A garden by the sea

Putting the cold winter in Iowa behind on a visit to a warm and lovely California botanical garden.

Courtesy of Craig Summers Black
A Doctor Bowman rhododendron grows as a small tree in northern California's Mendocinco Coast Botanical Gardens.The blooms are eye-popping this time of year.
Courtesy of Craig Summers Black
The Mary Helen heath is part of a large collection of heaths and heathers in the Mendocinco Coast Botanical Gardens.
Courtesy of Craig Summers Black
The view of the Mendocino Coast from my room at the Little River Inn.

I looked at my handheld at lunchtime, and saw that the temperature had risen slightly. It said it was now all of 1 degree Fahrenheit. One! (Or minus 17 C.) Who has time for this nonsense?

Not me. It may have been a singular digit at my home in rural Iowa, but I was in Mendocino, Calif., at the annual Crab Festival, where I was suffering through unheard-of sunny days and record highs in the upper 60s. Now this is more like it.

Warmth and flowers in bloom

And while my Midwest garden was getting repeatedly pelted by snow, here on the California coast [see third photo above] some fall blooms are still hanging on and the early risers are just beginning to show.

So, with a little downtime between eating crabcakes and slurping down cioppino, I left the amiable Fort Bragg downtown and hied myself off to … a garden. You already saw this coming, didn’t you?

And you talk about Transplanted Gardeners: As I entered the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, I showed my membership card for the Brenton Arboretum in rural Dallas Center, Iowa (reciprocity!), and the cashier said, oh, sure, she knew that place. Seems she had spent many a tender season in nearby Adel – which is the town nearest my rural digs. Gardeners do get around.

But enough old home week.

Oceanside rhododendrons and temptation

The 47-acre Mendo botanic center is right on the old Pacific Coast Highway and stretches all the way to the ocean. Tall pines, a ferny canyon, crashing surf, and oodles of rhododendrons. Can somebody please bring me another crabcake right now?

But even in the temperate climes of California, ain’t all that much blooming. Except for this lollipop of red I see in the distance. Somewhat unrecognizable, until I got up close: It’s a rhodie growing in tree form. And what a color. Cherry Chapstick, meet Rhododendron 'Doctor Bowman'. Charmed, I am sure. [See first photo above.]

The garden’s impressive heaths and heathers were also abloom. I’ve tried several times to grow them in Iowa. Even the Zone 4-guaranteed varieties can’t take our windswept winters. My daughter would ask, “How are your expensive plants doing?” I would have to hang my head and say, “They died. Again.”

But the foggy moist highlands of northern California must agree with these little Scots, and the garden’s collection is nationally recognized.

I was especially impressed with a stand of a pale pink heath, Erica x darleyensis 'Mary Helen'. [See second photo above.] Its winter-bronzed yellow-gold foliage, backed by a yellow false cypress (probably Chamaecyparis 'Gold Thread') presented the petite pink pearls perfectly. Now try saying that five times fast.

What else I’m into this week: Shoveling snow. In the cold. Back home.


Craig Summers Black, The Transplanted Gardener, is an award-winning garden writer and photographer who blogs regularly at Diggin' it. You can read more of what he's written by clicking here. You may also follow Craig’s further adventures in gardening, music, and rural life on Twitter.

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