Let’s face it, going to a four-year university is stressful. Most of the time the adrenaline rush seems to keep one on one’s toes, enabling one to nail a good grade and giving one a sense of making a start at something important. Perhaps working for a degree will lead to a cure for cancer or a Nobel prize. At the very least, it’s an opportunity to make life-long friendships.
There’s no denying, however, that the processes of applying, the long wait for acceptance, the muddle of red tape to be unraveled before one’s registration is confirmed—transcripts obtained, financing and accommodation arranged, majors declared—all add up to a time of stress. And that’s before classes actually begin.
Once the semester starts, there’s the newness of it all. Even students born in Berkeley who know the campus for what it is, a serene parkland studded with elegant architecture and mature trees, can suffer a few twinges of apprehension during their first few weeks. Change may be as good as a rest for some, but more often than not it’s unsettling.
The university seems to recognize that nature heals all ills if we allow her to do so. Without actually offering students a mandatory one unit in recreation and rest, it has worked with nature to produce two glorious gardens for interest as well as solace, and the East Bay’s Regional Parks District has created a third. All three are within easy reach of the Berkeley campus.
Blake Garden is the first on our list, because it is least well known and farthest away, in Kensington. The garden is the setting for an Italianate villa that is the official residence of the university’s president. It is well worth a visit, is open (on weekdays only) at no charge to the public as well as students, and is partially wheelchair accessible. A reflecting pool fronts the villa. Paths meander around a mixture of wild and formal garden “rooms.” Barriers of stone and vegetation are used to create these, so that, for instance, after walking across a sunken lawn buttressed on one side by the back of the house, one is guided towards an unexpectedly rough and secret area of native grasses and shrubs, which in turn leads to a pond, and ahead of that, a vegetable garden.
Such clever contrasts and juxtapositions make this fairly small acreage seem spacious and inviting. There are plenty of places to sit and enjoy a picnic. Since the theme is described as Mediterranean, it is should be a great place to look for ideas for summer-dry/ winter-wet plantings. There is usually a gardener visible and willing to answer questions.
To find Blake Garden, either take a No. 7 bus from Bancroft, or drive along the Arlington, make a left on Rincon opposite the library, and go down the hill directly into the parking area. Parking is free. Berkeley has been fortunate from its beginning in the generosity and acumen of its benefactors such as the Blake family. Apparently thanks to them, the garden’s natural rock formations are part of its landscaping design.
Much closer to campus, in fact within walking distance, the university’s Botanical Garden has been created from land on both sides of Strawberry Canyon, half a mile up the road from Haas Clubhouse and the outdoor swimming complex on Centennial Drive. Like all botanical gardens, it is divided into climatic and geographic regions, from alpine to tropical, and old and new worlds. The first stop for me is always the same, the vernal pool just past the entrance, on the right.
Vernal pools are found in few places in the world, one of them being on our doorstep, the grasslands of California. Caused by patches of impervious hardpan, vernal pools fill up in winter with rain, which as it evaporates during our dry summer, leaves behind rings of native flowers in pastel shades of yellow, lavender, pink, mauve and white. The university gardeners have recreated this phenomenon with a concrete substratum and appropriate soil. They re-sow the pool every winter. By April it is spectacular.
Further along the same path, past a bed of tiny alpines, the garden features plants growing in a bed of serpentine soil, which is also found in California and in few other places in the world. Serpentine rock, so named because it is slippery to the touch and greenish in color. The soil deriving from it is loaded with minerals, such as manganese, which most plants find too toxic for growth. The plants that have adapted to serpentine soil are therefore truly endemic. To create this quite extensive bed, the gardeners dug out huge amounts of red clay, and replaced it with a serpentine mix.
The garden has great variety. Among many other horticultural delights there’s a mediaeval herb garden, a Chinese garden of medicinal plants with explanatory labels in Chinese and English, a hothouse with tropical food plants, other hothouses of cactuses and carnivorous plants, gritty slopes of desert plants, and a knot garden. Majestic trees, lawns, pools, and shady alleys make altogether a charming scenery in which to loiter, with a picnic and a book, and come away refreshed. Before leaving, cross the road and enter the redwood grove. Redwoods have a solemnity, a hushed dampness, a dark quality appropriate to giant survivors of glaciation.
It is open daily except on university holidays and the first Tuesday of every month. If you have forgotten your student ID, it is free on Thursdays. Parking is not, but a Bear Transit bus, free for students and a dollar for others, leaves from the middle of campus and will drop you at the garden’s main entrance.
If you have driven to the Botanical Garden, why not continue up Centennial Drive to our third garden? Go straight across Grizzly Peak Boulevard and down into Tilden Park on Golf Course Drive. The golf course is on your right. Golf Course Drive dead ends at Shasta Road. Turn right, right again on Wildcat Canyon Road, and you will see EBRPD’s Botanic Garden on your left, at its junction with South Park Drive. South Park Drive is closed at certain times of the year to allow salamanders safe access to Wildcat Creek, in which they deposit their eggs.
This charming botanic (note spelling) garden entirely of native plants is also open daily except for certain holidays, and is free to everyone. It can be reached by No. 67 bus from downtown Berkeley. Since the growing season for our native plants starts in the fall, it’s a great place for a winter walk. Seacoast bluffs and mountains, dry foothills, canyons, groves, alpine slopes and deserts show site-specific flora . Garden space can be rented for weddings and other ceremonies for a small fee. Annually the garden holds a sale of plants propagated by volunteers. Go early to this popular event.
If these three gardens are not sufficiently natural to lave away tension, at the garden’s exit, turn left, and stride up into the Berkeley hills. Go with a friend. Puma or wildcats roam there. Keep an eye out for rattlesnakes and leave them alone. I have never seen either of these secretive creatures. Spend several hours in that unspoiled wilderness. Although Tilden Park has drinking fountains, if you go off the beaten track use common sense. Carry water, a few raisins, and a hat. Mist can descend rapidly. If you lose your bearings, walk downhill. You’ll return to the world of academe with bodies invigorated and souls restored, guaranteed.