by Sarah Van Roo
There are secret gardens in many places, and Oakland has one that wasn’t really meant to be secret. Chances are you don’t know about it – but it’s hiding in plain sight. This would be the beautiful California native plant garden in Splash Pad Park, which is tucked in the shadow of 580 adjacent to the Grand Lake Farmers Market.
In July 2000, the Splash Pad Neighborhood Forum submitted its “Final Report” which was used by the City of Oakland as the basis for a Request for Proposals. The winning proposal was submitted by Oakland-based, nationally renowned Landscape Architect, Walter Hood who was commissioned to “transform the space into a park that people can actually occupy, with flexible spaces that support a variety of uses.”
The undulating concrete walls that Hood designed provide a boundary for the native plant garden – the success of which rests, in large part, in Mary Jo Sutton’s muddy hands and is due to her sustained efforts. She’s the unquestioned leader of the “Splash Pad Grand Crew” volunteer team. She’s gained their respect through her brains, wiry brawn, and skills as a knowledgeable horticulturist with a vast knowledge of California natives. As she’s helped transform the space into an understated showplace over the past several years, her background in museum display design and her eye for beauty has become apparent.
Mary Jo agreed to meet and give me a tour one recent misty Sunday morning. I found her deep under a bush on her knees, tenaciously pulling tiny weeds. The conversation that followed was textbook uber-urban gardening 101. She describes herself as a lifetime Plant Geek, belonging to flower societies like the African Violet Society as far back as high school. Like many, her family nurtured her love of gardening. As a SoCal kid she visited her grandparents in Michigan in the summers. Her grandfather always had a huge compost pile. “He grew tomatoes. He had a large yard, more of a meadow, filled with enormously tall weedy wildflowers,” she reminisced. “He would mow paths through it, and we were small enough then to hide in the wall of flowers.”
Mary Jo subscribed to Organic Gardening magazine as a teenager in Southern California, “learning about bugs and soil and the pleasure of growing your own food.” “I am what you might call a plant whisperer”, she laughed. “When I started learning that plants evolved and adapted to live in certain places with certain amounts of water or types of soil, it opened my eyes to the diversity and specificity of nature.” “California native plants provide habitat for so many other organisms, and as a gardener, mostly they don’t need you once they are established.”
Mary Jo studied botany briefly in college, and after getting her architecture degree took horticulture classes. “I took a lot classes in natural landscape interpretation through Merritt College”, she said. “And I joined the California Native Plant Society. Their field trips are a great way to learn, as they usually have a couple of experts who can teach you a lot.”
Local nurseries like East Bay Wild donated many of the natives in the garden. Mary Jo has divided and propagated many others in her home garden, especially clumps of Douglas Iris which now abound. Thanks to her diligence and skill, the color and biodiversity of the garden continually increases, but the costs do not. Best of all, the natives in the garden only need watering occasionally in the middle of the warm season..
Bees and butterflies are inevitably drawn to the blossoms, even in this gritty urban spot. The life force is not to be deterred by a little concrete and freeway traffic. This misty midwinter morning found yellow-faced bumblebees full of pollen, cheerily exploring the bright blue Ceanothus, a real harbinger of our California springtime. The plants in the garden space were lovingly introduced to me by name, origin and history.
All good gardeners have complicated relationships with their plants, as they garden faithfully, hovering and nurturing season after season. They imagine forward in color, design, history, season, and height. Protective feelings inevitably develop for the botanical canvas they have imagined, as the vision unfolds into reality over seasons and years.
Mary Jo is idolized by the “Grand Crew” regulars, volunteers of all ages. And she has also established a great working relationship with enthusiastic students from Key Clubs at Piedmont High, Oakland High, and elsewhere. “Here is how you tell this weed from this flower: red stems,” she instructs… and then they throw their youthful energy into the job.
Ken Katz, Chair of the group that lobbied for the new park told us: “I was the volunteer coordinator beginning in 2003, when twenty-five volunteers showed up to plant the original garden, but I wasn’t very good at it. By the time Mary Jo showed up ten years later,” he continued, ” the number of regular monthly volunteers had dwindled to two or three and sometimes none. She has been the garden’s savior. It now blooms all year and has doubled in size. She knows plants. She knows wildlife, and most importantly, she knows people.”
These days there is a tension between the needs of the park and the needs of Oakland’s homeless folks. Soft green, newly sprouted spaces, sheltered by those concrete walls, call out to homeless people looking for a safe spot to sleep. A magnificent Manzanita provides sculptural support for a particularly beautiful blossom called White Cloud, a native of the Channel Islands. There is a sheltered space below, and unfortunately the branches can be brittle.
Mary Jo has tried to foster relationships with the homeless with some success. If there is a volunteer event with food she tries to make sure they are fed. It’s an evolving situation to which she is always attuned. They probably don’t teach this subject in horticulture school.
Next time you visit the Farmers Market, stroll over to the Lakeshore edge and check out the garden. There still is a quiet fountain, water musically spilling over one of the concrete forms, echoing the colorful history for of this small, unsung spot of Oakland’s history.
Regular work days are the 4th Sunday of every month from 9 AM to Noon. RSVP to: email@example.com
Splash Pad Earth Day Celebration, Sunday, April 23 in partnership with Beatie Street School. Big lunch is compliments of neighborhood restaurants and farmers market vendors.
Editor’s Note: The content of this article was updated in November of 2021.
Lake Merritt resident Sarah Van is a retired journalist and attorney who now tends the Bee Garden Hotel at the Gardens at Lake Merritt and also manages social media for the gardens. She previously authored the wonderful 2017 profile of Mary Jo Sutton, Splash Pad Park’s “Plant Whisperer.”
Lake Merritt resident Sarah Van is a retired journalist and attorney who now tends the Bee Garden Hotel at the Gardens at Lake Merritt and also manages social media for the gardens.