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Go! Public Gardens


Posted on May 28

Northern California is home to a number of gorgeous gardens open to the public, where you can glean ideas or simply relax among the blooms.

Sunken Garden at Filoli Gardens
Sunken Garden at Filoli Gardens Courtesy of Filoli Gardens

On a bright June day, set aside your summer duties and head west, where numerous public gardens await. You’ll come home laden with appreciation for California’s native plants and full of ideas for your own garden. Bring sunscreen, walking shoes, a few bucks—some gardens charge admission—and a camera. This is really a beautiful excursion.

Filoli Gardens, Woodside
At this 654-acre historic estate located 30 miles south of San Francisco, the gardens make up only a fraction of the experience. Between the mansion, gardens, orchards and nature preserve (accessible only on docent-led Saturday hikes), Filoli requires a several-hour commitment. Meander through the tidy Sunken Garden under the clock tower, and you might envision long dresses and fancy hats of days gone by. The Gentlemen’s Orchard grows the largest private collection of heirloom fruit in North America, and the Olive Orchard, planted around 1918, produces mission and Manzanillo varieties. After exploring Filoli’s gardens, head into the mansion to gaze, room-by-room, at how the privileged lived. Between the mural-heavy ballroom and the collection of 17th- and 18th-century English antiques throughout, it might make your own home feel, well, pedestrian. Admission is $15.

San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum, San Francisco
This arboretum, off Ninth and Lincoln in Golden Gate Park, is anchored by a huge grassy area populated with picnickers, guitar players, Frisbee-throwers and nappers. Follow the path circling the grass to access smaller trails that duck into secret enclaves packed with labeled plants. Bring your sketch pad or watercolors—the garden provides plenty of inspiration. Take the bridge over carp-crowded water to check out the bracelet honey myrtle tree with its numerous trunks and arms. Admission is free.

Japanese Tea Garden, San Francisco
Given the small size of this garden, its $7 admission price, plus the inflated cost of tea and snacks in the teahouse, might make this stop feel like a wallet-emptier. Visit on Monday, Wednesday or Friday before 10 a.m., though, and you get in free. But even on a busy weekend, the tea garden’s charm is alluring. The blossoms, dwarf trees, koi ponds and waterfalls, bridges—take the obligatory photo of your travel buddy grinning from atop the super-arch—Zen garden, pagoda. . . it collectively creates a peaceful, cool ambiance that suddenly makes a cup of jasmine tea sound perfect.

Flower Power—While you’re in Golden Gate Park, stop in at the beautiful Conservatory of Flowers for a stroll in its galleries of rare and exotic plants. Say hello to “Phill,” the conservatory’s 100-year-old giant Imperial Philodendron in the Lowland Tropics Gallery.

Regional Parks Botanic Garden, Berkeley
In Tilden Regional Park, in the hills above Berkeley, the botanical garden is one of a number of attractions (a lake, trains, a carousel, a golf course, picnic areas, trails) that draws visitors. Admire California’s native flowers and foliage, from towering pines to vibrant poppies, as you wander along the paths. Cross bridges over streams and turn corners to discover pretty wooden benches tucked among lush shrubbery. Stop at the visitor center to pick up brochures and learn when the next plant sale is scheduled. Admission is free. Word to the wise: Watch for bicyclists as you drive up into Tilden Park. These narrow, twisting roads beckon view-seeking cyclists, and the “share the road” signs suggest there’s enough room for everyone. There’s not, so go slow and expect a cyclist around every bend.

University of California Botanical Garden, Berkeley
On the hillside behind UC Berkeley, this garden invites visitors to explore foliage from around the world. Stare in awe at the South American cacti, many which look like they’re straight out of Arizona (or a Dr. Seuss book). Drop into “Asia” to wander among brilliant greenery and watch for globby newts swimming among lily pads in the pond. Discover cures in the Chinese Medicinal Herb Garden and feel your hair frizz in the humid Tropical House. Climb the main path to the Old Rose Garden, and you’ll be treated to a spectacular view of the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. Lots of elevation changes give a good workout. Wherever you go in this garden, watch your step: Lizards abound. Admission is $7 for adults; allot several hours to see it all.

Matanzas Creek Winery, Santa Rosa
The lavender field at Matanzas Creek Winery, planted in 1991, reaches its blooming zenith in June, so now is the time to go. The sea of purple invites visitors (and bees) to inhale the fragrance and gasp at the hues. Blossoms are cut at their peak, then used for culinary flavorings and ingredients in body products, some of which are sold on-site at Matanzas Creek. Walk the winery grounds—view the ponds and pretty grove of trees in addition to the lavender garden—then pop into the tasting room to try some wine before picnicking near the lavender barn.

Garden Valley Ranch, Petaluma

Visit Garden Valley this month to get a glimpse of the spectacular cutting fields, where some 10,000 roses burst into bloom in late spring. Admire the long flower borders (including one with more than 100 varieties of hydrangea and 30 types of magnolia), and the duck and koi pond, then take a deep, nosy breath in the fragrance garden. A rather formal setup enclosed in hedges of bay, box, English yew and myrtle, this is a garden of perfume. Admission is $5 for a self-guided tour. 

Kendall-Jackson Wine Center, between Santa Rosa and Healdsburg
The gardens at Kendall-Jackson will make you hungry. Vegetables, fruits, herbs and edible flowers are planted in various collections designed to educate visitors about food-and-wine pairings. The cannellini beans, tomatoes, roasting peppers, squash and eggplant in the Italian portion of the International Garden would go well with the Italian Sangiovese, for example. The Wine Sensory Gardens have sections of “descriptors”—think lemon and pear for Sauvignon Blanc—and “affinities.” (Sweet onions and green beans taste good accompanied by white wine, you know.) Take a tour and learn something new about how to eat and drink.

Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens
Way up north, past Mendocino and before Fort Bragg on Highway 1, this alluring coastal garden wows visitors with its natural landscape: Can you beat the Pacific Ocean as a backdrop? Probably not. The garden paths lead through the heather, rhododendrons, camellias, fuchsias and dahlias, then out through the pines to the coastal meadows. Take a picnic to enjoy at one of the picnic tables along the way and, by all means, bring binoculars to spot birds and, quite possibly, whales. Your dog is welcome here. Admission is $10, and worth every dime.

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