Bay Area Garden Tour

Last week I had to attend a conference in San Francisco. Not being comfortable about being squeezed into a small aluminum tube with 150 strangers of unknown vaccination status, we decided to drive from Oceanside, Oregon down to San Francisco. That being the case, it provided the perfect opportunity to visit some gardens and do some plant buying.

UC Davis Arboretum

On the way down, we stopped at the UC Davis Arboretum and public garden just outside of Sacramento. It is a wonderful walking path along what used to be the north fork of Putah Creek, but now is a controlled lake/waterway. The garden is split into different regional areas, most of them associated with Mediterranean types of climate. That means areas that focus on South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

UC Davis - Lake walk
UC Davis – Lake walk

The walk around the lake is three or four miles, but we only did selected parts of it. Given that this is totally open to the public, this is a wonderful gift to the city. My only complaint is that it really doesn’t serve as an arboretum because almost nothing is labeled. Its ability to teach is limited by this. There are areas where signage does help people understand things like the bio swales and the role of certain plants.

UC Davis - Quercus mosaic
UC Davis – Quercus mosaic

UC Santa Cruz Arboretum

After the conference, we headed south along Route 1 to Santa Cruz. This surfing town is home to one of my favorite arboretums. At the Arboretum and Botanic Garden, the focus is plants that do well in Mediterranean climates and has a very extensive Australia garden and South African garden. The Australian Garden makes up over half of the total area and it has a wonderful display of Protea family members as well as many other trees and shrubs.

Everything is well labeled, and the plants are generally left to grow as they would in the wild. Little is pruned or shaped as they might be in a garden. The arboretum is associated with an extensive growing program. Many of the Australian plants come here first for trials to see how well they do in our climate and then they push them out into the nursery industry.

Some Rare Plants

They also have some plants that they are trying to work out how to effectively propagate. One of my favorite plants at this time of year falls into that category – Astroloma foliosum “Candle Cranberry”. What I would give to have one of these. While there we talked to Ferd, a volunteer in the garden and a director of the program. He talked about how it eludes them so far, and they have only managed to grow three from seed – of which he is the proud owner of one of those.

Astroloma foliosum at UC Santa Cruz

Ferd also showed us one of their prized possessions. The Wollemi Pine, one of the world’s oldest and rarest plants dating back to the time of the dinosaurs. This plant is being brought back from the brink of extinction as it was down to only 100 plants in the wild. The arboretum is now sending seed back to Australia for further conservation efforts.

Wollemi Pine with both Male and Female flowers
Wollemi Pine with both Male and Female flowers

Attached to arboretum is their plant and gift shop – Norries. They sell many of the plants they propagate and at very reasonable prices. Plants can be ordered online for pickup, or just browse through what they have available. Many of them are in very limited supply, so I reserved some plants several weeks before the trip started.

UC Berkeley

The next day, we headed up the East Bay with the first stop being the arboretum at UC Berkeley. This is high up in the Berkeley hills overlooking the San Francisco Bay. Parts of the garden feel very old, with towering mature specimens, while other parts looked to have been more recently refreshed. Along with the Mediterranean climate areas, they also have an Asian area.

UC Berkeley Botanical Garden
UC Berkeley Botanical Garden

The Australasia section seemed to struggle growing many plants from the Protea family. While they did have some nice plants, the soil appeared to be somewhat unsuitable. Treating in some areas, you could feel a spongy soil that was holding a lot of moisture. Admittedly, it had been raining some in the past few days, but I also suspect they were adding supplemental water – something that these plants should not need, or even want.

Ruth Bancroft Garden

A little further north and east in the Walnut Creek area is the Ruth Bancroft Garden. This was once a private garden but now is open to the public and what a treasure it is. This is a dry garden and features succulents of amazing sizes. Many Aloes are in bloom right now, some with bloom stalks towering above you. Even those plants that are not in bloom will surely impress you.

Ruth Bancroft Garden
Ruth Bancroft Garden

They also have a great selection of plants available for sale, but not propagated from within the garden. While there are some plants that you can see growing and then buy, most of the plants available are not growing in the garden. The selection is in keeping with those shown in the garden.

The Journey Home

We journeyed home with 40 plants packed into the car. Most of them were 1 gallon sized, some larger and a few smaller. It always amazes me how many we can fit in. As we left the Bay Area, we were escaping from an atmospheric river. While there was lots of rain all the ways home, it was nothing compared to what they were expecting. The choice was to go up I-5, where the Siskiyou Pass reaches an elevation of 4310 feet or to go up the coast using US 101. Snow was predicted in the pass, and there were landslides at several places on 101. We chose to confront the snow and bought some chains just in case. Luckily, it was not too bad and we didn’t have to use them, but better safe than sorry.

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