Califonia Bountiful

Pat's Garden Travels: Best off-the-beaten-path public gardens in California

September/October 2019 California Bountiful magazine

California offers a wealth of public gardens to discover. Join California Bountiful gardening expert Pat Rubin as she travels the state, bringing you the best of her travels to inspire yours.

This issue, Pat shares two of her favorite hidden gems. These gardens may take a bit of work to get to, but they're worth the effort.  

The Gardens of Alcatraz
San Francisco

Visitors to Alcatraz Island are often surprised by its beautiful gardens. Photo courtesy of Shelagh Fritz

San Francisco's former island prison—now a museum—is famous for its evocative location and infamous former inmates such as Al Capone. But the gardens that were a part of the island's landscape for more than 100 years have received less attention—until now. The gardens are being restored on 22 1/2 acres of the grounds in a seven-year joint effort between the Garden Conservancy, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and the National Park Service.

Before becoming a federal penitentiary, Alcatraz was a military fortress and then a military prison. Officers stationed there and their families planted the original gardens as early as 1865. One garden, dubbed Officer's Row, now occupies the space where three Victorian houses once stood. You wouldn't know it existed unless you look down as you take the path to the cellblocks.

Today the gardens are filled with fuchsias, geraniums and snapdragons. Pink valerian has seeded itself in the crevices of the long-abandoned walls. Even roses enjoy the sunshine and damp air.

It's worth the ferry ride to spend an afternoon appreciating the unique study in contrasts to be found on this island. Catch the ferry at Pier 33 in San Francisco. There's plenty of paid parking nearby. Ferries generally leave about every 30 minutes.

WPA Rock Garden, William Land Park
15th Avenue off Land Park Drive, Sacramento

A simple wood-framed sign announces you've arrived at the WPA Rock Garden in Sacramento's William Land Park. Built in 1940 by the Works Progress Administration as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, and tucked cozily between the Fairytale Town amusement park and William A. Carroll Amphitheater, the garden was saved from oblivion by now-retired park employee Daisy Mah over a 20-year period. Once a rough-and-tumble patch of overgrown ivy, weeds and half-dead scrub oaks, it is now a rambling cottage garden with a decidedly California/Mediterranean twist. There are thousands of shrubs, perennials, annuals, bulbs and trees that offer visitors something to see in all seasons.

Decomposed granite paths crunch noisily beneath your feet as you walk through the garden. There are wildflowers tucked among shrubs tucked among other perennials and annuals. It's a cozy garden, full of surprises at every turn. Set aside some time to wander the paths when planning a visit to our state's capital. William Land Park is also home to the Sacramento Zoo, two kid-friendly amusement parks, a duck pond and acres of tree-lined trails, making it a worthy addition to the itinerary. 

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