Hidden garden thrives in downtown Oakland


It's been there all along. A lot of people don't even know it exists.

"We always hear that, and we've been working for years trying to overcome that," said Bruce Cobbledick of Friends of the Gardens.

A quiet jewel beneath the tall buildings and busy streets that surround it, The Gardens at Lake Merritt is home to some of the rarest horticulture collections in North America. It's also one of the most peaceful and beautiful places in the city.

Victoria Rocha manages The Gardens for the city of Oakland. Her budget has been cut year after year, but thanks to generous donations and thousands of volunteer hours, The Gardens is thriving.

"I think what makes it thrive is that we build a sense of community about this garden," said Rocha. "This garden, this park, belongs to the people, and we express that."

In it, a collection of150 rare bonsais, including a potted pine that's been growing in a pot for 400 years. There's also the largest collection of cool weather palms in the entire western United States. There are 65 varieties in all. Oakland's unique subtropical climate provides the perfect growing conditions. And, not far away, there is a collection of rare vireya rhododendrons, the largest of its kind in the continental United States.

The Gardens also has an extensive community garden with individual plots managed by various local groups.

Volunteer Sotheavy Tan says it's great for women in the community to "get out and associate with each other."

A few feet away, local school kids plant swiss chard.

"I think it's really nice coming here because it's just freeing from the whole school thing," student Sam Taylor said.

"I haven't been in this part of the garden before, but now I know you have your own plot and you get to grow stuff," student Abigail McManus said. "It's very cool."

Robert Dorsey is an Oakland chef who received a grant to plant an edible garden there. His mission, to provide local kids with a place to learn and grow.

"I see it being a safe haven from the violence that's in the streets," Dorsey said. "And I think that it's a place where folks can find peace."

After all, The Gardens is all about life and living, a place where a little girl can release a butterfly for the first time and where an older woman can plant a seed and watch it turn into something as beautiful as it is useful. A place anyone could appreciate, once they find it.

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