The contract to build the Saratoga Heritage Garden will be renewed this May, meaning the historic site could see another change of ownership amid growing concerns about the health of the garden and its trees.
The garden is battling oak root fungus and ground squirrel infestations, and has lost more than 400 trees over the past decade due to drought and other factors.
The Saratoga City Council voted to change horticulture operator in 2020, moving to landscape company Orchard Keepers rather than longtime operator Novakovich Orchards after the latter failed to meet a new licensing requirement.
The two groups once again compete for the job, each with different views on the future of the garden.
Matt Novakovich of Novakovich Orchards, who has managed the site for 41 years, said his focus is on the fruits of the trees. Novaković used traditional farming methods and cultivated dried apricots available all year round.
Orchard Keepers, the home garden and landscaping company that has contracted Saratoga for the past two years, is run by Matthew Sutton, who said his team is focused on soil regeneration, carbon sequestration and cover crops to keep trees healthy. .
“Soil improvement is the name of the game,” Sutton said. “If we have healthy, biologically active soil, it will lead to healthy, viable trees that can produce crops not only in the short term, but also in the long term garden.”
The final decision on who gets the job rests with the Saratoga City Council, and they must vote on the contract at a May 4 meeting.
A handful of residents have spoken out about the health of the orchard and the importance of preserving its history, while others are pushing for the preservation of recently organized community harvesting events and soil restoration practices.
“I think there is a lack of awareness… about how important this is to our heritage and our attachment to this precious resource,” said Lisa Newman, author of For the Love of Apricots.
The city purchased the orchard in the 1970s and the Novaković family took care of it. In 1984, Saratoga declared the historic garden a city park in recognition of the city’s agricultural heritage.
The garden has lost hundreds of trees over the past few years. Novakovic said more than 200 trees died due to drought from 2011 to 2016.
After the gardeners took over, Sutton said there were more than 400 empty spaces in the garden for new trees to be planted. He added that many other trees had died, likely due to oak root fungus, which “probably lived in Saratoga’s soil for decades.”
Late this year, the city gave the green light to a project to replace dead trees with fungus-resistant trees in the garden. Gardeners have ordered over 400 new trees, including 100 Blenheim apricot trees that have been growing in the garden since its inception.
The remaining 300 will be a combination of different varieties of apricots that ripen at different times to stretch the harvest period, as well as another 120 French prunes, Sutton said.
Saratoga resident Neil Casteel said the introduction of different varieties threatens the garden’s history.
“This will end this being a heritage garden because they don’t care about heritage anymore. It’s something worth saving,” Casteel said. “It’s not something worth saving if you’re planting varieties that have never been grown in the Santa Clara Valley, things that have never been grown in Saratoga.”
The garden is also infested with ground squirrels and ground squirrels. Sutton estimates that between 3,500 and 5,000 gophers live in the garden. Orchard Keepers is asking for funds to address this issue in their proposal this year.
Gardeners have begun using new methods, such as cover crops, to regenerate garden soil after they took over the contract in 2020. Cover crops are planted specifically for the health of the soil, as well as to increase its biological activity and water capacity, Sutton said.
“Historically, orchards have been treated with discs or worked every year for the entire year, so it’s just bare ground,” Sutton said. “However, it is now a fairly well-known fact, not only in regenerative methods and groups, but also in general gardening … that growing plants is the most beneficial for healthy soil.”
The Novakovic family have spent more than 40 years disking the soil and have said they will continue to do so if they win back the contract.
“We took care of it for 41 years, and before that, my relatives took care of it,” Novakovic said. “They were there when the garden became a legacy. It was grown in the traditional way.”
While improving the soil is a top priority for gardeners, Novakovic said fruit is their priority. For decades, family gardeners have dried apricots from their ancestral orchard year-round; the sale of dried fruit helped offset the cost of maintaining the orchard.
“We appreciated the fruits, that we could do something with them, and then we took and gave the loan back to the orchard, and this reduced the cost of maintenance,” Novakovic said.
The City Council has approved new rules for the historic garden contract that require the new contractor to host community events such as You Choose the Community Harvest, which kicked off last year.
Sutton said Orchard Keepers are not interested in selling fruit and have been working with VIllage Harvest in 2020 to collect fruit for local food banks. In 2021, the group invited the community to collect fruit for themselves and donated the rest to food banks.
“It was so great; it was such an accurate portrayal of South Bay,” Sutton said. “There were so many families who had never even gone to the gardens and picked fruit from the trees before.”
Mayor Tina Walia expressed support for the continuation of the harvest at the February meeting, and the city is planning another harvest event later this summer. A spokesman for Saratoga said the event would be scheduled for mid-June when the fruits are ready to be harvested.
“It’s such a community garden; the people who come and walk in the garden every day, they are so supportive and so excited about what we do,” Sutton said.
Castile and Novakovic said the harvest ended up with more food waste as there is enough dried apricots for the whole year.
“They only deal with fresh fruit for a few weeks, but dried fruit will be available all year round,” Novakovic said.