AAA’s Via magazine proclaimed The Gardens at Lake Merritt one of the top five California gardens, yet this Oakland oasis still remains a charming little secret for many locals. Elise Peixotto has been a member of Friends of the Gardens for the past few years. As part of the volunteer group that helps oversee the gardens’ development, raise funds and develop a volunteer force, she says surprisingly few people know about the eleven horticultural collections located in the country’s first wildlife refuge. “It is acres of serenity, beauty, nature and a few weeds. I think there’s something to be said for a little wildness around the edges.”
Eleven-themed garden collections — such as a Bay-friendly demonstration garden, which teaches about plant selection that conserves natural resources; a sensory garden featuring drought-tolerant Mediterranean and native plants; a succulent garden with a variety of water-wise succulents; and a community garden, with organically grown flowers and vegetables — make up the 7-acre, walled city paradise. The gardens are open daily and are free to enter. Visitors strolling the quiet pathways, complete with benches, trees, water features and surrounding views of Oakland come away with the distinct impression of having had a unique, local experience.
“Something different delights me every visit,” Peixotto says. “One time, the miniature blossomed Bonsai trees; another time, the giant bunya-bunya tree; or two elderly musicians in a shaded corner strumming on Asian instruments; or the neat rows of baby vegetables in the kitchen garden.”
Bruce Cobbledick, president of the Friends of the Gardens and a volunteer for more than 15 years, says the top five ranking is well deserved. “The bonsai garden is one of the best in the country. The palmetum is one of the best collections. The Vireya Rhododendron collection (the lath house) is the largest outdoor collection next to Hawaii. We have some great food gardens for education with Merritt College and the Alameda County Master Gardeners have excellent demonstration gardens and classes,” he explains.
Cobbledick’s personal favorite, however, is the Mediterranean garden. “It was built using the Bay friendly garden sustainable technologies of mounds with sheet mulching to keep down weeds. Subsoil drip irrigation under control of a weather station minimizes irrigation needed.” Mediterranean plants from five areas of the world, including California, are planted here.
If Lake Merritt is considered the gem of Oakland, then the 50-year-old gardens are the city’s heart. “A garden is a reflection of its community,” Peixotto says. “Oakland is awakening and renewing. This is a garden by the people, for the people. It exists today due to selflessness, volunteerism, and a dedication to nurture the unique and remarkable.”