Story by Mary Ellen Navas: The Gardenless Gardener.
Walking along the sloped curved path, inhaling the lavender on one side and fragrant mediterranean perennials on the other, I felt my shoulders drop as I exhaled… and then I heard it, the rhythmic, persistent trickle of water on my right just ahead, occasional buzzing around me, and soft sounds of leaves moving in the light breeze. Where had I gotten to? How could I just minutes ago have been in a traffic snarl on Grand Avenue? Was this still Oakland? I closed my eyes and listened carefully, becoming still and breathing in the fragrance around me. Only then could I faintly hear traffic sounds and the irregular schop-schop of someone pruning a shrub nearby.
I felt awakened by those moments. This was my introduction to the newly refurbished Sensory Garden, where I was to meet Susan Veit, one of the community activists responsible for bringing this treasure back to life. Originally opened in the 1970s as the Fragrance and Herb Garden, the intention was to make this corner of Lakeside Park more accessible to visually impaired people. Along with the better known Bonsai and Japanese Gardens, it is but one of ten distinct areas that now constitute the Demonstration Gardens that are adjacent to Lakeside Garden Center.
The Sensory Garden is located inside Lakeside Park Gardens, near the Garden Center building at 665 Bellevue Avenue.
When Susan, a long time resident of Oakland, retired realtor and a devoted hobby gardener arrived to meet me, she proudly walked me around the one-acre serpentine garden talking energetically about the project she and Bruce Cobbledick have developed.
It began two years ago when Susan, while visiting at Lakeside Park, found herself disoriented by the lack of signs, maps and interpretive materials in the 10-acre maze of separate gardens and buildings. She wandered until locating her friend Bruce. Out of that meeting a partnership was born that has transformed the former Fragrance and Herb Garden. A broad coalition of individuals, garden clubs and private benefactors has been formed under the aegis of the Oakland East Bay Garden Center Inc., which they organized under the sponsorship of their fiscal agent, Friends Of Oakland Parks and Recreation. Their story is worth telling for it’s a model of cooperation, generosity and awakenings.
The first order of business was to make the garden more user friendly and develop an overall plan. Tricia Christopher, Landscape Architect and instructor in Merritt College’s Horticultural Program volunteered to do both, producing the legend and map for the Lakeside Park garden complex and shortly thereafter the plans for improvements that increase accessibility, reduce maintenance and water usage, improve compliance with ADA requirements and transform it into a true Sensory Garden that appeals to additional senses by adding color, texture and sounds.
Implementation of those plans required the support of numerous organizations and agencies and countless community volunteers. The Hillside Gardeners of Montclair were core contributors, providing important planting expertise and financial support. Their parent organization, California Garden Clubs provided initial funding through a special grant. The Lake Merritt Breakfast Club Charitable Foundation provided financial support, along with city council members Nancy Nadel, Ignacio de La Fuente and Pat Kernighan who tapped their discretionary PayGo accounts. The Merritt College Pruning Club pruned the mature trees and shrubs in the garden and set large boulders (left over from the old waterfall) improving the overall sense of space and balance. The City’s Public Works Agency completed removal of the old pond, trucking in 50 yards of topsoil and installing new water and electrical hookups.
Giving credit to the many individual volunteers and groups who have come forward to support the Sensory Garden will be part of the grand opening celebration on October 22, 2006, from 3–5 p.m., but for now I have to mention two amazing and inspiring contributions which you will see when you visit the gardens, first, the source of the “persistent trickle of water” I’d heard is a large, stunning, cut-and-polished green granite boulder fountain designed by Oakland landscape architect Paul Cowley of Potomac Waterworks. The new water feature, selected for its sounds and touch-ability, is sure to become one of the Sensory Garden’s most beloved features. From a sloped garden path accessible from a wheelchair or on foot, one can feel the trickling water. The fountain’s recirculating flow creates soothing stimulation to keep one’s senses in the garden.
Another extraordinary feature of renovation is a revolutionary irrigation system that reduces the water usage by about 30 percent as it perfectly nourishes the low-water mediterranean plantings. Called “evapo-transpiration,” the system provides water to each microclimate by employing a state-of-the-art weather station that detects the need for water. Designed by Lori Palmquist and the Urban Farmer Store, this system assures that the Sensory Garden has an economically sustainable future.
The Sensory Garden is a tranquil delight, a sure awakening for both your senses and your spirit. It’s available any day from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. You’ll have your own sensory awakening I’m sure. And then you’ll want to take others to enjoy this wondrous sanctuary. After your visit you may well decide to help with on-going restoration and maintenance. During the summer months volunteers are needed to help with light weeding and pruning every Tuesday evening from 5:30 to 7:30. There is an additional volunteer workday from 9–12 noon on Saturday, September 23. And if you care to make a financial contribution, you may purchase one of the hand-made mediterranean tiles that will be installed in the arced wall in the center of the Garden. These will be available for only $25, after the grand re-opening of the Sensory garden on October 22nd.
For more information about the Sensory Garden project, contact Susan Veit (volunteer coordinator) by email or (510)763-1959 or Bruce Cobbledick by email or (510)655-5894.
I both thank and salute Susan and Bruce and the Oakland East Bay Garden Center for awakening my senses, while reminding me of the many individuals and groups helping to preserve and restore Oakland’s treasured parks. After all I am the gardenless gardener!