Middle Grounds

By Kiley Jacques  |  Photography by Emily Hagopian

By closely examining nature for over 40 years, Alrie Middlebrook developed a model ecosystem in which people of all ages learn ecologically sound principles and practices in a playful environment.

Alrie Middlebrook created an ecosystem in which people can learn ecologically sound principles and practices.

It’s not just anyone who would drive by a bus depot parking lot in downtown San Jose, California, and think: I can build a garden there. But a “For Lease” sign had ecological designer Alrie Middlebrook thinking just that. In 2000, her musings gained momentum and ultimately led to the formation of the California Native Garden Foundation (CNGF), a public-benefit corporation of which Middlebrook is founder and president. In time, CNGF developed the site to support its Environmental Laboratory for Sustainability and Ecological Education (ELSEE) program. Indeed, that lowly parking lot made way for the Middlebrook Center—headquarters for both CNGF and Middlebrook Gardens, its namesake’s for-profit garden design/build business responsible for funding the educational programming.

TOP: The Middlebrook Center is headquarters for both CNGF and Middlebrook Gardens, a for-profit garden design/build business responsible for funding the educational programming. MIDDLE: Middlebrook is an outdoor classroom and has become a significant part of children’s learning. BOTTOM: The “Big Red,” is a play structure that grows food.

Nestled in the heart of Santa Clara Valley, the center is surrounded by the Santa Cruz Mountains and Diablo Range, and enjoys a subtropical Mediterranean climate. The focus of Middlebrook’s work is protecting air quality, improving the health of onsite soils, conserving and cleaning water, restoring local plant communities, and recycling materials. The SITES certification process (administered by Green Business Certification Inc.), she explains, is quite rigorous and includes over 200 benchmarks for sustainable urban land use. “We organized the gardens to meet that criteria and created program development throughout the garden.”

All those SITES initiatives have made Middlebrook Gardens, the second green business in Santa Clara Valley, very successful—so successful she was able to bankroll ELSEE, with some additional outside funding. ELSEE, a model for active outdoor learning, teaches environmental education, eco literacy, sustainability and science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM) education to pre-K through eighth-grade students using Next Generation Science Standards. The programs are run primarily by college interns and volunteers, which keeps costs down, and demonstrates how schools can build a sustainable garden education program without the need for hefty financial backing.

As a visitor walking through the Middlebrook compound, one first encounters the entry gate above which “the tools of the gardener” (shovels, rakes, pots, etc.) have been arranged in a cheerful aerial configuration. Also at the entry stands “Elsee,” a female tule elk and their beloved mascot, who symbolizes, in part, Middlebrook’s idea that “if we are going to eat large mammals, we should probably be eating animals native to our local ecosystem.”

Native plants, edible crops, and species of other value are grown all over the property in myriad ways.

Take, for instance, “Big Red,” a play structure that “recycles itself and grows food.” Built with all found objects and recycled materials including old playground equipment, panels of recycled waste, and pallets, it supports multiple crops. Plants grow from the tower top, from “living walls” made with the pallets, and they trail in vines down the structure’s sides. It even features a solar-powered fountain made of tires. “It’s really mirroring how a plant recycles itself and stays in one place,” explains Middlebrook. “We thought, ‘Why can’t a building do the same thing a plant does?’”

In the Mariposa Meadow, students learn how it replicates the natural grasslands of the valley, as it is full of plant species that have grown in those environs for over 20 million years. It is now habitat for 16 types of butterflies, which are depicted on stepping stones located throughout the garden. As a teaching tool, the meadow exposes children to the concept of preserving local ecology, which is Middlebrook’s primary objective. In the middle of the meadow stand two food towers—9-foot tube slides turned on end—hosting 30 plants each (mostly native edibles or perennial food crops, which are harvested regularly). Like Big Red, they are there to demonstrate how food can be grown vertically and without tilling soil, which is ecologically damaging. “Some of the plants have been growing in there for six or seven years and produce food every day without fertilizer, except compost. That’s a very efficient way to produce a lot of food with minimal input,” says Middlebrow.

Collard greens, one of the top superfoods, and native quail bush are among the crops grown. The latter is a favorite bird habitat as well as an edible species most often used as “a salt substitute,” as it draws salts from the soil. CNGF’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) partner collects quite a lot of this plant’s leaves for its produce boxes. “I’m working on some projects that will demonstrate our methods for growing food [using] urban food technology,” says Middlebrook. “I think, in coming years, we will be able to grow more food on the site than people can eat.”

Left: The chicken coop traces a chicken’s ancestry back to the age of the dinosaurs. Middle/Right: Native plants, edible crops, and species of other value are grown all over the property in myriad ways.

The chicken coop, aka the “Dino Coop,” traces the everyday chicken’s ancestry back to the age of the dinosaurs. It was created by a group of elementary-aged art students, who studied the evolution of the chicken going back 260 million years. They created a timeline starting with the Jurassic Era and the plants that comprised that landscape. “We always say we are eating dinosaur eggs,” jokes Middlebrow.

The summer Nature Camp, possibly the most popular program, includes lesson plans to go with the whole garden. Middlebrook drew a diagram of the grounds with a key that indicates 26 different educational elements. Among them is an aquaponics farm featuring a large tank whose finned tenants’ waste helps nourish the plant community, which in turn filters the water. Their CSA partner also collects edibles from this unique ecosystem to include in their weekly offerings. Middlebrook views it as a tool for teaching chemistry, physics, water management, conservation, and nutrition. “It provides lots of opportunities for children to learn STEAM education—that’s one of our goals. We want the outdoor classroom to be a significant part of children’s learning.”

Currently, 10 to 20 school groups benefit from the Middlebrook Center’s programming each academic year, though its founder intends to increase those numbers. She also dreams of transforming 10,000 California schoolyards into teaching gardens; this in response to how deficient current playgrounds are in terms of learning. For Middlebrook, a schoolyard should be a place where students learn about climate change, reduction in biodiversity, and nature deficit disorder—her major concerns as an ecological designer and educator. “We try to address all three of those things in every decision we make with respect to how urban land is being used.”


Native plants, edible crops, and species of other value are grown all over the property in myriad ways.

The ELSEE model is the result of work Middlebrook has been doing for the last 40 years. Her interest in native species led her down a path that started with her design/build business at age 30. Nurturing her love for native species, she spent 15 years hiking all over California to study its native plants kingdom. Today, she refers to herself as an amateur ecologist trained as an artist. “The more you see how nature organizes itself and how the cycles of our planet play out, the more you realize the elegance of [it all].” In her ultimate mission to steward the planet, she now designs to protect nature’s cycles. Until the universal model is one that disrupts nature as little as possible or, conversely, mimics it as much as possible, Middlebrook believes we fall short of true stewardship.

The ELSEE project team believes that any healthy land use model should also support profitable sustainable businesses. Unlike conventional businesses, “eco-businesses” value the protection and perpetuation of ecosystems. “I’m thinking this year we are going to get a lot of support from local developers,” says Middlebrook. “We really see development following these natural principles of an ecosystem.” Noting Santa Clara Valley’s rich agricultural past and its leading role in technological advances, Middlebrook talks of marrying the two to develop sustainable building practices that will have business-model appeal. Beyond that, she is also interested in teaching SITES benchmarks to the local service sector. “I’d like to generate income by helping other building and landscape professionals learn these ecological methods for construction and landscaping.” Given the gumption with which she tackles all of her project ideas, it will likely be another that comes to fruition before long.