Palo Alto Weekly

- April 18, 2014

Down on the neighborhood farm

Barron Park residents create mini-farms that build community

by Sue Dremann

Oren Shneorson pulled up a Google Earth image of his Barron Park neighborhood, pointing out the green landscape dotting the yards between the suburban homes.

"Here's where we had a whole backyard of wheat. And here is where people raise chickens and bees," he said.

Shneorson's Laguna Avenue yard last summer had a wheat maze for his four children and a forest of large sunflowers shaped into a sunflower house, he said. Through a hole in the fence, Suzanne Keehn's granddaughters run and play with Shneorson's kids. The children have their own small garden plot at Keehn's home on Orme Street, and kids from both families play and care for Keehn's chickens.

These two gardeners are part of a growing network of neighbors who are, in their own way, bringing back the farmland that once covered this neighborhood. Fences may parcel off properties, but with the aerial Google view, parts of the neighborhood are, in a sense, becoming one territory, Shneorson said. And the gardeners, through their shared produce, fertilizer, compost and knowledge, are building a strong sense of community across the fence lines.

"If you look at Google Slides, you can look back over the years and see what this place was like. There was a big orchard there. Suddenly, the fences are there," he said.

People buy a house, and it becomes their private universe, he said. "But what if you could coordinate your plantings with other people? Save seeds and share seeds? Coordinate planting for pollination and decide who will do zucchini? If I have a few feet of zucchini and you have a few feet of zucchini, you are scaling it to a bigger scale," he said.

Shneorson is an avid gardener with six years of experience; Keehn has been gardening in some fashion for 40 years. Other neighbors around them do the same.

"It's very neighborly. It creates bartering. We can coordinate planting and help to maintain each other's gardens, and when you have problems, you can work to solve them," he said.

Last summer when white cabbage moths began to proliferate, neighbors discovered they all had the same experience. Some people had used yellow-jacket traps, and residents theorized that could have eliminated the pesky but beneficial predators, he said.

Shneorson sees the patchwork of mini-farms as places that together will help nature. Coordinated planting times can create fields of blossoms to provide nectar for pollinating insects, for example.

"Nature doesn't care about fences. Bees and birds, they don't pay any attention to them," he said.

Properties on Orme, Laguna Way and Amaranta Avenue have big lots, Keehn said. About four or five years ago, she had the idea that if they all got together, she and her neighbors could grow their own food. She started with her neighbor across the street, Ann Burrell, a master gardener.

"We got really connected and we had more fun. Ann supplies the beans. It's wonderful that this is happening. We split expenses, we divide eggs. It's kind of like a little farm: 'Come on over and get this or bring that,'" she said.

Now it's happening organically with other neighbors. "We're all friends. It's just really neat. I just love not having to buy vegetables," she said.

Burrell grows tables of pepper and tomato starts, which she shares with neighbors. She recently got a neighbor's grandson interested in worm composting, she said.

Three of her neighbors are now gardening. "People keep asking for advice. It's a really nice community network," she said.

And there's always more produce than she can handle.

"There's something very special about learning how to grow things. People say, 'What do you do with all of this lettuce?'" I say, 'If you walk on this property, you leave with it.'"

The connections are spreading across the neighborhood. When Shneorson wanted to learn about growing wheat, he was introduced to Maryanne Welton on Kendall Avenue. When she and husband Kirk's sons grew up, they ripped out the backyard lawn and planted wildflowers and wheat, she said.

She and her friends did a one-block feast, where locavores try to eat from within a small area of their community. Welton and friends had a harvest feast that even included butter and ice cream from a cow someone kept in Los Altos Hills, she said. About five or six families still gather three or four times a year for a potluck where all of the food comes from their gardens, she said.

Welton keeps bees and chickens and grows all kinds of vegetables. Earlier this week, her potato plants stood nearly 3 feet, and the red winter wheat was more than waist high. The Weltons get 15 pounds of flour from a 10-by-10-foot plot. "It's enough for 80 loaves of bread," Kirk said.

The plot of wildflowers has flowers that produce nectar at different times, providing the bees with continuous forage, she said.

Insects busily streamed back and forth to the hives.

"Last year, we had 27 gallons of honey," she said. "I love the contrast of living in Silicon Valley and producing our own food."

When the yard was merely a green lawn, Kirk returned from work and just went inside, he said. But the garden has changed the way he lives.

"I found when I came home I was intrigued to go outside and engage with the garden," he said. "It was interesting to see how natural it was to come home and engage with the outside in a fulfilling and soulful way."

Shneorson plans to build a mobile application for urban farmers to coordinate things such as planting and sharing. His urban farm app idea is one of two that were finalists in the City of Palo Alto's Apps Challenge. He is likely to complete just the parking app, but he does plan to develop the farm one in the future, he said.

"Putting tech behind it, you can pull up Google Maps and you can put in the word 'kale' and you can see where there is a field. There are options for sharing and bartering and you can see where master gardeners are," he said.

Burrell thinks that will attract new neighborhood farmers.

"We've lost an entire generation of farmers. Having something like an app would bring them initially into gardening," she said.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.

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