JoAnne Skelly: The joy of botanical gardens |

JoAnne Skelly: The joy of botanical gardens

JoAnne Skelly

Gardener’s heaven! That’s what I feel when I visit a botanical garden. Last week, we went to the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens at Fort Bragg, Calif. It’s not simply the plants that put me over the top. It’s seeing what’s done with the design: how the textures and shapes go together; how the colors are coordinated for complement and contrast. Then, there’s the hardscape. The amazing structures that are created to bring a garden/landscape together and to help it function effectively always fascinate me.

A large wooden gate at the garden was such a feature. Although it had metal crossbars in a wooden frame, what really stood out were the branches that finished it off. It looked so organic and so fitting for the site. I envied a rustic shed with moss covered wooden shingles and old barn siding covered with rusty tools and other paraphernalia. It wouldn’t work here because of the fire hazard, but there it was perfect. A greenhouse repeated the wood shake shingles on the roof and sides, but added skylights and windows. Another greenhouse incorporated a simple wooden framework with translucent fiberglass panels. Now that’s something we can do here. I also loved the gazebo made out of wood with branch crossbars in the railings.

Beds were laid out to highlight interesting plants that looked striking together. One area had a variegated creeping fir next to a ruffled cypress with a burgundy smokebush in the middle planted over purple ajuga. The pea gravel paths and artistically placed boulders set the bed off beautifully.

I can’t neglect the plants themselves though. The climate there is quite temperate, often with fog, mists and overcast days. Many unusual plants grow there that would never grow outdoors here. The Australian native, Banksia spinulosa “Schnapper Point” or Koala Blooms Banksia, has cone-like flowers and is a relative of the Protea grown in Hawaii. Abutilon megapotamicum, Flowering Maple, has leaves the size of my palm with pendulous multicolored flowers in yellow, peach and rose. It’s related to the Hollyhock and our weed, mallow. Deep burgundy plants add significant depth to beds. The “Sparkling Burgundy” Eucomis comosa, or pineapple flower, was an excellent example of this. One of the most whimsical beds at the garden was planted in the shape of a lizard with succulents, something we could do here.

I hope your travels take you to delightful gardens, too.

JoAnne Skelly is associate professor and Extension educator, Emerita at University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. She can be reached at