Home & Garden Columns

An Interesting Nursery Close to Lake Merritt

By Ron Sullivan
Friday September 08, 2006

If you find yourself over by Lake Merritt, there’s a nursery tucked into Jean Street on Grand Avenue that’s worth a visit.  

It’s getting close to the season to bird Lake Merritt. The place is great for wintering ducks and the odd vagrant waterbird, and even more odd hybrids: a hooded merganser X bufflehead drake has been showing up near the lake’s Bay outlet for the past two years. He’s a striking bird, like a black-and-white photograph of some natty figment of the imagination. 

I’ve seen tufted ducks who should’ve been in southeast Asia there, and just last year a Franklin’s gull, still in that ineffable blush of rosy breeding plumage, posed for a couple of weeks along the inland end.  

There’s Walden Pond Books in the neighborhood too, and restaurants galore. And I think I recall a sort of warehouse-club purveyor of coffins, so there’s something for everybody. What are you waiting for? 

So while you’re there, do drop in at the Ace Hardware store’s garden center, a few doors lakeward on Grand from the hardware store itself. (The intervening doors are occupied by Ace’s new “patio shop” and storage. Hardware stores have a tendency to do that, take up storefronts with backroom stuff. Odd. Kind of butch, I guess.) The parking lot is teeny, but you’re on the easier-parking end of the neighborhood anyway.  

The nursery shop has remained, since I first visited about ten years ago, focused on stuff for urban small gardens. 

This doesn’t mean teensy plants; there are things like tree ferns and magnolias that will get big, and make good focal points. Fruit trees, too, and one thing I’d never heard of, a golden-foliaged cultivar of dawn redwood.  

I find that’s the advantage of visiting small neighborhood nurseries: Because they’re local and individually run, they’re good for idiosyncratic finds. Someone gets a jones for red foliage or obscure mints, and the game is on. Ace has a better than usual set of these because it has a lot of Annie’s Annuals four-inchers, and you know how Annie’s is about weird and wonderful plants.  

Other useful stuff for small gardens here: vines and vertical plants, tall skinny cultivars, and hey, you can always espalier those fruit trees. 

There’s a good sampling of shade plants for the understory, including silvery ferns and those bright-foliaged heucheras and tiarellas that are in vogue lately. Also, there are some begonias I hadn’t met before, of all things. 

Like many of the nurseries I like, the place is full of pleasant bugs, like butterflies. 

These might have trekked in from nearby yards or even the Oakland Rose Garden at the terminus of Jean Street, but there were several species chasing each other around and the big ones, the red admiral for example, looked fresh and newly hatched. 

You don’t get butterflies (or honeybees or katydids or the dragonflies who chase them) when you douse the place in pesticides for appearances’ sake, so I take them as a good sign. 

This is a good place for Felco pruning shears—try them on; find your best model—and basic bonsai tools, too. The indoor shop has a nice collection of Japanese-style baskets. 

Bulbs are starting to show up, too; I scored some rhizomes of “Batik” iris, my favorite. 

I have mine. Go get yours.  


Ace Garden Center 

4001 Grand Avenue, Oakland 


Monday–Friday 8:30 a.m.–6 p.m.  

Saturday 9 a.m.–6 p.m.  

Sunday 10 a.m.–4 p.m.  


Ron Sullivan is a former professional gardener and arborist. Her “Garden Variety” column appears every Friday in East Bay Home & Real Estate. Her column on East Bay trees appears every other Tuesday in the Berkeley Daily Planet.