The Gardens at Lake Merritt

Community Demonstrations and Exhibits

When discussing agricultural projects in the city, the terms “urban farm” and “community garden” are generally used. Because these phrases are often used interchangeably, it can be difficult to differentiate these two terms. While these terms are very similar, there are a few important nuances. A community garden is a “group of plots, often located on publicly-owned land . . . that share some basic needs like water spigots, compost piles, fenced enclosures, and very rarely gardening tools.” [1] In this “model, . . . a large group of people each contribute a relatively small amount of time to working their own plot and receive the fruits of their labor as a result.” [2] While urban farms often “occupy similarly sized plot[s] as an entire community garden (1/4 to two acres) and grow . . . similar crops,” these “plots are more frequently located on private land, whether vacant or condemned.” [3] And produce is usually “given away to . . . [the farmers and] those in need . . . or sold to local restaurants, retailers, or the general public.” [4] As such, one of the key distinctions is that, generally, “the bounty from a garden is meant for private consumption, while the bounty from a farm is intended to be sold in some form.” [5] Another difference is that “in the urban farm model, [there are fewer] . . . people spending more time working on . . . [larger plots], whereas the community garden has more people working on smaller plots.” [6]

Oakland features a variety of options for those looking for fresh produce. In addition to the urban farms in West Oakland, like the Fitzgerald and Union Plaza Parks, there are also several community gardens. Established more than a half century ago, the Gardens at Lake Merritt feature seven acres of themed gardens. The Gardens at Lake Merritt were created to preserve the “highest standards of horticulture and historic preservation, while providing enriching public programs.” [7] The gardens contain “some of the rarest horticulture collections in North America.” [8] Also, the garden has the “largest collection of cool weather palms in the entire western United States” and “150 rare bonsais, including a potted pine that's been growing . . . for 400 years.” [9] (All gardens are open each day from 9am to 5:30pm. And people can visit for free.) Because the funding for the City of Oakland’s gardening staff has been reduced due to budget cuts, volunteers help maintain the grounds. In 2004, the nonprofit Friends of the Gardens at Lake Merritt (FGLM) was established. FGLM began working with the City of Oakland, redesigning, improving, and fundraising for the gardens. Because of FGLM's fundraising, the Mediterranean Garden and the Sensory Garden were created.

There are eleven main gardens: the Bay-Friendly Garden, Bonsai Garden, Edible Garden, Japanese Garden, Mediterranean Garden, Palm Garden, Pollinator Garden, Rhododendron Garden, Sensory Garden, Torii Gate Garden, and Vireya Garden. In the edible gardens, there are “free monthly demonstrations, workshops, and volunteer opportunities to design, plant, and harvest.” [10] The Pollinator Garden features a “‘Bee Hotel’ for native apian species and an exhibit that spotlights cutting-edge resource-preserving water feature filtration.” [11] In so doing, this garden highlights the importance of bees and pollination. The Bay-Friendly Garden replicates a natural habitat in which water and plant matter are recycled. This garden also features plants that are indigenous to that habitat. This garden is instructive as it shows visitors how to employ “bay-friendly practices [to] foster soil health, conserve water and other valuable resources while reducing waste and preventing pollution.” [12]

The gardens are also a popular hub for community events. For example, on October 16th, 2015 the garden held the 4th annual Autumn Lights Festival. This event was a fundraiser to collect donations for redesigning the area and maintaining the landscape. In 2014, “nearly 3,000 adults and kids” attended the event and viewed the exhibits “crafted by dozens of local artists.” [13]

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Zenzele Olatunji, “The Gardens at Lake Merritt,” Street Stories: Oakland, accessed October 16, 2018,
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