While Chris and I were staying in Chowchilla, CA we met a lovely couple who told us a little about some “life changing” underground gardens in Fresno, CA. They sounded really cool and with a review like that we decided we would make the 30 minute drive to check them out.
When we arrived we had to park on the side of the road. From the street it didn’t look like much, but once we got inside it was really amazing.
The visionary, creator and original owner of the gardens was a Sicilian Immigrant named Baldassare Forestiere. Forestiere came to America in 1906 with a dream of being a citrus farmer. He purchased 70 acres of land and soon found out that under the soil were layers of hardpan that were up to five feet thick (hardpan is a hardened clay which would impair him from planting his crops). Instead of letting this crush his dreams, he started excavating the hardpan with hand tools. He created amazing underground rooms and tunnels. He even figured out a way to plant citrus trees as he had originally dreamed of doing by making planters out of the hardpan and filling them with soil. He grafted some of the trees to grow multiple types of fruit. One of them grew 7 different types including lemons, oranges and grapefruits. If there was ever a story of taking lemons and turning them into lemonade, that is definitely the case here.
His first summer in Fresno had temperatures up to 115 degrees. This was also another reason that building his house underground was a very smart idea. It was a lot cooler down there. He made himself a bedroom for the summer months and one for winter. He also built a drainage area that collected the rain water. He put a lot of thought and work into every aspect of his home which included a little pond where he would keep fish he caught from the river.
Baldassare spent 40 years working on his underground masterpiece. He created a very cozy and beautiful home for himself (we wanted to stay there). He was also working on creating an underground resort with rooms for 50 people. He was very innovative and maybe some of his ideas were ahead of their time. It seems most people thought he was a little strange including some of his family members from Sicily. So, unfortunately when he passed away a lot of his land was sold and the fifty rooms were destroyed. Luckily, one of his brothers who also lived in Fresno saw the beauty in his hard work and kept 10 acres of his land. The gardens are still owned by his nephew today and the site is now a historical landmark.
Two of his most genius creations are pictured below. One is of the underground aquarium he built for his goldfish. You can see a glass disc in the middle. This is so he could see the fish swimming around from a room in the level below the aquarium.
The other is a picture of his many grafted trees and vines underground. On the far wall he guided vines up through the wall to the top and outside, which apparently is supposed to be impossible.
It costs $17 per person for the tour but it was well worth it and our tour guide was great and very knowledgeable. If you are ever in the area we highly recommend visiting. We love finding places like this on our travels.