Mendocino Botanical, Ft. Bragg, CA

Garden above the Ocean

Walking in a garden in a different climate with sandy soil expands my view of what a garden can be.  Perhaps there is no greater contrast from my garden in the desert to gardens on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. High on a rocky cliff near Ft. Bragg, California the Mendocino Botanical Garden mixes the coastal climate elements of salt air, sandy soil, foggy sky and sun to create magical results.   The dew soaks my shoes and moisture climbs up the hems of my jeans as I wander down a path in the early morning.  Tiny droplets of water ring the leaves and sparkle as patches of sun break through the sky cover of gray. This doesn’t happen in my desert garden.



This spectacular site for a garden was spotted by retired nurseryman Ernest Schoefer in 1961. Perhaps retirement let him think, “Now I can really garden! I just need the right space.”  Ernest found this site of 47 acres and its own source of fresh water.  He and his wife Betty began clearing space for flowers, shrubs and vegetables among the closed cone pine forest. In just four years they opened the garden to the public in 1966. Beautiful gardens and a nursery offered the area residents an opportunity to see what could be done in a garden by the sea. Today a public non profit trust keeps the garden growing.

The garden promotes itself as “America’s Friendliest Botanical Garden.” Here dogs are welcome, picnics are encouraged and weddings are hosted.  In the wedding place where the couple can look out to the sea as they make their vows the surrounding Dahlia garden was in full bloom in early August.


The variation of color, petal shapes and size of Dahlias is still beyond my comprehension.  Vivid and varied, tall and regal these flowers amaze even those with little interest in gardening.  If there is royalty in a garden the Queen just maybe a dinner plate size dahlia in red.

The Edwardian ladies-in-waiting would be the grand ruffled Begonias also growing here.    Sheltered in the Lauer display house they are allowed a bit of extra protection for their brilliant blooms.

The sentinels-at-arms would be the elegant uniforms of red and cream fuchsia hanging by the doorway.

The country of Scotland poetically lays claim to hills of heather yet in Mendocino heather thrives in the coastal climate with the poor acid sandy soils.  In mounds of peach, blue, pink and white, the stiff geometrical spikes of heather form the colors of a sunset.


Rhododendrons and Camellias flourish in this environment.  Many of the hybrids planted over 40 years ago remain popular varieties today.

This garden grows the very small, an Elfin Thyme blooming in pink rises barely 3 inches, and the very tall coastal redwoods reaching over 300 ft.

Herbs, vegetables, succulents and many varieties of perennials fill the garden with color and variety year round.

Further north on the coast I explored an old lighthouse.  There the lighthouse keeper and his family kept a garden growing vegetables for their table and flowers for the soul.  The urge to garden, to grow something exists everywhere. The excitement of a  sprouting seed generates expectation in people in all climates. Walking through a garden anywhere in the world connects us to our community of gardeners.

originally published in Roots & Shoots 


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