The Gardens at Lake Merritt

A Gem in the Heart of Oakland

By: Nancy Swearengen
Nancy Swearengen

NANCY SWEARENGEN has been an active leader in the International Mediterranean Garden Society since the early 1990s. As a staff…

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A naturalistic vignette of water, stone, and plants in the tranquil Japanese Garden.  Photo: Tora Rocha

A naturalistic vignette of water, stone, and plants in the tranquil Japanese Garden. Photo: Tora Rocha

Wander the Gardens at Lake Merritt virtually any day of the week and you’ll find moms or nannies with children in strollers, people practicing tai chi, joggers, walkers, readers, or people just “being.” A little-known local treasure—a mere stone’s throw from the heart of downtown Oakland—the Gardens can be a little tough to find. A part of Lakeside Park along with other amenities such as Fairyland, the Oakland Bowling Green, the Bandstand, and the Boathouse, the Gardens at Lake Merritt is well worth searching out at the north end of the lake. The gardens are open from dawn to dusk and there is no admission charge.

In the late 1950s, a coalition of garden clubs and plant societies developed and built the Oakland-East Bay Garden Center. Upon completion, the building was donated to the City of Oakland with the understanding that the coalition would be able to use it in perpetuity for meetings and other activities. Later, the various groups took on the task of landscaping the seven-acre site. The gardens flourished for many years under the care of 16 city gardeners. However, by the late seventies and eighties, membership in many formal garden groups waned and, little by little, the city’s resources were directed elsewhere. Inevitably, many of the garden plots were neglected, and the appearance and appeal of the Gardens declined.

With the vision and commitment of Victoria (Tora) Rocha, who was appointed Park Supervisor in 2010, and with renewed interest from garden groups and local residents, the Gardens at Lake Merritt are once again an interesting, enticing, and very attractive group of plantings. Today, a surging population of dedicated volunteers helps a limited municipal staff design and maintain the landscape. Some show up several times every week, while others take part in periodic volunteer days underwritten by employers around town, to regularly assist with weeding, deadheading, pruning, and other gardening chores. An organization has been formed, Friends of the Gardens at Lake Merritt, whose purpose is to raise money to support the volunteers and the various gardens.

A group of volunteers tidies the Mediterranean Garden and Palmetum.  Photo: Bruce Cobbledick

A group of volunteers tidies the Mediterranean Garden and Palmetum. Photo: Bruce Cobbledick

According to Rocha, the present focus of the Gardens at Lake Merritt is to promote environmental stewardship. She feels it is all very well to build beautiful landscapes, but it should be done with consideration of the whole ecosystem we live in, and she works to assure that garden employees, volunteers, and visitors understand and learn to honor our connection to and responsibility for the planet.

A hummingbird gathers nectar from a blossoming butterfly bush (Buddleia)  Photo: Tora Rocha

A hummingbird gathers nectar from a blossoming butterfly bush (Buddleia) Photo: Tora Rocha

The Pollinator Posse, a special program Rocha created at the Gardens, is a collaborative effort among Oakland Park Maintenance, the West Oakland Green Initiative, the Insect Sciences Museum of California, Children’s Fairyland, and several local schools. Its purpose is to promote beautiful, healthy, pollinator-friendly landscaping and build a habitat corridor for diverse pollinators and other beneficial insects from the shores of San Francisco Bay into the East Bay hills. Today, the Gardens are a magnet for local wildlife. Early morning is especially magical with robins, juncos, hummingbirds, and pollinators at work; albino raccoons have been spotted after dark.

The Gardens at Lake Merritt are an extraordinary place and public garden in every sense—built by the public, maintained by the public, for the edification and enjoyment of the public!


A Collection of Gardens

Lake-Merritt-mapBonsai Garden—One of the premier bonsai collections in North America, this garden is a collaboration of several Bonsai clubs throughout the Bay Area with shows and sales during the year.

The Japanese Garden.  Photo: Tora Rocha

The Japanese Garden. Photo: Tora Rocha

Japanese Garden—Established in 1959 by members of the Japanese –American community of Oakland with help and support from local nurseries, this is a popular site for small weddings.

The Easterbrook fountain in the Mediterranean Garden was a gift to the City of Oakland in 1914.  Photo: Tora Rocha

The Easterbrook fountain in the Mediterranean Garden was a gift to the City of Oakland in 1914. Photo: Tora Rocha

Mediterranean Garden—An Italianate display of drought-tolerant plantings, restored and maintained by the Mediterranean Garden Society, surround a charming Italian marble fountain from 1914,

Palmetum—Dedicated in 1982, this magnificent collection of temperate climate palms is designed and maintained by members of the Palm Society.

Rhododendron Garden—A display of rhododendron species and hybrids that thrive in the Bay Area climate created by members of the American Rhododendron Society

Vireya Collection— Bill Moyles, a volunteer and longtime member of the American Rhododendron Society, donated this extraordinary collection of tropical rhododendrons, possibly the largest display in North America.

Accessible raised beds in the Sensory Garden are filled with color, texture, and fragrance.  Photo: Bruce Cobbledick

Accessible raised beds in the Sensory Garden are filled with color, texture, and fragrance. Photo: Bruce Cobbledick

Sensory Garden—Energetic volunteers from a local garden club have recently restored easily accessed, waist-level beds filled with beautiful, fragrant, and touchable plants.

Edible Garden—Tended by students from the Horticulture Department of Merritt College and Alameda County Master Gardeners, who regularly answers questions and give gardening advice. Nearby, the new Pollinator Garden is filled with plants to attract all kinds of beneficial insect.

Succulent Garden—Originally a project of the Cactus and Succulent Society, and one of the earliest plantings at the Gardens, today this collection of interesting plants is referred to as the “Google Garden,” in recognition of the volunteers who regularly assist with maintenance.

Torii Gate—Constructed in 1960, the iconic vermillion Torii Gate celebrates the Sister City relationship between Oakland and Fukuoka, Japan. The plantings are cared for by the Oakland-Fukuoka Sister City Association, and a variety of other volunteers from Merritt College and around the city.

Bay Friendly Demonstration Garden—Sponsored by Oakland recycling agency, StopWaste.org, this garden is designed to demonstrate and encourage residents to make environmentally friendly gardening choices.