Growing his own | July 13, 2007 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - July 13, 2007

Growing his own

Creating a garden that's good enough to eat

by Rotem Ben-Shachar

Bob Niederman's house is easy to find. In a Palo Alto neighborhood where front yards contain mostly grass and maybe a few small flowers, Niederman's has a plethora of melons, berries, artichokes, tomatoes, squash and plums growing throughout the entire yard.

His organic edible garden, which extends to the side of the house and the back yard, complete with a greenhouse and tool shed, is the culmination of years of dreaming of the perfect garden.

"It's the garden I never had quite the gumption to start," he said.

His garden is one of 10 featured in an edible landscaping tour of organic food on Saturday, July 28, presented by Common Ground Supply and Education Center and Valley of Heart's Delight, a project of Conexions. Lyngso Garden Materials, Inc. is sponsoring the event.

Niederman first became interested in gardening as an undergraduate at the University of California, Santa Cruz. There he was introduced to biodynamic gardening, in which the gardener places greater emphasis on the soil than on the plants, and soon he caught the gardening bug, he said.

A year ago, after rebuilding his fence and tearing out the ivy, he realized he had a lot more space in his back yard. He decided it was the perfect opportunity to build the garden he always wanted.

"Often people take food for granted," he said. "This garden is my way of honoring the food and not taking it for granted."

But he hopes his garden makes an impact not only on himself, but the people in his neighborhood. That's why he planted fruits and vegetables specifically in his front yard.

"I want to inspire people to do something with the earth. Everybody who comes by my house, especially children, looks into my garden. I'm glad that children can experience the excitement of growing something on (their) own at an early age," he said.

"The point of the tour is to demonstrate that growing your own food strengthens the local food system," Susan Stansbury, director of Valley of Heart's Delight, said.

Niederman strongly believes in the goal of the tour. He has taken a great interest in the slow-food movement, which stresses that eating produce grown closer to your home is both better for you and the earth.

"If you feel like you are an active participant in the local environment, you will feel a greater connection to the earth and take better care of it," Niederman said.

The organizers of the tour also hope the tour reveals the fun and beauty involved in growing one's own produce.

Niederman said the daily progress of the fruits and vegetables is one of his favorite aspects of the garden.

"It is exciting to come outside everyday and see if something has grown," he said. "Last month I was gone a few days and my sunflowers grew close to three feet; it was incredible."

But more importantly, gardening helps Niederman feel he belongs to the earth, he said.

"It's an intimate connection in that I am giving something to the earth and it is giving me something back. The fact that I can eat it, and take it in as a part of myself makes the connection even stronger," he said. "It is a traditional feeling, that my home, my land is part of my identity, and not just a place where I live."

Sticking to his roots in biodynamic gardening, Niederman uses some unusual methods to keep the soil rich. He uses agriculture-grade charcoal in the soil, since the charcoal's microscopic pores make it easy for organisms to go inside the pores and make a home, and is a very good environment for plant roots. He also uses mycelium, or mushroom roots, that digest the earth and make it easier for the earth to soak up the nutrients. Additionally, he double digs to make the soil loose and allow roots to enter the soil easily.

Niederman has no systematic way of deciding what types of plants to put in his garden, but looks for plants that are not commonly found in stores.

He is attracted to Asian and Mexican cooking, and incorporates plants from these areas, such as Vietnamese basil and jalapeno peppers, into his garden.

He chooses to grow other plants through recommendations he receives from friends and from talking to people at Common Ground. For example, he grew Spaulding apple trees because he was intrigued when he heard that the trees grow flat, not round like a normal apple tree.

He also travels to different organic farms for ideas.

"This is something my heart is in," he said. "I'm trying to learn all I can."

Niederman often incorporates his love of gardening into his professional life. As an executive coach, he helps executives figure out their life goals.

"Many people say one of their goals is to have good relationships with their employees. I often bring up gardening because there are so many similarities between cultivating a garden and cultivating a relationship. They both take time and patience, among other things," he said.

Niederman's ultimate goal is to have a 10-acre working farm that is both economically viable and can be used as an educational tool to teach people, especially kids, the importance in growing produce themselves.

"I want kids to see what the earth is like, that they do not get a watermelon from the store, but from the earth," he said.

Other gardens on the tour include:

** a garden that contains a seedling table, herb spiral and flexible bed irrigation, among its many fruits and vegetables. The gardeners use the bio-intensive method to conserve water.

** a garden in which the gardeners use "solar gardening" cold frames and row covers to extend the growing season year-round. The garden includes many fruits and vegetables, as well as chickens.

** a 1/3-acre garden filled with vegetables, herbs, flowers and a small pond. Seeds are first grown in a greenhouse before they are planted into the garden.

** a garden with a compost-production bin to minimize fossil-fuel dependency of delivery of food. The garden has more than 20 fruit trees and a large assortment of vegetables.

Editorial Intern Rotem Ben-Shachar can be reached at What: Edible Landscaping Tour: Organic Food Grown in Our Neighborhoods When: Saturday, July 28, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Where: 10 gardens in Palo Alto, beginning at Common Ground Education Center, 559 College Ave., Palo Alto Cost: $35 Info: Register online at or call Common Ground at 650-493-6072.


Posted by Shirley Gaines, a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 15, 2007 at 2:58 pm

What an exciting idea -- that many of us in Palo Alto can make vegetable gardens in our own yards, both front and back. What is most interesting about this article is the concept of an emphasis on the soil instead of the plants! In a small area in our back yard, we have an astonishing number of tomatoes. Squash wil come later. But, I'm thinking of how to expand this area (if we can ever get the ivy out!), enrich the soil and see what other produce we can grow here. Thank you for this article.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 15, 2007 at 3:01 pm

Reminds me of the British comedy shown eons ago on PBS about a couple living entirely off the bounty they produced from their property - Good Neighbors - very funny show.

Posted by John, a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 15, 2007 at 3:21 pm

Reminds me of Palo Alto in the 70s. Many front yard gardens then. French intensive methods (double dug, manure, lots of labor). Nothing new.

Then a drought occurred ... no more water. End of gardens. Growing one's own vegetables is very inefficient in terms of overall environmental costs. Add up all the car trips, deliveries, water useage, organic costs (flies, smell, labor, tools) is much better to buy the stuff at the store.

I would add that most front yard gardens are ugly.

Grow gardens, in a limited way, for the pure joy of it. But keep it limited...and in your back yard.

Posted by Anonymous, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 15, 2007 at 10:32 pm

How about some photos of this garden?

John, edible gardens need not be ugly. Look at Rosiland Creasy books for examples.
Web Link

Posted by Bob Niederman, a resident of Palo Alto Orchards
on Jul 16, 2007 at 7:17 am

I am a member of the "Slow Food" movement which seeks to help people find food close to home. This way we reduce the amount of petroleum we use to transfer the food from across the country and across the world. I think we ought to start with our front and back yards. It inspires me every morning when I look outside and see the beauty of the melons, the tomatoes, the squash, and the sunflowers! It makes me want to make the world a better place because it already is such a great place!

For those who think edible gardens are ugly, come to the tour. My yard has never been more beautiful. People who walk by stop for many minutes just to drink in the sight and refresh their spirit.

Posted by Tim, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 16, 2007 at 9:43 am


Would love to take a look at your edible garden.

Posted by trudy, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 16, 2007 at 1:29 pm


I think you haven't actually gardened. Flies? smell? sounds like a badly maintained compost heap.

Probably everyone has the basic tools around (how much does a shovel, a rake, a hoe and a trowel cost anyway), and your own labor is free. Better than free, actually, as it improves one health vs. sitting around watching the tube.

What are all the car trips for? One trip or so to maybe pick up some seedlings, if the person isn't growing their own.

Mulching reduces water use.

It's hard to think of anythig more beautiful than a garden.

Posted by John, a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 16, 2007 at 2:15 pm


Actually, I have gardened, and I like it. I have done both conventional and French Intensive methods. I enjoy it, at least at certain periods of my life. I currently have a small plot in my back yard.

The problem I have with front yard gardens is that they end up ugly. After the initial flurry of idealism, they are left to dry out and go to weed. This is not fantasy, trudy, I have seen it many times in Palo Alto.

Most serious gardeners I know are always travelling around to garden meetings, supply shops, etc. They are also having compost deliveries (even though they have their own composting going on). They hate to admit this, but it is oftentimes true. Yes, most of the compost piles attrack flies (of various sorts).

If the "raise local, buy local" movement could convince me that it is more efficient, especially in terms of water useage, I would be more amenable to the movement. I think it makes a lot more sense to buy a loaf of bread at the store, as compared to growing the wheat in your front yard. Tomatoes are probably a different thing, especially because of the taste of fresh, vine-harvested fruit.

To each his/her own, but if you are going to do your gardening in your front year, PLEASE stick with it.