"Help the earth." Randolph Tsien repeats his motto as he makes his way through his front yard featuring tomatoes, passion fruits, Chinese chives, eggplants and pomegranates to the backyard where the product of several years of hard work lies.
Tsien's garden in the Palo Verde neighborhood is only one of the 18 gardens featured in the Ninth Annual Edible Garden Tour on July 18 an event that shares local gardens with anyone who wants to get inspired by and learn from people who produce their own food, according to Mia Sasaki, Common Ground Garden project manager.
Sasaki recommends that attendants buy tickets online beforehand so that they can get access to a non-index website with gardening resources. Through the website, attendants will also be able to determine which tour route they want to take, depending on the proximity of the gardens and the kinds of plants and animals that are going to be presented by the host gardeners.
In past years, the tour was organized by Common Ground Supply and Education Center, which closed its doors in November 2014. A huge community was really sad about that, Sasaki said, so Common Ground Garden decided to take over. For the first time this year, they expanded the tour outside of Palo Alto because of a high interest from gardeners in nearby cities. The tour now extends from San Mateo to Campbell, where Pat Nichols' 51-year-old garden is located. Nichols, who attended the tour in the previous years, said that she is very excited to be finally participating in the event as a host gardener.
Even with the expansion, eight out of the 18 gardens in the tour are still located in Palo Alto one of which is Tsien's garden. Originally from Tonga, Tsien started gardening when he was a little kid back in his homeland.
"Nothing to do in the summertime, I'd just play around in the dirt. I've been planting stuff ever since," Tsien said.
Over the years, gardening has turned into something more than just a pastime for him, and working with his family to organically produce their own food has become a priority.
"I want my kids to see how food is produced, so they get to appreciate the land. It's not like 'Oh, just turn on the TV and get everything.' You have to plant the seed and wait until it grows and does something," he said.
One of Tsien's main principles is to grow plants that are not only ornamental but also edible. His backyard houses many plants, including persimmon and lemon trees, squash, watermelon, cucumbers, snow peas, string beans, parsley, blueberry, mint and marigold flowers. Using a rainwater catchment system, Tsien makes sure to grow these plants in the most water-efficient and sustainable way possible.
In addition to fruits and vegetables, Tsien's garden also features a chicken coop and beehives. Tsien said that he started raising chickens to make use of the chicken excrement as organic fertilizer to improve the soil. Afterward, he and his family began using the eggs as well, and now that there are too many, they sell the extra amount.
The same goes for the honey, Tsien added as he pointed out the huge crowd of bees buzzing and swarming around the hives. It's only the second year that Tsien has started producing honey, mainly to eat with his family and share with friends. However, since the quantity of produce has been way more than they could eat or share 375 pounds for the first year he started selling the honey along with the eggs.
Home gardens are not the only gardens included in the Edible Garden Tour.
One of the tour's biggest gardens belongs to a worker-owned and parish-based cooperative assisted by NanoFarms, a nonprofit intended to help worker-owners build mini-farms and produce organic food. Located in Menlo Park, and managed by a small guild of five members, the land harbors a variety of organically grown plants including but not limited to strawberries, eggplants, tomatoes, kale, cilantro, corn, Swiss chard, lettuce, carrots and zucchinis.
According to Project Manager Brendon Ford, NanoFarms' system allows guild members to make decisions all together, giving them the motivation to work enthusiastically and improve their farming practices.
"We call (the guild members) worker-owners because they both work for the cooperative and they're also owners," Ford said. "With cooperatives, basically you're giving as much power to the smallest entity, so everybody is involved in the decisions of the company."
Ernesto Jasso, one of the guild members, started gardening a year ago and learned about different farming techniques through his training at NanoFarms. All of the practices at NanoFarms are organic, he explained.
"We're trying to basically figure out what's the best way to retain the soil that we have here because the most important thing in growing produce is if the soil is good," Jasso said. "We don't use any machines; everything we do is manual labor. (It's) very tiring but we want to be more sensitive of the environment."
Ford also highlighted the importance of sustainability to their agricultural practices. Unlike what often happens in conventional farming, they compost alfalfa crops and other unused crops, returning the nutrients absorbed from the soil right back to it, Ford said.
Considering the drought, saving water is even more crucial, according to guild members. They use a drip irrigation system, which enables each plant to receive no more water than it needs.
The guild sells their produce at local parishes. They are also looking to grow the guild membership in the coming months.
"We're aiming toward promoting ecological awareness and just taking care of the environment God has given us," another guild member Sophia Mendoza added.
What: Ninth Annual Edible Garden Tour
When: Saturday, July 18, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Where: The tour starts at Common Ground Garden, 687 Arastradero Road, Palo Alto
Cost: $10 to $35