This California botanical garden harvests up to 7,000 pounds of fresh produce for the local food bank each year
A series of cultivated gardens wind their way up to the untouched coastal cliffs of the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens on California’s northern coast. The 47-acre non-profit botanical garden is home to remarkable collections of rhododendrons, dahlias, evergreens, camellias, heather and heather. Surrounded by manicured native beauty, the lush vegetable garden annually produces thousands of pounds of fresh produce for a local food bank. Like the tides at its Pacific perimeter, this dynamic ecosystem ebbs and flows with all life within and outside its borders. No less than 187 species of birds visit the garden where land meets sea, turning botany enthusiasts into bird watchers and/or whale watchers every day.
From vision to cultural institution
Founded in 1961 by Ernest and Betty Schoefer, the gardens are intended to be a “living museum” where a wide variety of flora is housed alongside two dozen acres of native coastal landscapes. Their prized location on the Pacific Ocean is an ideal climate that avoids both high and low temperature extremes. Ernest Schoefer, who was a nurseryman by trade, saw the potential of the land with its temperate climate, quality soil and the large amount of water provided by Fern Canyon Creek. Five years after its founding, the gardens opened to the public in 1966 and quickly attracted enthusiastic participation from local nurserymen who wanted to add plant varieties to the collection.
Now ‘the most visited cultural institution on the North Coast’, Ernest’s vision is now enjoyed by over 85,000 guests each year. The gardens are well known for their collection of rhododendrons, which bloom vibrantly and fragrantly each spring. Rhododendrons are natively found in the cloud forests of Southeast Asia or the Himalayas and therefore also thrive in the foggy coastal climate of northern California.
The California Coastal Conservancy purchased the property circa 1992 and transferred the gardens to the Mendocino Coast Recreation and Parks District. Since then, the property and gardens have been managed by the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens Corporation, a non-profit organization. A team of dedicated staff and volunteers take pride in “presenting and conserving plants in harmony with our northern California coastal ecosystems,” according to the nonprofit. The cultivation and conservation of this beautiful land offers the unique opportunity to discover plants from all over the world in a harmonious coastal ecosystem.
Collecting and conserving the beauty of nature
The gardens’ most famous collection is their towering hybrid rhododendrons planted over 40 years ago. In spring, rhododendrons add an explosion of color to gardens and decorate the path with their fragrant petals. Floral beauty also abounds thanks to the collection of dahlias, another personal favorite of the gardens founder. An ever-popular feature of the garden repertoire, the Dahlia Garden showcases an array of some of the 150 dahlia varieties in the collection. Sometimes used as a backdrop for weddings, the Dahlia Garden is a feast for the eyes of anyone who appreciates the geometric shapes and glorious colors of flowers. As a “deer resistant” plant, dahlias also serve the practical function of protecting the perimeter of the Vegetable Garden.
More than half of the gardens’ 47 acres are made up of native ecosystems. Past the “deer gates”, the coastal landscape includes fern canyons, pine forests and coastal meadows that lead down to the ocean. This natural landscape, juxtaposed with the gardens’ non-native collections, makes the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens a rare and unforgettable experience. Among native plants, mushroom lovers are not disappointed with the large number of wild mushrooms that appear during the wet winter months.
Inside the deer gates, the perennial garden welcomes visitors and treats them to an incredible arrangement of textures and colors. Butterflies, bees and hummingbirds enliven this region with activity from spring to fall. Due to a high water table in the area, the beds are mounded for better drainage. This mound gives the garden an extra dimension and elevates its color palette so as to be seen against the backdrop of the gardens’ abundant trees and shrubs. Among the many varieties of trees, a collection of nearly 200 different varieties of conifers has earned the gardens the designation of “Reference Garden of the American Conifer Society”. The American Public Gardens Association has also recognized the collection of 143 heather and heather species as “nationally significant”. The ocean winds are shielded by the trees, which give the perennial garden peaceful protection in addition to the moist cover of coastal fog it regularly enjoys.
Deeper in the southern boundary of the gardens, an abundant 5-acre vegetable garden features “a mixture of annual and perennial vegetables, medicinal and edible herbs, fruit trees and flowering plants that attract beneficial insects.” Vegetables are grown organically year round using techniques proven in the garden such as soil building and natural pest control. Each week, the Mendocino Food and Nutrition program at the nearby Fort Bragg Food Bank reaps the benefits of seeds sown by garden staff and dedicated volunteers. “The Giving Garden Program” is a very successful demonstration of the great potential of community gardening to help people in need. Her bountiful harvest has produced an incredible 5,000 to 7,000 pounds of donated food each year for the past few years.
life on the edge
An ocean loop of just over a mile takes visitors through pine forests and coastal cliffs. In this natural ecosystem, deer graze and bears have occasionally been spotted. In the Pacific, whales are also seen with regularity. Along with their many other accolades, the gardens have been erected as a site on “The Whale Trail,” a project founded in 2008 that brings together whale-watching sites along the Pacific coast. Throughout the year, whales including gray, humpback, killer whales and blue whales can be seen in addition to Risso’s dolphins, harbor seals and California sea lions.
Annual and perennial seaweed species are also found under the coastal cliffs of the gardens. The sea palm (Postelsia palmaeformis) is one of the most distinctive varieties that visitors are lucky enough to spot in coastal waters. Resembling miniature palms in a hurricane, the sea palm grows along California’s mussel beds, and its fronds can be eaten for their high vitamin and mineral content. Seaweed of all types thrives on the North Shore due to the cold, nutrient-rich water that rises from the deep canyons off the California coast. This ideal orchestra of natural conditions, both on land and above ground, combine to create a unique climate and synergistic ecosystems, all of which are carefully protected for generations to come at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens.