Ashlee Arteaga squats down near the pale pink blooms. I’m cutting all the roses that are already dead,” she says. The 11-year-old navigates her clippers swiftly along the thorny stems. “I’ve done this a lot of times,” she adds with a bit of authority in her voice.
There are 4000 rose bushes, and 250 varieties, to care for here at the Bravo Lake Botanical Garden. That’s not to mention zinnias, wisteria, hibiscus, sunflowers, lavender and ornamental peppers: one called Medusa starts out yellow, then turns orange, then red.
“I think it’s really beautiful here,” she says. “I think this is the best garden I’ve ever seen.”
Hundreds, likely thousands of kids have volunteered here in the summer and on weekends. High school students earn community service hours for their work but often that’s just the catalyst for more involvement. Plenty of adults chip in too. And then there’s Ashlee. She’s been working in the dirt since first grade.
Without the garden, she says, her life would be boring. “And I’d rather be outside than staying inside doing nothing,” she says.
And that’s the point, right there. It’s why two life-long Woodlake residents, Olga and Manuel Jimenez started the garden 16 years. Ago. It’s named for the lake next to it. Taking care of the garden builds character, Manuel says. And strong work skills, and relationships.
“Kids grow up in clicks and groups and so they don’t get to meet other kids,” he says. “Here, that’s one thing that happens, kids that are quiet or kids that are left behind, often they find friends here.”
Their grassroots organization, Woodlake Pride, has planted gardens all over town since the ‘80s. But the botanical garden? It’s huge. Olga says to have this kind of passion, you have to be a little bit on the obsessive side.
“Manuel and I go to bed thinking ‘where are we working at tomorrow morning in the garden?’ It’s one mile. You can go east, you can go west, you can start in the middle,” she says.
It sits between a lake and a road on land the city bought with a rails to trails grant, so it’s far longer than it is wide. Manuel’s retired now but he designed it when he was still a UC small farm advisor. He’s planted fruit trees one would expect for the Valley climate like peaches, plums, nectarines and apricots. But drawing on his background with speciality crops, he’s always experimenting.
“Over the years, we did some work on tropicals, so we decided to plant them in the garden,” he says.
“This is lemon guava and we also have strawberry guava. Here we have ripe papayas,” he says, standing under the hoop house he built to grow tropical plants. A hoop house is like a greenhouse but heated by the sun. “We have several varieties of mango, more varieties of papaya. That’s a Malabar chestnut.”
The garden’s meant to teach, and even taste. Visitors are free to pluck a peach or an orange as they walk along the garden path; kids are especially welcome. “When children see, smell and taste things, they don’t forget,” Manuel says.
And there’s a bit of ag history here too. Both Manuel and Olga grew up in large farmworker families. “He comes from a family of 14 and I come from a family of 14,” Olga says.
As children, they followed the harvest every summer with their siblings and parents. That’s why the handmade water features here are a nod to labor. Water flows over artifacts like inverted discs used to till soil, antique picking buckets or tools that represent what grows here.
Manuel points out the grape, orange and lemon clippers that are welded to a fountain. “One thing we want to do is give credit to the many small people who have made ag happen over time. Farmers and farm workers,” he says.
Emmanuel Cenedejas, 15, has the task of turning on the water pumps in the morning. That, and lots of other work. He provides a rundown: “We’ve been raking, we’ve been trimming trees, we’ve been mowing lawn, we’ve been weed whacking, we’ve been setting up generators for the fountain so it flows.”
The garden’s taught him patience, he says. The high school student even tries to apply that trait to his studies. “You can’t always rush everything, you have to take time,” he says. “You have to ask questions about certain things in order to learn it.”
Olga considers Emmanuel the “energized bunny” of the group, she says. She’s at Bravo Lake nearly every day, so she gets to know the kids well. There’s such a bounty of produce here, she even helps them run a fruit stand to raise money for the garden.
“I come and I make sure that the children keep their table clean and their language and that they greet the customers and say thank you,” she says.
Olga and Manuel are both 69. Their civic work didn’t start with gardens. It goes way back to 1972, at the height of the farm worker movement and on the heels of the Delano grape strike. They were young college students who wanted to improve their town and empower young people. So they enlisted some high school kids.
“And we painted this big beautiful mural in the barrio which used to be a bar,” Manuel says.
A bar in the neighborhood, covered in graffiti and swear words. As the mural went up, the design came into focus: it was a collage that included a United Farm Workers flag and the large face of a farm worker bearing a resemblance to Cesar Chavez. The then all-white city council disapproved. Cops were sent to stop the painters from completing the mural. They even delivered a cease and desist letter.
“If you think about the late ‘60s, early ‘70s we were pretty rebellious,” Manuel says with a laugh. “There’s no way you were gonna force us to do that.”
Manuel and Olga got help from California Rural Legal Assistance. At the next council meeting, the matter was dropped; the mural stayed.
That was almost 50 years ago but even today, they sometimes clash with the city. They tried for years to get the city council to include Bravo Lake Botanical Garden in the budget. The city does pay for things like utilities and some maintenance. But running a garden is expensive, Manuel says. And the city benefits. It’s even a tourism draw.
“I just felt all these kids work in the gardens and worked in the community to make this place special and they couldn’t even throw a bone at us,” he says.
Which is why two years ago the couple actually quit the garden. Let the city take care of it, they said. But the departure didn’t last long. It was excruciating. Too many plants died. The city didn’t have a volunteer brigade.
And this year, the couple finally got the news they’d wanted. City manager Ramon Lara says a recent local sales tax measure means Bravo Lake is finally on the budget: $25,000 for the year 2020.
Since its beginnings, the garden has survived on generous donations, material and monetary. There’s even an annual dinner fundraiser on the garden’s lawn. On this fall evening, a Peruvian band entertains the crowd as the sun drops in the sky. Tiki torches cast light on the enclosing banana trees, whose fruits hang above glossy red flowers.
Gigi Harris, is one of a hundred or so people sitting around tables with candles. She says she drove by this place for years, afraid to stop. From the road, it didn’t look like much.
“And I thought I don’t know what’s in there. I’m not going to take a chance going in there by myself,” she says laughing. She finally did stop and it was the best thing to happen, that and meeting Manuel and Olga.
“They’re so interesting and their outlook on life is just…you can come here feeling depressed and you’re not depressed anymore,” she says.
Walter Martinez, 32, is here with his family. He started volunteering with Olga and Manuel when he was 12, turning soil and planting seeds in smaller gardens in the town. Then for years, he helped the botanical garden blossom from a once bare stretch of land.
“It taught me everything from the ground up for agriculture,” he says. “And it kept me out of trouble.”
He’s now an ag tech with Tulare County. And he has two little boys. Until they’re old enough to volunteer at Bravo Lake, he’s given them their own little plot to garden at home.
“I let them plant everything from scratch and I let them water so they have the experience,” he says. “And they love it.”
It’s just what Olga and Manuel try to teach: a work ethic and a love of gardening. Manuel remembers the time a farmer named Everett Krakoff donated 60 truckloads of wood mulch. The only way to spread it throughout the garden was by using wheelbarrows. For months, through heat and then rain, kids spent hours shoveling and carting, shoveling and carting.
“Some of the kids would ask, ‘well, when are we going to finish?’ Manuel says. “And we’d tell them ‘look, this is just one phase of the gardens. It’s never gonna finish. You have to enjoy the moment.’”
Enjoy the moment. Just another lesson from Manuel and Olga Jimenez.