Comeback king: Farm-stand operator seeks to break new ground

Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Craig Murray, standing in his personal Los Altos Hills garden, offers up one of the tomatoes he’s famous for.

When it comes to growing flavorful, organic produce, Craig Murray’s a bit of a local rock star.

His Los Altos Hills farm stand, The Garden, offered 14 varieties of eggplants, 50 varieties of tomatoes and 90 varieties of peppers and chilies in its heyday. The sale of the property may have placed The Garden on an impromptu hiatus, but Murray’s loyal fan base is helping him stage a comeback.

"I am so missing his tomatoes and flowers!" a local resident wrote in a July 10 post seeking an update on The Garden. "I hope he can find someplace for next year."

"We would love to have Craig back!" longtime Murray customer April Anair wrote in response.

Murray operated his humble Dori Lane stand for a quarter-century. He didn’t own the property, but he had an agreement with family friend Dale D. Briggs to farm the land while Briggs continued to live in the adjacent ranch-style home. When Briggs died in 2016, however, his heirs placed the property on the market, forcing Murray to vacate; the 1-acre parcel sold in March for $3 million.

Committee support

If Murray had an official fan club, Los Altos Hills resident and longtime customer Ingrid Sperow would serve as president. Locating a new site for The Garden inspired Sperow to join the town’s Parks and Recreation Committee in February. She’s since become the committee’s chairwoman.

"I believe in it, and that’s why I’m on the Parks and Rec (Committee) and sort of championing what he’s already championing in a softer voice," Sperow said. "I’m pushy - no, I’m passionate. I’m passionate if I believe in something, and I really believe in gardening."

Fellow committee members Scott Vanderlip and Kathy Evans encouraged Murray to attend the committee meetings, and now there’s a concerted effort to investigate possible new sites. This time around, however, Murray wants to offer a community-garden-type operation where he can share his horticultural expertise with green thumbs of all ages.

"I’ve kind of moved on to try to not just grow as many pounds of tomatoes as you can, but to teach how to do it and also share the experience with those who are interested, to teach children," he said.

"He has a lot that he could share with the new generations, the new environmentalists, the new we’re not skipping into a third or fourth generation of not knowing how to can or to preserve food or what’s local," Sperow said of Murray.

 Community outreach

To gauge community interest, Murray and Sperow erected a tent at Los Altos Hills’ Earth Day Celebration at Westwind Community Barn April 23 and its Town Picnic at Purissima Park June 4. They passed out free compost and seedlings Murray planted earlier in the season, back when he entertained hopes of identifying a new farm-stand site by summer. The pair engaged attendees and asked what community gardening meant to them.

"I asked, Why are you interested in a community garden?" Sperow said. "One of the most important reasons is community. People want to come together and have a cause or something they enjoy but don’t necessarily want to work themselves."

The response at both events proved overwhelmingly positive, Sperow said. An informal survey at the picnic revealed that establishing a community garden (50 votes) is residents’ third-most in-demand capital improvement project after constructing a town community center (58 votes) and hosting movie screenings in Purissima Park (56 votes).

During conversations about the community garden, some residents were so enthusiastic that they offered up portions of their own private land, Sperow said.

While such proposals are generous, Murray said, it’s difficult to identify a property that checks off all of the required components: rich soil, good sunlight, flat ground, few trees, water access, electricity access and accessibility to the public.

Committee members explored the possibility of sharing Hidden Villa or Gardner Bullis School land but were thwarted by water restrictions and tree growth. Someone on Nextdoor suggested land adjacent to the Woodland Branch Library, but that’s Los Altos turf.

"What a shame for us Los Altos Hills residents to go anywhere else for a community garden," Sperow said. "We have space."

The most promising option could be farming a part of one of the town’s designated open-space areas, but doing so would likely require approval from the city council, according to Sperow.

Whatever the solution is, it can’t come soon enough for Murray superfans like Anair.

"We’re all hoping, fingers crossed, he’ll be able to find a venue," she said. "He’s just an asset. Most communities don’t have someone like Craig. He was a star. So we do want him back."◆

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