Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens

The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear
The sapless foliage of the ocean…
All overgrown with azure moss and flowers
So sweet, the sense faints picturing them.

Shelley, Ode to the West Wind

Ernest and Betty Schoefer took a year look­ing for a garden site. It had to have plenty of water, be accessible to both highway and coast, have pleasant, mild weather year-round, and be level, yet still sheltered from the ocean blasts. They found their dream garden in 1961 and spent the next sixteen years working — clearing, maintaining, planting, and trail building. Originally forty-seven acres, the Schoefers’ garden spread from Highway One in Fort Bragg, California, through overgrown forests, two choked streams, and out onto the coastal bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

They lived in the old house, still on original mud sills and covered with brush. A year of concentrated effort resulted in new foundations, plumbing, electricity. The house became the heart of the Schoefers’ operations for the next years. Decayed outbuildings were demolished and a pioneer cemetery with several family graves was found in a grove of eucalypts. Trails were hacked out of the undergrowth, views were opened, ponds were added, a gift shop and nursery attracted visitors, and a small admission fee helped support the garden.

The Schoefers enjoyed their garden until 1977. Then private investors bought the property and made big changes. The gift shop became a cafe, the nursery turned into a wholesale business, and the beautiful perennial garden near the entrance was created. Designed and installed by Gary Ratway, this colorful arrangement of island beds and green lawn framed with red- and purple-leaved trees and pines excites every visitor. More than a decade later, this garden still requires the most care and attracts the most comment.

In 1982 the central twelve acres plus five acres of coastal access easement were bought by the California Coastal Conservancy. This state agency, which preserves coastal property for public use, transferred the land to the Mendocino Coast Recreation and Park District and set up the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens Preservation Corporation to run the gardens. Governed by a nine-member board of directors who serve without pay, the gardens employ only a full-time manager and groundskeeper and a part-time bookkeeper and cashiers. Volunteers provide most of the labor in the gardens and in 1987 donated the impressive total of 4,578 hours of work. The community, rich in experienced horticulturists and passionate gardeners, is becoming more and more aware of the treasure in its midst, and the gardens reflect that pride. Because one of management’s goals is community involvement, programs with California Conservation Corps and summer youth employment provide training and experience in exchange for the brawn and enthusiasm of healthy young bodies. All parties benefit: the gardens look better, the people feel proud, and youngsters bring families and fiends to admire their work in an escalating cycle of involvement and new memberships. Memberships are especially important for this garden, since it is supported entirely by admissions, donations, plant and gift sales, grants, volunteers, and members.

Flowering plum and azalea in February. Photographs by Chet Boddy

Flowering plum and azalea in February. Photographs by Chet Boddy

Garden Features

Chet Boddy, manager of the gardens and a third-generation nurseryman, explains their special quality. First there is climate; on a map of the world, one would find few places sharing the climate of the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens. Parts of South Africa and the highlands of Southeast Asia and China resemble this area, with dry summers which yet have fog, and winter rains. The Mediterranean, which is similar, does not have the soothing summer fogs found along the Pacific Coast. This climate enables the botanical gardens to grow those tender, fragile plants that fare poorly in most other gardens. Vireya rhododendrons are excellent examples. These are being grown in local backyards by experts who have traveled as far as New Guinea collecting new specimens, and they await transfer to appropriate sites in the gardens.

Location is another factor. Not only are the gardens on the major north-south coastal highway from Mexico to Canada, with all the passing tourist trade that brings, they also stretch out into the coastal prairies and bluffs of the Pacific Ocean. Visitors can pull easily off the road, wander through elegant gardens, dim forest glades, lush fern canyons, and fetch up looking — if the season is right — at migrating gray whales spouting offshore. In addition to these features, the maintenance crew blesses the Schoefers’ foresight in providing year-round irrigation water with two streams and a natural slope down to the sea.

The coastal pine forest, composed mainly of the California natives Pinus muricata (Bishop pine) and P. contorta ssp. contorta (shore pine), screens the gardens from sea winds. A fog catcher, the forest provides natural drip irrigation, a high canopy, and shade. Intermingled with redwoods, tan oaks, wax myrtles (Myrica californica), and many ferns, the pines shelter plants and animals alike. One Audubon Society member leading a party through the gardens found sixty-one kinds of birds in three hours. Animals in the gardens range from chipmunks, deer and skunks in the forest to sea lions on the rocks in the waves. Logging is the main industry of this part of California, but the pine forest has no economic value, so it is not threatened. If there were no pine forest, there would be no botanical garden. So it is selectively thinned, and carefully watched.

Perhaps most interesting of the unusual features is the geography. Perched on a coastal terrace, the gardens have no beaches, but many abrupt headlands, and bluffs covered with pink- and yellow-flowered iceplant, white marguerites, orange kniphofias, multitudes of wildflowers, and storm-twisted pines. This alone is noteworthy. How many botanic gardens offer crashing surf, cruising whales, and cartwheeling seabirds?

In this setting even the things we expect in a garden, a canyon filled with ferns, winding paths over bridges, year-round streams, rhododendron dells, and boggy areas, seem extraordinary. Bogs tend to occur where drainage is poor and water acidic; in these conditions vegetation decays slowly and peat accumulates. The peaty soils of bogs are low in nutrients, and insectivorous plants, able to derive nourishment from visiting flies, colonize them. Bogs are common in cold regions of the northern hemisphere, but rare at this latitude. The boggy area in the gardens, disturbed by a previous owner during construction of a lily pond, is being restored, and sundew (Drosera), cobra lily (Darlingtonia), and other insectivorous plants will thrive there again.

The Collections

The collections do not duplicate those of other gardens, but instead present plants able to exploit the extraordinary climate and topography of the site. Coastal northern California is rhododendron country; Rhododendron occidentale and R. macrophyllum have flourished here for thousands of years. The climate that allows these plants to grow happily and bloom freely is also kind to exotic rhododendrons and manmade hybrids. Many are now planted in the gardens, and they flower from January through June. Rhododendron hybridizers such as John Druecker first started the plants in this area, then he and others used their connections to form the nucleus of the rhododendron collection at the gardens. This is the principal plant group represented, and there are big-leaf rhododendrons, azaleas, dwarf rhododendrons, the Fort Bragg hybrid ‘Noyo Chief’ — all donated by townspeople for their garden. Members of the Noyo Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society help maintain the collection. All rhododendrons grow well here, but emphasis is on the rare and tender, capitalizing on a climate found in few other places. As Peter Schick, board member and volunteer worker, pointed out deep in the fern canyon, this is the kind of thing Kingdon Ward saw in Burma in the 1950s; streams, ferns, rhododendrons growing wild on the mountainside, and the forest in the background.

Heather garden and new plant display house. Photographs by Chet Boddy

Heather garden and new plant display house

Another important collection is the heaths and heathers. They need a climate neither too cold nor too hot, and they find the gardens ideal. Around 1980 Dr Lloyd Eighme, professor at Pacific Union College, Anguin, donated his heather collection, which now provides color throughout the seasons. Heaths (Erica) bloom from October to March; heathers (Calluna) from July to December. Over 200 kinds are grown and twenty have been identified as worthy of commercial distribution in the nursery trade.

In 1986 the American Ivy Society donated its standard reference collection of more than 350 ivies to the gardens. This collection is the largest and most complete in the United States. Within the collection are historical ivies, geographic groups (from New Zealand and West German collectors), and experimental plants. A spacious new lath house now houses and displays both the ivies and seasonal flowering attractions. Most of the ivies are potted, for easy access and control; some have been incorporated into the landscape and an ivy walk has been mapped. The plants are still young and small, but I was reminded of the jingle describing ivy’s growth: “The first year it sleeps, the second year it creeps, the third year it leaps.” In a year or two they will offer a quite different picture.

Perennial plants are not arranged in collections; they have their own stunning garden near the entry. A walk around the island beds reveals changing vistas, with dwarf conifers, sparkling color, mounds of contrasting textures, and dark evergreens in the background. Penstemons, lilies, alstroemerias, potentilla, agapanthus, liatris, Mexican sage, helianthemum, erigeron, and Matilija poppy flower freely. Though graceful at all seasons because of its design, the perennial garden is finest during high summer.

Nearby is the Mediterranean garden, illustrating how attractive a xeriscape can be. In this gathering of drought-tolerant plants, lavender, Santolina virens, wild roses, cistus, rosemary, and Matilija poppies all flourish. Many cistus are found in the gardens and some have been introduced into the trade. The pink-flowered Cistus parviflorus is a lovely groundcover, the hairy-leaved C. psilosepalus has year-round white flowers, C. ‘Blanche’ is tall and elegant, with white flowers in spring. Familiar California natives are found also: ceanothus, manzanita, carpenteria. Plants that bloom quickly, then fry in the heat of central California, last for months on the coast. Salvias were seen blooming at Christmas.

The heritage rose garden features old roses found near the houses and barns of early settlers on the Mendocino Coast. Among them are climbers and the fragrant reminders of grandmother’s rose garden.

The succulent garden is just a couple of years old, and maintained by dedicated collectors. It is no rival to the acres of towering cacti at the Huntington Botanical Garden in San Marino, but is a pleasant corner of rocks, sand, and strikingly prickly plants. Other collections proposed or in progress include camellias, with the rare yellow Camellia chrysantha from China; dwarf conifers; magnolias; native plants; bog plants (when the bog is restored); and proteas.

A casual stroll through the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens takes about an hour and gives years of good memories. These memories can be enriched by picnicking on one of the many tables scattered among the flowers, or getting married on the meadow lawn amidst pieris and rhododendrons, or attending the gardens’ summer walks or concerts on the green. The gardens belong to the people; the people find themselves belonging to the gardens. That is the cycle of enrichment.