Fired up about gardening
Mar./Apr. 2013 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Megan Alpers
Photos by Paolo Vescia
From fire hose to garden hose: Firefighters plant a little green alongside their red fire engines.
More online: Recipes and more
Many homes in the Silicon Valley city of Mountain View have manicured lawns, a lemon tree here and there, and maybe even a few tomato plants. Behind one house in particular, you'll find a lush garden filled with a variety of crops—everything from broccoli and bok choy to kale and cheddar cauliflower, plus a small orchard of fruit trees. But this isn't just any house. It's Mountain View Fire Station 1, and between calls, firefighter paramedic Mike Robbins is likely to be found tending what he calls his "babies."
Robbins, who describes his broccoli crop as "phenomenal" and onions "like softballs," described the garden as a labor of love that he enjoys caring for, even after a multiple-day shift.
"A lot of times, I'll go out (to the garden) at eight o'clock in the morning when I get off of work before I head home," said Robbins, who lives in Santa Cruz. "I'll spend a few hours out in the garden and it's therapeutic, quite honestly."
Firefighter paramedic Mike Robbins built a garden behind Mountain View Fire Station 1 and contributes the garden's harvest to meals prepared by his colleagues.
Robbins attributes his green thumb to his childhood in Lake County, north of Napa. His father had fruit trees and a garden full of tomatoes, beans and zucchini, among other crops.
"We helped him till the garden and get it prepped in the spring, and plant tomatoes and squash every year," he said. "We always found a way to put it on our table or give some to a neighbor. It was fun. It was social."
When Robbins joined the Mountain View Fire Department a decade ago, he found a way to bring a garden with him.
His first project was an 8-by-8-foot raised-bed garden at one of the city's four other fire stations, using redwood from old park benches. When he was transferred to Station 1, Robbins noticed an open area near the firehouse and saw potential for an even larger garden. This time, he used discarded pine boards from a demolition site to build three 18-by-4-foot beds. He also planted a collection of fruit trees, including nectarine, lemon, lime, Asian pear, cherry and apricot. Now the garden yields produce nearly year-round, with broccoli the go-to winter vegetable and summer favorites such as heirloom tomatoes, squash, lemon cucumbers and tomatillos.
Robbins tends the garden beneath the watchful gaze of the station's firefighter-scarecrow.
Robbins links much of the garden's success to what he has learned in his spare time from instructors at Santa Cruz's Love Apple Farms. The farm, which supplies fruit, vegetables, herbs and edible flowers to famed Bay Area restaurant Manresa, hosts classes on topics that range from garden box building and beekeeping to cooking and composting.
"The classes have allowed me to have a much more productive garden," he said.
One of the most important lessons Robbins incorporated into the garden at Station 1 was to use the "double-dig theory" when preparing to plant. The process involves turning and softening the soil far beneath the box itself before adding the rich gardening soil he buys from a local landscaping supply center.
"I think one of the things that helped me with growing really good vegetables was not only having fertile soil, but digging way below the area you think the roots are going to go and making that soil soft," he said. "What that does is allow the roots to grow freely without hitting a hardpan."
Yet even with a good foundation for a garden, the produce wasn't abundant at first. Robbins found that adding flowers to the beds to attract bees and other natural pollinators enhanced the garden's yield.
Today the garden, complete with a scarecrow wearing Mountain View Fire Department gear, is thriving, and Robbins said that the ingredients for some meals served at the firehouse are grown entirely on-site.
"Initially there was some apprehension about the whole garden thing, but across the board it has been well received," he said. "(Co-workers) that I didn't expect were out there picking cherry tomatoes. I get text messages with pictures saying, 'What is this? Can we eat it?'"
Cooking responsibility rotates among the firefighters, and the garden has made some decisions about what to cook easy.
There are sometimes 10 or more firefighters working together at Station 1. That's a lot of cooking to do. Favorite recipes include baked vegetables, which Alicia Bailey, above, prepares.
"We go with whatever's ripe and ready for harvest," Robbins said. "When the crowns of the broccoli are mature, we know that over the next two weeks or so it's going to be time to eat, or else they're going to go to seed."
Popular recipes at Station 1 include kale smoothies, caprese salad (fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and basil drizzled with olive oil), baked vegetables or a decadent chocolate beet cake for dessert. With a lot of lettuce ripening at once, dinner will sometimes feature two salad choices along with a source of protein such as chicken.
Firefighters gather for a meal using many ingredients from the garden. Even the dessert—chocolate beet cake—is the result of an abundant harvest.
"Everyone brings something different to the table, no pun intended, but we do a lot of baked veggies," Robbins said, "baked with olive oil and a little salt and pepper. Keep it simple, but it's fantastic. That's our favorite because it keeps everything a little bit crispy and gives a great flavor."
Station 1 has between nine and 12 employees present at any given time, every day of the year, with two meals prepared daily in the firehouse kitchen. That's a lot of cooking. And while there may not be many leftovers, there are always odds and ends that Robbins finds a use for.
"I have two large compost bins," he said. "When I turn the crop, I throw the compost on top with a little fertilizer and it puts it right back into the soil. It's all about the nutrients getting back in there."
The composting program has expanded throughout the Mountain View Fire Department, ensuring that very little goes to waste.
Robbins said another benefit of having the garden has been the opportunity for the firefighters to build relationships with nearby residents.
"It's been kind of a neighborhood conversation piece," he said. "It has introduced me to a number of neighbors. Some people who are just walking by on their morning stroll with their dogs will venture onto the property, and we send them home with a little kale or something like that.
"It's fun. It's the way I grew up—just kind of being a social thing and we share. When something comes into harvest, you can't necessarily find a home for it fast enough, so I go knock on some doors and everyone is happy to see it."
When plans were under way a few years ago to build a new fire station in Mountain View, Robbins said the idea of incorporating a garden from the start had many supporters. There are already firefighters tending the new station's garden with good results. You can expect that across the city this evening, more than a few Mountain View firefighters are likely sitting down to a meal that includes ingredients grown in their own backyard.
Workplace gardens: Trading the keyboard for the kiwifruit
The Mountain View Fire Department has added at least three gardens at stations across the city. Workplace gardens are gaining popularity throughout California, with companies such as Google and Pixar growing produce that employees as well as company chefs can enjoy. Here are two other employers that have introduced gardens to their corporate culture—and seen positive outcomes beyond fresh vegetables.
Ventura Unified School District, Ventura
The Food and Nutrition Services Demonstration Garden at the district's headquarters serves three roles: a school garden, a workplace garden and part of a nationally recognized farm-to-school project.
The quarter-acre area is packed with fruit trees and vegetable garden beds. Avocado, lemon, apple, fig and nectarine trees line the perimeter. Herbs, tomatoes and peppers fill the "pizza garden" bed, and a variety of vegetables fill the "plant part salad" bed. The garden hosts an instruction site for teachers to bring classes, as well as a place where district office and school employees can "adopt" a garden bed to grow crops for their own use.
"Staff frequently enjoy a lunch break at the picnic table near the kiwi vines producing fruit for the first time this year," said Sandy Curwood, director of food and nutrition services. "A human sundial project is in the works, so we won't be late back into the office."
Kaiser Permanente Medical Centers, Northern California
A healthy community and prevention are part of Kaiser Permanente's DNA, making on-site gardens a natural fit, said Dr. Susan Smarr, physician-in-chief of the Kaiser Permanente Santa Clara Medical Center.
"Getting our physicians and employees involved in building on-site gardens that could serve a dual purpose of education, as well as an outlet for the pent-up green thumbs among our employees, was perfect," she said.
A number of Kaiser hospitals and medical centers across Northern California have introduced employee gardens with positive feedback, and Smarr said there is a waiting list of eager gardeners wanting to participate at the Santa Clara site.
"We have even had requests from other employees to put benches so that they can watch others working in the gardens, as they found it so relaxing and fun to even watch the activities," she said. "The gardeners have had potlucks and salad bar get-togethers to enjoy the 'fruits' of their labor. The garden has been a wonderful team-building experience."
When asked what recommendations she had for other companies interested in on-site gardens, Smarr said, "Just do it! The costs are small and the rewards large for all involved."
Cooking with the firefighters: Recipes from Mountain View Fire Station 1
Firefighter paramedic Mike Robbins and his fellow Mountain View firefighters are usually hungry after a long day. Here are a few of the recipes that highlight the fresh produce grown just steps from the firehouse in gardens Robbins planted and tends.
Firefighters at Mountain View Fire Station 1 take turns cooking, and this recipe for roasted vegetables is a hit, with its short prep time and utilization of ingredients grown in the fire station's backyard garden.