Patrick Pizzo is a man of many accomplishments. Pat created an acclaimed display of California native plants in his neighborhood that stretches for six-tenths of a mile. He continues to care for over 100 native oaks that he and his neighbors planted in 1994 with Our City Forest (OCF). He had a big role in restoring and improving Jeffrey Fontana and TJ Martin parks after Pacific Gas & Electric launched a campaign to cut down 140 trees. Pat is also a longtime Tree Amigo with OCF and a teacher--he is a retired professor of engineering materials at San José State University and presently a volunteer math tutor at Branham High School. If these accomplishments are not enough, Pat once received a Green Thumb Award from the Air Force for planting pumpkins at one of its bases.
Tim Fillpot, my fellow AmeriCorps Service Member and photographer, and I caught up with Pat near his home on Capitancillos Drive in Almaden. When we arrived, he was tending to his Native Plant Walk, a garden of shrubs native to California chaparral that he began planting in 2002 after retiring from SJSU. The garden follows the undeveloped side of Capitancillos across from his house. It is adjacent to a meadow that runs along the Guadalupe River and adds more color to the neighborhood with wild flowers. The garden showcases drought-resistant landscaping and provides gardeners with ideas for their own landscapes. As of March, 2009, the garden has some 110 different species, each neatly labeled.
The garden is placed among a line of 126 native oaks, mostly Quercus agrifolia, i.e.,California Live Oak. The trees were planted in 1994 by Oak Canyon residents in cooperation with Our City Forest, which, at that time, was in its first year of operation. Pat participated in the planting, but that was only the beginning of his involvement with the oaks, which has spanned almost 23 years. Since their planting he has watered the trees, pruned them (by his count six times since 1994 and most recently just a few months ago), painted their lower trunks to prevent bleaching, and planted replacements when some of the original trees didn’t survive. In 2003, his daughter purchased a large wagon at Orchard Supply Hardware for him to transport water more easily to the trees and shrubs. He recalls, “I crammed the wagon with jugs of water and pulled it down the street.” A few years later, Pat and his neighbors began connecting long hoses, which they attached to homeowners’ faucets along the watering route. During the drought in 2014, they stopped watering entirely. “The oaks are drought-resistant natives,” Pat says, “and it was time for them to be on their own.” They are managing their own lives just fine.
Pat is a California native himself. He was born and raised in Willow Glen (on Norval Way to be exact) and attended Willow Glen High School before moving on to San José State and Stanford. His interest in gardening came early. When he was six years old he crawled through the hedge on the border of his family’s home and and asked permission from his neighbor to start a vegetable garden. “My plot was about 12’ X 12’, and I shared what I grew with the people next door.”
Recalling that his father planted trees on land he owned at Alma and Minnesota that served as a “ranch,” Pat says that gardening “must run in my family’s blood.” His father used a planting technique that most would consider unorthodox today: he seated bare-rooted young trees in muddy ground. Pat thinks “the method is probably European in origin, maybe German or Polish.” However unusual it may seem now, the method worked: the trees his father planted in the ground can still be seen today.
Later, when Pat was an Air Force officer at McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento County, his father gave him a generous supply of pumpkin seeds. The military seems like an unlikely place for a gardener to indulge his or her passion, much less win an award for it, but Pat was an exception. He planted the seeds everywhere on the base: outside the chapel and PX, by the commanding general’s quarters, and along the runways. They grew famously, and the Air Force gave Pat a Green Thumb Award.
In 2010 PG&E began cutting down trees earmarked for removal at Jeffrey Fontana and TJ Martin parks. High voltage power lines run the 1.2 mile length of the parks, and PG&E had tired of pruning trees that eventually would grow into them. Residents in the area were outraged at the loss and responded by forming the Martin-Fontana Association for which Pat chaired the important Restoration and Improvement Committee. The upshot of the Association’s work was that it saved some of the threatened trees and partnered with Our City Forest in a succession of plantings to replace ones that had been lost. Dozens of native shrubs were planted as well, and PG&E even raised the height of its power lines to accommodate the new trees.
No doubt there are other instances in which Pat was an energetic advocate for the urban forest and open space (one is his opposition in 2008 to the commercial development of the San José Fairground site, which he feared would result in “an economically-challenged Santana Row”). An infomercial host, in presenting the highlights of Pat’s work in the community, inevitably would say, “But wait! There’s more!”
And there is: Pat, as noted earlier, is a volunteer tutor at Branham High School. He also is the steward of 27 trees, half of which are Quercus douglasii (Blue oak), that Our City Forest helped plant in January 2016 along the fence by Branham High’s football field. Until the rains began last month, an OCF truck hauling the 500 gallon “Buffalo” came to BHS every other Friday. Pat and a group of eight or ten students would meet the truck and draw water into five gallon buckets from the Buffalo. Each young tree then received its biweekly ration of three buckets.
I remarked to Pat how impressed I was with the students; they carry out their watering duties efficiently and earnestly. He replied, “Yes! They make me feel good about our future.”
Photography by Timothy Fillpot