Subterranean Fruit: Inside the Forestiere Underground Garden
In Fresno, California grapefruit, lemon, pomegranate, and orange trees hang overhead. Pockets of sunshine beam through a grove of citrus trees as the smell of roses enraptures my senses.
Soon a tour guide announces that guests may enter, and we begin to usher past wood and cement benches, fruit trees, shrubs and vines. Following the path down the stairs, an underground landscape quickly unveils itself under the beam of skylights. “The vision of my mind overwhelms me,” wrote Baldassare Forestiere, the man responsible for building the Forestiere Underground Garden, a network of 50 underground rooms with citrus trees growing in the most unexpected places, like the center of his dining room table. Forestiere envisioned that this underground world would one day become a resort, so with no assistance from anything other than his entrusted garden tools, he began to dig.
Forestiere came to the U.S. from Sicily in 1901. He started off in the port of Boston creating subway tunnels that extended all the way up to the eastern coast of New York– but he couldn’t shake his inchoate desire to create a citrus empire. After all, he grew up in a family of citrus farmers. So at the turn of the century, he purchased 80 acres of land in Fresno, California– arable land located near the railroad (and a perfect location to export his fruit). Unfortunately, however, it wasn’t until after he made the purchase that Forestiere discovered a layer of sedimentary rock (also known as hardpan) a mere three-to-five feet beneath the soil on his land. Underneath the hardpan was perfectly rich soil, but the roots of the citrus trees would not be able to break through to it. He thought of the cool months he spent underground, carving out subway tunnels, and soon Forestiere got an idea. In 1906, it became official, and Forestiere began to build an underground garden.
Today, the Underground Garden is ordered according to multiples of three and seven, a pattern that weaves throughout the underground rooms. Three (symbolic of the holy trinity,) and seven (representative of the six days of creation and the seventh day of rest). Forestiere grafted trees with grapefruit, kumquats, and ponderosa. Black Moroccan grapes that today are 100 years old create a canopy over the skylights. Forestiere built with the ancient catacombs in mind, creating arches and passageways with beautiful stonework, but his skylights brought warmth and vitality to the space. This was, and is, a necessary component for the plants to thrive. They grew to be long and skinny, as if they were reaching for the sun. When it was time to harvest the fruit, Forestiere would walk upstairs and pick the ripened fruit from the top of the skylights.
The rooms are cleverly designed on a slant so that when it rains, water runs to a sun-pit. A bell hangs from the skylight, acting as his original doorbell, echoing through the rooms to garner his attention when he had a guest. Forestiere gathered his water from a well and watered plants with a bucket (as of September 2015 the plants are on a drip system that runs every morning). He designed a summer room with a bay window and a winter room with a fireplace. Sour oranges, Chinese dates, loquats, carob, and waterfall trees grow throughout. After a long day’s work he’d bathe in his clawfoot tub, which still remains underground today. Forestiere even enjoyed heated baths, thanks to his metal basin— the original solar shower.
The impressive designs continue throughout: there’s a vista point where you can see into other rooms that he created without maps or blueprints, a fish pond where he’d keep his freshest catch, and even a car tunnel that was 800 feet long.
At the age of 67, Forestiere passed, but his siblings in Italy assumed the land following his death. While much of it was sold and it did not become an underground resort as was originally intended, the Forestiere Underground Garden did become an international destination and one of the top 10 underground wonders of the world.
Today, third- and fourth-generation family members manage the underground gardens and continue to do all revisions themselves. They’ve added beautiful tile floor from Italy and a roof they assembled from materials gathered at an old airfield. This hangs above a gift store dedicated to the man who loved citrus trees so much that he created an underground haven for them to come alive.