Woodlake Botanical Garden: The Jewel of the Central Valley

by Evelyne Vivies

I heard the garden before I even saw it. Surely the happiest birds alive live here. Walking in, I took in the aesthetic impact of the natural beauty and fragrance of the stunning roses that flank the center path of the garden's entrance and wondered why I hadn't seen this before.

I spotted Manuel Jimenez patiently tending to row upon row of roses. He is a retired university professor and an emeritus farm advisor for the University of California, whose roots are deeply embedded in the agricultural harvesting of the valley's bounty in the multi-generations of his own family.
Path of roses

As we walked around the artistic floral collection and edible crops on display, some names were familiar, others were a discovery. What Manuel and his wife Olga, "The Queen of Roses," have done, in the most spectacular way, is to remind us of the relationship that people have with nature and community.

Sometimes it takes tourists to show us what we have in our own backyard. The Woodlake Botanical Garden is on the National Geographic webpage list of places to see. It is a renowned tourist hot spot that is famous around the world. "Tourists that stop here often tell us that this is the best part of their visit," says Manuel.
water feature

It has also been replicated around the world. "The agricultural school of Mexico sent two bus loads of agronomists ten years ago in May when all the fruit were ripening (the blackberries, blueberries, mulberries, apricots, and plums) and fell in love with the garden. They said that they would build something like this in Mexico at the University and connect the community with it. They were inspired by the format of the garden. The U.S. State Department also sent the entire agricultural administrative staff of Iraq to study the garden."

It all started over thirty years ago. At the time, Woodlake, the home town of the Jimenez duo, had a negative image in the valley. Manuel and Olga decided to launch the ambitious project of the beautification of Woodlake. They borrowed land in the main entrances of the city and started planting gardens. At one point, they had planted 40,000 bedding plants at their own cost. Eventually they started the non-profit, Woodlake Pride.

They've created several gardens over the years. One of their largest, located on Magnolia Street where it is now paved over by real estate, was once the largest of all their gardens. It contained over 1200 varies of vegetables and flowers, over 120 varieties of sunflowers, and a spectacular sea of roses. Members of the Woodlake communitty, attracted as much by the beauty of the garden as they were by the loving welcome of Manuel and Olga, came out to voluntarily work alongside them.
Hard working volunteers

Manuel has given a great deal to Woodlake. Not only as a highly-experienced agricultural professional but also as a role model for his team of young community volunteers who have followed him to all the gardens he has created. If you're interested in stories of kindness and love, speak to his volunteers. We met up with volunteers, Gilbert and Remi, arriving with their garden gloves. "We come out just because of the love in our heart. Manuel is always gracious with the volunteers with fruits from the garden, and we like to give back. It's a beautiful walk, sometimes we spot bald eagles. So we started coming to help," explains Gilbert. "Manuel points his finger and we get to work. It's mostly grunt work like weeding. There's a lot of work to be done, especially with berry season coming up, so we volunteer extra. What Manuel has done here, in my opinion, is one of the most special things in the entire state of California. It's the most beautiful rose garden in all of Central California. It's the most concentrated variety of fruits, flowers, and vegetables of the Central Valley. To me this is the jewel of the Central Valley. It makes Woodlake special, and it all comes from the heart of Manuel and Olga. We are honored to be able to come out and help in any way."
Manuel and Olga

I sampled some exquisitely tasting blueberries. "These are the best tasting blueberries in the entire world," Manuel explains matter-of-factly. "How can you say that with such confidence?" I asked him. "Because I actually visited all the major nurseries in the entire world," Manuel explains humbly.

We entered the citrus orchard where every tree is different. A few steps later there is a tropical garden with goyava, mango, papaya, and banana trees. We then arrived at the apple trees, pear trees, and stone fruit trees. "Everything is mostly single trees. We have almost 200 varieties of stone fruit. There are lots of different flavors here."
Pakistani mulberry

There is an herb garden to bring in beneficial insects. "There are insectaries that are on certain plants that harbor little wasps that kill all the bad bugs." Manuel brought in a world famous entomologist, Jose Quesada, from El Salvador who developed biological control systems. "This is buckwheat; it's a native plant. By this afternoon you will see all kinds of different little wasps and bees. In farms, because they spray, there's nothing like this. Here, we don't use any chemicals. We allow the insects to take care of the pest problems. The natural enviroment takes care of itself. It's very unique. It's better than organic. It's natural. Organic doesn't mean that you don't use chemicals, that's a misnomer. It means that you use chemicals that are naturally occuring, but molecularly, they are the same as the manufactured chemical."

There are more projects on the horizon for this natural botanical eco-system. "Right now we completed the planting of the botanical component of the garden. The next phase is the ag historical part. If the city agrees with us, we're going to invest in labeling all the plants. It won't be a real botanical garden until everything is labeled with genus and species and variety. But we are also going to put educational signs and QR codes so that people can get linked to other places to get more information on certain subjects such as water, entomology, and also on farmworker families so that people can learn more about the history of agricultural."
Peppers from the garden

"We want to tell the story of agriculture--the story about the people who actually helped build the industry, the farm workers. There is no place really dedicated for that." He shows me a beautiful water feature with water lilies at its base. "If you look closely, there are hand tools from farm workers: a lettuce knife, a grape clipper, a citrus clipper, a short handle hoe, and irrigation parts. Different things that involve farm workers."

Manuel wants people to realize the great importance of agriculture. "We have to support agriculture. We talk about national security, but food is probably the most important concern that we have in terms of national security. It's getting more and more difficult for agriculture to survive economically. We have to have an assured location where we have food, and it's important that people invest in that and not just let it go because it's not economical. It's happening to small farms especially. To have only big farmers is not good because you have to have that diversity, to have different ideas about quality agricultural products and not just plant what's most profitable."
Table of pristine fruit harvested by the volunteer youth

There is also the enjoyment of walking through a beautiful garden. "Even though I worked all of my young life and part of my adult life in agriculture, I never got to walk through an orchard freely. This is an opportunity for people to be able to walk through something that is very rustic and enjoy it. There's an ambience of walking through an orchard and listening to the wildlife. There are so many birds here. It's relaxing, and everybody should be able to enjoy this."

Through fundraising, like the Berry Tasting event happening on May 25, they keep the garden going until the City of Woodlake comes through with the much needed support that they have been deliberating on for years.

Anything that draws us towards nature is important. It is where our roots lie. I encourage everyone to discover this jewel of the valley that we can all enjoy thanks to Manuel, Olga, and the community volunteers in Woodlake.

Woodlake Botanical Garden
400 E Naranjo
Woodlake, California

Photographs by Manuel Jimenez and Sarah Spiedel

Evelyne Vivies is a native to the French island of Guadeloupe living the American dream in Visalia, CA.