, he feels this hobby allows him to relate to the public because people begin to see him as an average Joe.
"I think there is a sense of a wall when people see a uniform," he said. "They think that maybe they're not human or that they can't talk to them. But when you come to them and say: 'Hey, how are ya? You like to garden, too?' their defenses go down."
Gardening is something Robbins has been around his whole life, as it was important to his parents. He has a garden at home, where he lives with his 5- and 7-year-old sons.
"I think you can taste the difference and it's getting back to the basics," he said. "The cool thing is you get to take control of what you eat. And you know what's been in there, whether it's 'Ethel Methyl' stuff or just sunlight and love."