Alrie Middlebrook has dedicated the last four decades of her life to restoring native plants through self-sufficient farming practices. Her one goal: lowering the carbon dioxide footprint.

She created Middlebrook Gardens, located on Race Street in San Jose, out of an empty concrete lot used for bus parking. Now in its 17th year, native plant restoration project includes vertical gardens, an aquaponics system, a chicken coup and constructed wetlands.

Middlebrook is also the founder of California Native Garden Foundation, a nonprofit research and educational organization that focuses on the state’s native ecology. Her humble vision for sustainable agriculture in Santa Clara country has become a model for others and has even made its way to Ghana and India. We spoke with Middlebrook to learn more about her garden and how her work benefits the local community and environment.

What do you like the most about San Jose?

San Jose has one of the most fabulous climates on the planet. It has a significant agricultural history. The land is in the top 7 percent of agricultural soil in the world. It’s a melting pot, a center of innovation and it continues to attract people for its beauty.

What is one thing you would change about San Jose?

It’s way too enmeshed in the oil culture. We have so many opportunities for innovation with the quality of people, the jobs, disposable income, our climate and our soils, that we really need to embrace an economy that is not dripping with oil. We need to embrace the economy of the future. That is what our work here is about.

Where did you get the concept to start the organization?

It’s morphed. I started the business when I was 31 and I’m 73 now. When I started it, it was tropical plants. There was a boom in the late ’70s about houseplants; it came out of the ’60s revolution—you know hippies and antiwar—but I was always interested in plants from at least age 4 or 5. If I have any aptitude in life, it’s working with nature.

How long have you been at the Race Street location?

We have been here since 2000. It was basically a broken concrete parking lot with weeds. Before that I was over on Stockton Street. It was an old warehouse building. We have been in three locations since 1974. I started out of my house.

What are native edibles?

Native edibles are plants that indigenous Californians ate for 25,000 years. Native edibles can be perennial plants, drought tolerant plants, super food plants, nitrogen-fixing plants or a combination.

What food plants do you have at Middlebrook Garden.

We like to choose food-plants that have multiple benefits. We like to stack functions, because our work is really directed to the urban environment where more than half the people live. We are talking about reducing CO2 emission.

Examples: Quailbush, French sorrel, sage, bladderpod and arugula. The ecovillage model is based on choosing plants that embody energy.

We can teach them how to plant natives or a combination, so they can eat food that has more nutrients per calorie, and save water in simple containers on their patio or their deck. Edible Routes, a new partner, made their income by selling their products to people who live in apartments. They give everything that the owner needs to have an urban farm on their deck.

Who did you work with to establish the science behind the garden?

We have a grant writing team, and members of our team are trained in the sciences. We always support our grants with scientific findings because the government and major institutions want to see data.

We are working with the different departments at San Jose State University, Stanford University, Santa Clara University and University of California, Santa Cruz. We try to encourage the interns that come to our program to take the practical part of land use and couple that with university research.

How is Middlebrook Garden’s ecology curriculum being incorporated throughout schools in the South Bay?

We have added to the Educational California and Environmental Initiative lesson plans. When you go out into the garden you’ll see that we have 200 benchmarks for sustainable urban land use that are included in the design of the garden. We are the only certified cite in Santa Clara County.

For example, our chicken coop called the “Dinocoop.” On the outside, it has the evolution (timeline) of the modern-day chicken to the dinosaur 270 million years ago. We are teaching kids about life cycle, fossil record and ancient landscapes.

We believe that you can engage all five senses in a learning activity and children are going to retain the information a lot more than in a classroom or lecture.

How many schools have you worked with?

We have worked with 85 schools since we started Environmental Laboratory for Sustainability and Ecological Education, or ElSEE, in 2009. Schools come for class field trips, and this summer we have the Green Scout Nature camp. The kids are earning badges and sharing their learning with school kids whose gardens are in India and Africa.

What partners do you have in Silicon Valley?

San Jose Conservation Core and Charter School, Santa Clara University’s Food and Agribusiness Institute and Forge Garden, San Jose State with Michal Fallon, California Landscape Association, Factr’s Mindful Aging Project, and Core Companies who has the contract to create Agrihood.

What are your upcoming events?

A makers faire the second week of December, and future lectures with panelists in September.

What is the latest update on the “Eco-Village” model “Agrihood”?

We are hoping to have a big turnout for all the people interested in a working farm. I’ll be meeting with Santa Clara Mayor Lisa Gillmor in August and Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren.