In our small community, Woodlake Botanical Gardens nearly became a town park.
Too much reliance on volunteer help, the finances of a small town, and the energy and amazing capacity of two people screeched to a halt at the end of June. Either the city had to take over the care of the gardens, or increase their spending to include paid help. The load was too much to bear alone. Too many disappointments when funds didn’t come through frazzled nerves and maybe a few tempers.
But the love of their gardens never wavered.
Agronomist for U.C. Davis and his wife, Manuel and Olga Jimenez, have given their time for the past 14 years. Modestly their donated time has been worth $2,310,000, or about $165,000 per year. That doesn’t include the donated plant materials and infrastructure.
Would the Community Step Up?
Today was the culmination of a month of planning.
So, Manuel and Olga invited Proteus and me to help them plan a meeting to see what kinds of support might be out there. We invited about 75 people from service organizations, educational and government services to attend a brainstorming session. Thirty-nine reserved, and fifty came.
Fifty influencers in Tulare County gathered at Woodlake Presbyterian Church to brainstorm ways to raise $250,000 this year to support the Woodlake Botanical Gardens.
Wow! Even to put that much money on the screen scares me. Did you know that the San Francisco Botanical Gardens spend 5.5 billion dollars per year to maintain and grow the gardens?
That works out to $100,000 per acre. Woodlake has a unique 14 acre agricultural and rose and cacti garden valued at 500,000 in roses alone. If we maintained it to the same level as the SF garden, it would cost us 1,400,000 per year. That makes 250,000 seem paltry in comparison.
Our agenda included an opening walk around. Everyone wrote one or two things they love about the Gardens.
Next, I gave a brief welcome, explained what in the world an educator/blogger was doing running a meeting about a botanical garden, and why we were there.
We pre-selected four people to make presentations about the benefits of the gardens. The first speaker, Chuck House, from Sequoia Hills Stables focused on the value and work of raising roses. Carmita Peña discussed the educational value to the 25 student volunteers a year who earned community service hours in high school working in the gardens. A Boy Scout organizer for 75 years, Bob Ludekens also still runs a nursery business that has donated hundreds of trees to the gardens. He explained why fruit from the store doesn’t taste sweet, and the fruit in the Botanical Gardens does. Finally, a former journalist and now website designer and documentarian, Shirley Kirkpatrick explained why the Woodlake Botanical Gardens are a treasure. A tourist attraction nestled in the foothills of the Sequoia National Park, the park draws much interest to their website about Tulare County.
Finally, the meat of the meeting, table group brainstorming, and presentations. WOW. You can tell the engagement level of your participants in the process by simply listening to the buzz in the room. Each presentation was carefully thought out and well presented. Very few left the room even though we met during working hours.
We held the meeting to right at one hour as promised, and offered them a chance to go home, but no one did until the last presentation finished. We closed with commitment cards about 10 minutes after the designated closing time.
As a volunteer administrator, I am going to be looking for money. Several in the group volunteered to help with grant and proposal writing. It was clear that the gardens needed exposure. Some volunteered to help with marketing.
Even a little garden presents a huge amount of work. Plants don’t stop needing attention while you’re working out the details of who is going to do the work.
Woodlake Botanical Gardens needs your help. Maybe you can donate funds. Someone suggested Fund me. So I’ll check into that. Maybe you love to weed roses. We need help with that now.
Manuel is writing out a calendar of events so we can figure out how to get volunteers in the short-term to do the gardening work until we raise money to hire full-time employees. Even though we get employees, it will not negate the need for volunteer help. So if you can help, please let me know.
I hope you don’t mind me writing about this on my blog. Right now, it’s where my mind and heart are. If I don’t write this, I won’t get much writing done.
Check into Always Write for my interviews coming up with author Sally Cronin, and social media guru, Chris Brogan. Today I am reposting a wonderful interview done by Norah Colvin with an author, Aleesah Darlinson. The topic of the interview caught my attention – the extinct Tasmanian tiger.
As the temperature soared towards the 102-degree mark, I wished I’d arrived before 8:30 am. Even the presence of Bravo Lake on the other side of the chain link fence did not slow down the upward march of the thermometer bubble.
Before I reached the wall of the sunflowers, sweat already poured into my eyes washing away makeup. A stinging reminder that I had forgotten to wear the bandana Olga Jimenez gave me dripped down my forehead.
Normally I walk the mile-long path in the 14-acre gardens. Olga Jimenez drove up pulling what looked like a hay wagon. She smiled up at me from her shady seat in the utility vehicle.
“Hop in! You look hot already.”
Before I could dribble all over her All-Terrain-Vehicle, Olga reached into her magic stash of cures and wound a pink and white bandana into a long cord.
“Lean over,” she said and wrapped the cord under my bangs, behind my ears and tied it under my hair in the back of my head. This gringa (white woman) avoided the camera but welcomed the relief in spite of how my bangs stood out at all angles. There are some advantages to carrying the camera and being old enough that you don’t care if you are not in every picture!
All Aboard the Sunflower Train
“I want to drive you to the end of the pathway so you can take pictures of the sunflowers going the other way. Did you know that sunflowers turn their heads?”
She kept talking like she hadn’t just dropped a bombshell of information. I never saw a flower that turned its head. I’ve seen them fold up at night.
“First, we’re driving up through the zinnias. I’ll stop,” Olga turned and told the rest of the passengers.
Woodlake Botanical Garden Founders
Olga and her husband, Manuel have planted gardens all their lives. He specialized in row crops at UC Davis and became a farm specialist for the University of California Davis for many years.
In addition to sunflowers, the Woodlake Botanical Gardens grows many food crops from corn, tomatoes, and artichokes to apple, pear, peach, fig and banana trees. Only volunteers work in the garden. Most of them are students.
On the way back to the start of the Sunflower Walk, my friend Monica approached.
Cooled down from the bandana, I gave up my shady spot in the front seat and hopped on the hay cart to take unfettered pictures as we drove.
“Hey Monica, “Do you know why sunflowers have necks?” I asked her as she climbed in.
“Is this another one of your lame jokes, Marsha?”
“No, Monica. It’s a legitimate question.”
“Ok, so they can stretch them and see over the other plants.”
“Good guess, Monica. But no. It’s so they can turn their heads.”
“Really, why do they do that?”
I couldn’t tell her. Maybe I could have Googled it, but I wanted to save what little phone battery life I had left for photographs. As we drove along the walking path, I had a chance to visit with the developers of the Tulare County Treasures website, Shirley, and John.
We drove right past rows and rows of sunflowers without stopping.
“You’ll want to take pictures going the other direction, so you don’t have to shoot into the sun,” Olga called back at us as she ambled along going less than three miles an hour.
I could have jumped off and walked along beside the mini-train, but it was fun to sit and visit and dangle my legs as we rolled along. Every once in a while I felt my foot bounce against the wheel.
“It’s odd, but the sunflowers do not seem as pretty going this direction,” I said to my new friends.
“They don’t seem very friendly, do they?” Shirley asked.
“No, they don’t.” John agreed. “I wonder why.”
“Maybe they’re shy!” I surmised.
Olga stopped the ATV, and we jumped off. Most of us jammed towards the blackberries. The seedy purple berry jettisoned tiny bursts of flavor onto our tongues. A few of the group disappeared.
Blackberries grow in clumps of three. The largest one, the bull, is the prize. So engrossed in the plump blackberry “bulls” I failed to notice that the crowd had moved to the blueberries.
The blueberries fell off the vine into our hands as we tickled their bellies with our fingers. Some of the berries tasted sweet, some a little more tart. Before we left the fruity oasis, some of the party walked back to the wagon train with peach juice dripping off their chins.
We got to the end of the trail, and she turned the hay wagon around. My face was cool as a cucumber.
“You’re getting pretty brave sitting in the sun back there. How’s that bandana working for you?”
“It’s magic! I need one for my nose, too! Olga, what do you mean, the sunflowers turn their heads?” reminding her that she left me hanging at the start of the path.
“When sunflowers grow, they face the sun. As the sun changes position during the day, the baby sunflowers turn to face it and follow it 180 degrees. That’s called heliotropism.”
“Helio for the sun,” Monica added.
“And tropism means that a plant or organism turns in response to an outside stimulus,” Olga finished.
“It doesn’t look like they’ve moved any since we got here. Sunflowers are still not very friendly.” I said.
“As they get older, their necks get stiff just like ours, and they quit turning. Then they face east,” Olga said.
“Thanks, Olga, I’m feeling a little stiff-necked looking all directions to see all the gorgeous things growing here,” I said.
Almost everyone has eaten roasted sunflower seeds. Did you know you can make sunbutter? It’s similar to peanut butter but better for you.
I haven’t tried it. I hope it’s not like Vegemite. HGTV says you can use it like a jam or even as a substitute for cream in pasta sauces. Some people use it as a dipping sauce.
All you need are four cups of raw seeds, a stove, food processor and some oil (I’d use olive oil) and light seasoning like salt and possibly something sweet like honey. A doctor told me about Truvia, so I use that whenever I could use sugar, at least in amounts under a quarter of a cup.
Don’t buy pre-roasted sunflower seeds. Roast the raw seeds in a skillet for about 2 minutes. Tossing them keeps them from burning. Grind them into a powder for about 10 minutes. They start to turn to oil. Add a sweetener and keep going until the mixture looks like peanut butter. If it is not oily enough, add from one to four tablespoons of olive oil until it reaches the consistency you like.
Be sure to visit these two Photo Challenges for more exciting journeys.
The year was circa 1971. According to life-long residents Manuel and Olga Jiminez, Woodlake, CA was a rough little town. The city demographics were about fifty percent Hispanic farmworkers, for the most part living in poverty, and 50% white farmers and merchants.
The tension between farm workers and farm owners had mounted in those days in Central California because of the grape strikes that had begun in 1965 led by Cesar Chavez. Students of Woodlake schools, children of both farm workers and farmers, attended classes together but were not close friends. Although they participated in the same schools and got along, the two groups of students did not interact socially.
New high school graduates, now attending College of the Sequoias, Manual Jiminez and his new wife, Olga wanted to make a difference. They brainstormed and then flew into action. Both came from families with 14 siblings, so they had a lot of help. They organized neighborhood kids to carry out their plans to beautify Woodlake.
“We fixed the toys and picked up trash, cleaned up graffiti, and the city told us, ‘If you don’t have liability insurance, we don’t want you working on city property.’
So we did it on the weekends. We figured we’d ask for forgiveness rather than permission.”
There was a bar in town with a wall painted with graffiti, four letter words, and pictures of needles. Manuel asked the owner if he and his group of student helpers who could paint a mural over the graffiti on their wall. The owner readily gave his permission.
The Woodlake crusaders found an artist from Fresno State to get them started. Then the couple recruited kids from the high school to help paint a mural on the offensive bar wall. While there was an overall picture, the kids painted their own paintings to create a collage.
Manuel and Olga’s loosely organized group had completed 2/3 of the painting when a police car pulled up in front of their project on the privately owned bar wall.
“You’re breaking the law. You’re going to have to remove the sign,” the patrol officer demanded.
Manuel answered, “You mean the graffiti that was there before was ok, but this is not ok?”
“No, you have to remove it.”
Manuel answered, “By the way, we’re not going to remove it. You’re going to have to bring me a document that shows me that this is illegal.”
People came up and said, “Why did you do this, Manuel?”
Manual answered, “I don’t understand why you ask, ‘Why do you do this?’ Have you not gone through that part of town and noticed the graffiti, the bad stuff that was on that wall?”
People complained, “But why? You’ve split the community. We always did everything together. Can’t you change this or that on the mural, maybe replace something that might offend someone?”
“No. Maybe if you had asked while they painted it. The kids painted their feelings.”
Few of the white non-farming community members thought about different life experiences that the Hispanic children had compared to those of their own children. Hispanic families left Woodlake in May and came back in October or later. They picked apples in Washington, berries in Oregon and other crops in northern California.
You never noticed, Manuel explained to the complainers. “I never went to school for a whole week. I had to miss one day every week. We had to work. In the mornings before school, we had to go work. I don’t expect you to know those things but because we grew up differently. We’re different culturally.”
To make his point he said, “No one was unfriendly. But look at the clubs in the old yearbook albums. Even though we were fifty percent of the population in 1969 and back, we were not in the pictures of activities. We were not in the clubs. We did not exist. We may have been acquaintances but we were not friends.”
A week later, the entire police force showed up at the bar while the kids continued to paint. They handed Manuel a cease and desist order to remove the sign within ten days.
But it wasn’t a sign; it was a mural, a collection of painting done by Woodlake students. Parents became concerned that their kids were going to get in trouble. The couple assured participating friends and neighbors that nobody did anything illegal.
The police also threatened the owner of the bar. He didn’t know what to do. They served him papers as well. Young Manuel asked him to hold on.
For Manuel, the battle lines between the city officials and his band of student painters were drawn. Grandson of an early labor organizer in the 1950s, long before Cesar Chavez came on the scene, Jimenez took action. He called California Rural Legal Assistance. His timing was perfect. A City Council meeting was scheduled three or four days before the cease and desist order was to take place. They invited a famous muralist from San Francisco to attend the council meeting and speak to the issue.
The artist testified, “The mural is great. I love it. It’s traditional in America. It should be left alone.”
Those words did not deter the Council’s resolve to rid the Woodlake of the offending mural. Primarily, they disliked the large picture of a farm worker resembling Cesar Chavez at the core. However, they also objected to some short sayings which were written in Spanish. Finally, they lodged a complaint about a small flag saying ‘Strike!’ and another sign asking for peace and respect for their rights.
The City Council pronounced, “It will be gone in two days. This meeting is adjourned.”
Up to this time, the attorney from California Rural Legal Assistance had not said a word. As the meeting adjourned, he stood up to speak.
“By the way, you may say the mural on the bar wall is a commercial sign. It’s clearly not a sign. This is clearly a violation of the kids’ first amendment rights. You don’t like the contents of the mural. However, if you do not go back into session, and change the order then on Monday morning we are going to federal court and file a lawsuit against the City of Woodlake. So you have one opportunity to go back into session. If not, you will be served papers.”
The Council immediately reopened the meeting and went into closed session.
After ten minutes the Mayor returned.
“You can have your mural.”
And the Mayor turned and walked off.
Meanwhile, Manuel and Olga both worked and supported their family while Manuel attended the nearest University. Ultimately, he earned a bachelor’s degree in plant sciences from Fresno State University in 1977. Shortly after his graduation, the North American Farmers Cooperative, an organization of 300 small-scale vegetable and fruit producers based in Fresno, named him as their senior agronomist.
After a rough beginning, one might think that Woodlake hated Manuel and Olga Jimenez and the couple reflected those feelings back at the City Council. That was not the case.
Following that near incident, the young college couple found properties and began gardens and beautification projects around the town. They grew vegetables to give away or sell for their projects. At one time they had four gardens.
Throughout the 1980s Jimenez’s job led him to help the Hmongs in Visalia learn how to farm in the city. They had several farms, one off Akers and one off Lover’s Lane. Language differences made communication difficult but Manuel modeled productive farming methods for the Hmong community.
The couple’s hearts were still in Woodlake. In the later 1980s, kids complained that Woodlake was ugly. They wanted to leave. Manuel and Olga got a group of kids to work, and they planted flowers in all the tree wells around the trees that lined the main streets in Woodlake. They planted flowers that spelled Woodlake on the bank of the levee around Bravo Lake.
“Woodlake doesn’t have to be ugly,” he told the kids. “When you are at home, do you pick up the trash, or do you contribute to it? They learned. The community learned to take pride in the gardens.”
At first, no one wanted to let them farm on their property because of the liability of having kids work. Then Proteus let them tie into their insurance. After the insurance issue had cleared up, community members invited Manuel’s group to plant flowers on their property. Manuel recalled that Leonard Hansen let them farm on the corner of Bravo and Valencia.
They also had use of Watchumna Water District’s property that was almost one city block about two acres where they grew vegetables. By selling the vegetables, they raised money to farm their properties. At one time they had four gardens dispersed around Woodlake.
While he established himself as an expert around the country, Manuel and Olga, together with another Woodlake High School graduate, Woodlake Valley Chamber of Commerce President, Rudy Garcia formed the Woodlake Pride Coalition. In 1999 they received a modest tree grant for city beautification and the dream of the Woodlake (Bravo Lake) Botanical Gardens began.
Around that time the Southern Pacific Railroad was selling the right away of the property beside the levee. Woodlake City Planner, Greg Collins applied for a “Rails to Trails” Grant. Manuel told City Manager, Bill Lewis he would put in the garden if the city bought the property. The city bought the entire property, about a mile long, 13.9 acres for $70,000 and provided water and insurance.
Lots of companies donated plant material because they knew Manuel. Woodlake Botanical Gardens received over 150 varieties of stone fruit from fifteen nurseries. Everything came from all over the country.
In spite of the small grant Garcia earned for Woodlake Pride, they were often short of money. Once they mapped the town to go door to door to ask for donations to put in the irrigation system. They told the kids what to say, and started at about 8:00 in the morning.
From time to time they had larger donors to Woodlake Botanical Gardens. Everett Krakoff owned Woodlake Olive Plant. He liked what we did with the kids. His timing was always perfect.
“You guys need some tools? You need anything else? He bought hoses. Do you have a checking account? Open another for the kids so you can treat them.”
For his birthday he had his daughters write checks to Woodlake Pride.
What Manuel Jimenez has lacked in funds for his many projects through the years, he has been heaped with honors.
For his work both on the job and in Woodlake, Jimenez has received numerous awards. Among them was the first-ever Tom Haller award at the California Farm Conference in 2008. Jimenez was named the 2000 Citizen of the Year in Woodlake. He was one of three recipients of the California Peace Prize in 2011.
Jimenez went on to become a “world-renowned farming authority, all while living in and serving his hometown – the small, rural community of Woodlake, Calif. (As) the University of California Cooperative Extension advisor, who worked with small family farmers in Tulare County for 33 years.” Jeannette E. Warnert. June 24, 2013
Less than two years later the city of Woodlake honored Manuel and Olga in a mural highlighting their work.
City officials, community members, family, and friends gathered Friday, Jan. 30, in the parking lot of the Shell station at Valencia and Naranjo to unveil Woodlake’s newest mural. Colleen Mitchell-Veyna’s latest mural masterpiece that now adorns the west side of an adjacent commercial building pays tribute to Manuel and Olga Jimenez, co-founders of the Bravo Lake Botanical Gardens, California’s first agricultural botanical garden. John Elliot. The Kaweah Commonwealth. February 6, 2015
Recently, Jimenez worked with the City of Woodlake to secure a grant to improve the safety, infrastructure, and aesthetics of the garden. The plan for $1 million grant also included new restrooms, drinking fountains, and fences, improvements to the Miller Brown Park. Since the grant’s approval, the city completed upgrades to the Miller Brown Park restrooms and the other city amenities.
However, Woodlake Pride has not received the help Manuel anticipated from the grant monies to make improvements to Woodlake Botanical Garden. He has spoken to the City Manager, Ramon Lara, and the City Commissioners, about his modest requests. To date has not been awarded any of the grant monies for his projects.
Mark your calendars for October 8th for an entertaining Woodlake Pride evening at the Woodlake Botanical Gardens. Starting at 4:00 pm.
That sounds fun!
Woodlake is a foothill town of about 7,000 nestled in the center a circle of foothills on the west side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Bravo Lake occupies a large chunk of the heart of the town. In 1912 when Gilbert Stevenson purchased the acres to build the city, he envisioned a beautiful tourist town. BUT Stevenson built a levee around the town’s primary landmark, obscuring it from view.
Whaaaa?? Was he shortsighted or something?
Maybe, but Olga and Manuel Jimenez had some great ideas to beautify the levees.
And the City of Woodlake agreed to it?
You bet. They bought the land.
What do you do with a big lake no one can see?
Worse than that, the area around it was vacant or worse – a weed haven. Manuel and Olga Jimenez change blight into bright and created Woodlake Pride, a service organization to perpetuate the beautiful park setting they created.
A student narrates the story of Manuel Jimenez’s vision for a student community service organization which he called Woodlake Pride in the video Woodlake Pride’s Wonderful World.
The real plan that Olga had was to “grow kids by planting gardens.” They started planting gardens in 1989, but eventually the city purchased 13 acres to turn into the beautiful gardens that we see today. The 1,700 rose bushes alone make this a wonderful world.
“It’s not like Disneyland,” Manuel Jimenez states.
Although it does not feature the number of varieties of roses found in famous gardens like the Boston Rose Garden, everyone marvels at the many varieties of plant life the Woodlake Botanical Garden on the way to the Sequoia National Park. It has become a major draw for sight-seeing.
It is that inspiring tale of what one person, or in this case a couple, can do in a community if they put their heart and soul into it.
“The legacy I want to leave Woodlake is just the beauty. It’s amazing what a seed can produce,” Olga shared.