Owner of historic Imwalle Gardens honored by the Harvest Fair for his dedication to Sonoma County agriculture
By Tim Tesconi
In a world of continuous change, it’s comforting that little has changed at Santa Rosa’s venerable Imwalle Gardens, an old-time truck garden and produce stand that has been growing and selling fruits and vegetables for 127 years.
And Joseph Imwalle 111, who is the third-generation proprietor of the landmark farm on West Third Street, wants to keep it that way, hopefully, forever. He and his family, fourth and fifth generation Imwalles, are dedicated to preserving the farm’s historic legacy while operating a thriving agricultural business on land just a mile from Santa Rosa’s bustling Railroad Square.
Imwalle Gardens, which began in 1886, has become an agricultural oasis in an ever-expanding landscape of strip malls, multi-story apartment complexes and housing subdivisions. The 17 acres that comprise Imwalle Gardens may be the most valuable farmland in Sonoma County.
“I’m a holdout. This is what we’ve always done and want to do for many more years. Farming is in our blood,” said Imwalle, who turns 83 in November. Imwalle is working harder than ever as his business continues to grow as more and more people find their way to his historic farm in the city. Customers not only come for the homegrown corn and tomatoes but to experience an authentic sense of place anchored to Santa Rosa’s past. It’s like going back in time.
A big redwood barn, once used by Imwalle’s grandfather to house the horses and wagons that delivered produce door-to-door in Santa Rosa, looms over the Imwalle’s retail produce store, which is open seven days a week. The barn, now used to store and pack produce, is the Imwalle Gardens’ logo, a symbol of the farm’s 127-year history.
“We’re still in the ’50s here, still an old-fashioned fruit stand,” said Imwalle, a longtime member of Sonoma County Farm Bureau. “And we try to keep our prices low.”
Imwalle Gardens is the last of the historic truck farms that once stretched along Santa Rosa Creek on its way to the Laguna. The Bertoli, Bassignani, Bertolini and Locatelli families also had truck gardens along Santa Rosa Creek. All except Imwalle are gone now, with the fertile farmland covered by urban development.
Imwalle Gardens is a true family farming operation. Imwalle’s wife Maria does the business’s bookkeeping. Imwalle likes to joke that he makes the money and Maria counts it.
Joe and Maria, married for 55 years, met when they were students at St. Rose Catholic School. They raised their four children, Joseph, Charles, Paul and Angela, on the property where the children learned the seasonal rhythms of farming and respect for the steady stream of customers in what essentially was their backyard.
Son Charles, 53, works full-time at the family business, while the Imwalles’ other three children help out every day on a part-time basis. Daughter Angela, her husband Nick and their three children live on the property in the house her grandparents built in 1932. Angela helps her parents with technology and does social media for Imwalle Gardens. Her children Kevin, Shelby and Samantha help out on the farm and in the retail store.
“Angela is my right arm when it comes to the computers and technology,” said Imwalle.
During the pandemic, there was a huge surge in business as people did more cooking at home and escaped to Imwalle’s airy produce stand for squash, tomatoes and peppers. The shoppers are a mix Sonoma County old-timers and newcomers, spanning every age and ethnic group that define the region. Everyone is welcomed. Imwalle said some of his customers have been coming to the farm for more than 50 years.
It’s a bustling place that keeps Imwalle constantly moving.
“I’m working more now than I did 10 years ago. I’ve done well in the farming business and could have retired a long time ago,” said Imwalle, who lists his occupation as a truck farmer. “But I love my job. I’d probably die if I quit.”
Imwalle’s can-do spirit, work ethic and unwavering love of land has made him an iconic figure in Sonoma County for more than a half century. Now, the Sonoma County Harvest Fair has honored Imwalle with the fair’s Lifetime Contribution to Sonoma County Agriculture Award for his dedication to farming and the passion he shares for growing food. It’s a fitting tribute to a man who at 82 still works 10 hours a day seven days a week, epitomizing the profile of the hard-working American farmer.
“There is no one more deserving than Joe Imwalle to be recognized for their contributions to Sonoma County agriculture. Imwalle Gardens is a gift to our community,” said Gaye LeBaron, the retired Press Democrat columnist and chronicler of Sonoma County’s rich history.
LeBaron has been a regular customer at Imwalle Gardens for more than 30 years, shopping there at least once a week, sometimes twice a week for her produce. She loves the atmosphere of the old place, which she said hasn’t changed much since the days when the gardens were operated by Imwalle’s grandfather and then his father.
“It’s a wonderful place to shop because it represents our community and the history of Santa Rosa,” said LeBaron.
Imwalle said the award has special meaning because the Harvest Fair was founded by the late Wesley Jamison, the legendary agriculture instructor at Santa Rosa High School who also was an official at the Sonoma County Fair. Jamison believed the summer fair did a good job showcasing the county’s livestock industry but believed a fall fair was needed to pay tribute to the array of crops during the colorfully abundant harvest season in Sonoma Conty.
Imwalle was one of Jamison’s agriculture students at Santa Rosa High School. During the early days of the Harvest Fair, Imwalle and his family were the fair’s leading exhibitors. The Imwalles created prize-winning farm exhibits and won many blue ribbons and best of show awards for their produce and one family farm displays.
One of their memorable exhibits featured Imwalle’s 1952 turquoise Plymouth “Salesmen’s Coupe” with its open trunk laden with colorful fruits and vegetables from Imwalle Gardens.
Later when Jamison retired from the Harvest Fair board of directors, he asked Imwalle to take his seat. Imwalle served on the Harvest Fair board for seven years and was board president during his last year.
History of Imwalle Gardens
Imwalle Gardens was started by Joe Imwalle’s grandfather Joseph Imwalle and his brother Henry. The Imwalle brothers, who had immigrated from their native Hanover, Germany, were horticultural wunderkinds who arrived in Santa Rosa in 1880. By 1886 the industrious Imwalle brothers were peddling vegetables, grown on their Third Street farm, from the back of a horse-drawn wagon.
The Imwalle brothers’ real love was flower growing and they had planned to cultivate prize pansies and carnations to grace the gardens of Santa Rosa homes. But Santa Rosans in those days were meat-and-potatoes frontiersman, more interested in putting food on the table than a splash of beauty in the garden.
So being good businessmen, the Imwalle brothers concentrated on growing vegetables and vegetable seedlings for the rough and tumble townspeople.
In 1895 Henry Imwalle moved to Santa Clara County, where he started his own commercial vegetable gardens, which his family continued to operate until development swallowed their farmland in the 1950s.
Joseph Imwalle continued to operate the Santa Rosa gardens, producing tons of prize-winning vegetables that made his produce wagon look like a Rose Parade float. In 1915, he won a gold medal at the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco for his vegetable exhibit.
Later, Joseph’s two sons, also Joseph and Henry, took the reins at Imwalle Gardens, growing and selling vegetables for 40 years. Joseph and Henry eventually divided the property, each of the brothers having their own separate farming operations.
Joe Imwalle III was a college student at Fresno State and serving in the Marin Corps Reserves when his father died of a heart attack in 1966 while working at the farm.
The young Imwalle was suddenly thrust into the family farming business. He rolled up his sleeves, went to work and has never stopped.
“It all turned out,” said Imwalle.
Under Joe III the business has bloomed and expanded. Imwalle Gardens is really four businesses today: the 12-acre vegetable garden; the retail store featuring vegetables grown on the farm and the produce acquired from brokers; the wholesale produce delivery business, and the bedding plant production business in the Imwalle greenhouses.
The wholesale produce business has about 100 wholesale accounts including restaurants specializing in Mexican, French, Chinese, American and Italian food. Occidental’s Union Hotel, owned by the Gonnella family, is among Imwalle’s oldest accounts.
Imwalle said all aspects of the business are doing well, keeping him and his family very busy. The gardens had a banner year because of all the rain last winter and the near perfect weather during the spring and summer growing season. Then, too, there was a big demand for bedding plants this spring because more people planted gardens after easing out of the drought.
“You can make a good living, but you have to work awfully hard. The opportunity is here,” said Imwalle.
Although he grew up picking prunes, hops and vegetables, Imwalle said running the business was a new experience when he took over in 1966. He learned the ropes from the late Mike Rossi, who started working at the gardens in 1912 and worked there until two weeks before he died, at age 92, in 1984.
Rossi, who had worked for Imwalle’s father and grandfather, was a beloved fixture at Imwalle Gardens for 72 years. It’s Rossi’s 1952 Plymouth that was used in the Harvest Fair exhibit and still has an honored place in the garage at Imwalle Gardens.
For his part, Imwalle credits the faithful employees, loyal customers, hard work, good health and fertile ground for the longevity and success of Imwalle Gardens.
“We’ve been very lucky,” said Imwalle.