A New Garden for the Northern Central Valley

McConnell Arboretum & Gardens at Turtle Bay Exploration Park in Redding, California. Photographs by Fred Coe

McConnell Arboretum & Gardens at Turtle Bay Exploration Park in Redding, California. Photographs by Fred Coe

Sloshy, cold winters and dry, searing summers are not obstacles to gardening—they are an opportunity to grow something unique.

That is one of the lessons offered by the new McConnell Arboretum & Gardens at Turtle Bay Exploration Park in Redding, California. The gardens, which opened in May, emphasize plants from mediterranean-climate areas. Redding may be half a world away from Chile and South Africa, but it’s close in climate. The Northern California city’s temperatures swing from one extreme to another in the course of a year. Winters are cold, with lots of rain and occasional snow, while temperatures reach triple digits during long, rainless summers.

One of the garden’s goals, according to John Peterson, president and corporate executive officer of Turtle Bay, is to get people to appreciate the unique beauty of low-water-use, mediterranean-climate plants and to use them in their gardens. He hopes the display gardens will expand people’s awareness of a broader palette of plants beyond crape myrtle, agapanthus, and the other plants routinely seen throughout the northern end of the Central Valley.

Growing in the arboretum is California pipevine (Aristolochia californica), the sole food source for the larvae of the pipevine swallowtail butterfly

Growing in the arboretum is California pipevine (Aristolochia californica), the sole food source for the larvae of the pipevine swallowtail butterfly

The 8.6-million-dollar, twenty-acre display gardens are fenced off within a 207-acre arboretum of oak woodland and riparian habitat along the Sacramento River. The gardens are split into several themed sections: the Australian, Mediterranean Basin, Chilean, South African, and California gardens showcase the varied forms, colors, and foliage of mediterranean-climate plants.

Also on site are the Pacific Rim Garden and a wildflower meadow. A butterfly garden focuses on nectar plants rather than host plants; the latter are plentiful in the undeveloped portion of the arboretum, particularly the California pipevine (Aristolochia californica) that feeds the larvae of the pipevine swallowtail butterfly.

A medicinal garden is laid out as an abstract of the human body with plants grouped according to the part of the body they help. Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile), for example, is planted in the area representing the trunk of the body, because it is used to soothe stomach aches.

A mosaic turtle, part of a whimsical children’s garden sculpture by Colleen Barry

A mosaic turtle, part of a whimsical children’s garden sculpture by Colleen Barry

The Children’s Garden features a whimsical mosaic fountain sculpture by Colleen Barry, clumps of bamboo, a “please-touch” garden, and quirky plants such as Harry Lauder’s walking stick (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’).

The Celebration Gardens offer a more conventional landscape of turf, roses, hydrangeas, and other colorful plants, most of them more water demanding than the garden’s non-thirsty mediterraneans. These gardens have been designed to accommodate special events such as parties and weddings.

Created by Betsy Damon, Sounds of Water, a sculpture/fountain made of large stone slabs, pays tribute to the various roles water plays in our lives. Forty benches along the pathways invite visitors to slow down, relax, and take time to examine the plants, sculptures, wildlife, and water features.

Sounds of Water sculpture/fountain, by Betsy Damon

Sounds of Water sculpture/fountain, by Betsy Damon

Lisa Endicott, horticultural manager, hopes people will take a closer look at the exciting new plants. Thousands of plants representing more than 800 species are found in the gardens. Peterson recommends the selection of lavenders with various leaf forms and the reed-like South African restios, which are relatively new to horticulture.

There are a number of the hardier species of grevillea from Australia, including groundcover types with flowers that appeal to hummingbirds. The gardens also feature numerous grasses, many of which are native to California and adapted to rainless summers.

While there are labels in the gardens, not every plant is labeled. The individual gardens flow from one to the next without rigid boundaries. The emphasis is on mass plantings. According to Mark Holland, designer of most of the gardens, the plantings are arranged in a landscape style so that the visitor can actually see how the plants’ different forms, colors, and textures interact. He described the gardens as a living laboratory, providing gardeners with a chance to see plants in their mature form.

Cabbage tree (Cussonia paniculata) in the South African Garden

Cabbage tree (Cussonia paniculata) in the South African Garden

Holland acknowledged that designing the new gardens was challenging. The trick was to find plants from the various geographic regions that would grow in Redding and that were available for purchase. He also wanted them to be interesting, not the common species seen everywhere in town. Because the gardens are new, the lack of a mature tree canopy to provide shade limited plant choices to those that were willing to live “open and exposed in blazing sun.” As the garden matures and offers more shade, Holland expects to add additional selections better adapted to shadier sites.

Many of the plants have been in the ground for a couple of years and have already proven they are up to the challenge of Redding’s climate of extremes. They have experienced twelve inches of snow, with winter temperatures in the mid-20s F, as well as hot, blazing summer sun. Holland noted that the soil has proved particularly challenging. Mostly river-deposited silt, it compacts easily and drains slowly—not the perfect conditions for many of the mediterranean-climate plants.

According to Holland, interest in drought-tolerant plants has increased in recent years. Whether to avoid bloated water bills or simply to grow something different from what others are growing, gardeners are creating a market for interesting plants—and nurseries are responding. He hopes the gardens will help the general public understand that drought-tolerant plants can be beautiful as well as practical.

In addition to the plant collection, the new gardens are home to birds, squirrels, lizards, frogs, and other wild creatures, including pipevine swallowtail butterflies. Deer would like to call the gardens home too, but the staff discourages them with motion-activated sprinklers that operate during the gardens’ off hours.

Some of the gardens’ plants have been propagated by Turtle Bay’s horticulture staff at the park’s nursery. The nursery sells plants to the public on Wednesday and Saturday mornings.

View down the length of the display garden walk at McConnell Arboretum & Gardens, with the  Sundial Bridge in  the distance

View down the length of the display garden walk at McConnell Arboretum & Gardens, with the Sundial Bridge in
the distance

Also of interest to visitors is Turtle Bay’s All-America Selections (AAS) Trial and Display Garden, located near the east entrance to the new gardens. It offers a sneak peek at annual flowers that are not yet on the market, as well as those that have already been recognized by the non-profit AAS testing program for being especially colorful, needing little maintenance, or offering other special traits. The AAS garden is one of thirty-three in the United States and Canada to test flowers and one of 177 to display past winners. Most of the other trial gardens are located at commercial seed or plant companies and are not easily viewed by the public. This site, with its abundance of sunlight and lack of humidity, puts the new flowers to a more extreme test than at other sites.

Turtle Bay’s new gardens are found near the center of Redding within a large arboretum that is rich with local history. Beneath its surface are stories of Indian villages, gold mining, farming, and gravel dredging for the construction of Shasta Dam. The late Gary Matson is credited with being the first to propose a public arboretum in Redding. He and the late Marcia Howe of the Shasta Natural Science Association (which was later absorbed within Turtle Bay) pushed to make it happen, beginning in the mid-1980s. Throughout the long process, volunteers have been key to bringing it to fruition.

There were many struggles along the way. At one point the land was pegged for the largest subdivision in Redding, with more than 900 homes. Through the effort of the late philanthropist Leah McConnell, the property came under the control of Turtle Bay.

Oaks, pines, and Matilija poppies (Romneya coulteri) in the California Garden

Oaks, pines, and Matilija poppies (Romneya coulteri) in the California Garden

Longtime arboretum supporters say that what eventually emerged is similar to the original vision for the property: a large natural arboretum with a smaller display garden area.

There is an ongoing effort within the arboretum to remove invasive species, such as tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissimo) and Himalaya blackberry (Rubus discolor), and replant with native grasses, oaks, and other plants indigenous to the site.

Redding’s popular Sacramento River Trail passes through the arboretum. Although the arboretum is free, there is a single admission fee to enter the new display gardens and all of Turtle Bay’s other attractions: a museum with nature, art, and science exhibits; the Paul Bunyan Forest Camp, with forest displays and a children’s play area. The gardens are linked to Turtle Bay’s facilities, all located on the opposite side of the Sacramento River, by the dramatic Sundial Bridge. Designed by world-renowned Spanish architect, Santiago Calatrava, the single-tower suspension bridge opened in July, 2004.

Dierama pulcherrimum in the South African Garden, with the single tower of the Sundial Bridge, by Santiago Calatrava, rising beyond

Dierama pulcherrimum in the South African Garden, with the single tower of the Sundial Bridge, by Santiago Calatrava, rising beyond