A Beautiful Oasis at Bravo Lake Botanical Gardens in Woodlake
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Taste & SeeSeptember 2015
Story and Photos by Jen May Pastores
Think of a tiny seed and the common splendor that happens at first sprout. It’s radicle, as in the start of a root emerging down into the ground. But it’s also radical, in that when you meet the needs of a seed, great things can grow and wonderful things can happen. Who knows this best? Woodlake native Manuel Jimenez and his wife, Olga Jimenez, two visionaries dedicated to planting seeds for tomorrow.
“Taste these,” says Manuel, as he hands a visitor freshly picked sun gold tomatoes off the vine. Like a proud host, Manuel continues to find things for the guest to savor – figs, plums, bananas – his way of bringing others in to fully experience what the garden can offer. Surrounding him are trees, plants, vegetables and flowers that make up the Bravo Lake Botanical Garden in Woodlake, a public oasis cared for by the Jimenezes. The 13-acre garden welcomes visitors to explore and yes, even taste, the generous varieties found at every turn. “Everything that we have in the garden has a really good flavor. We have orchards...over 100 varieties of citrus, 70 varieties of grapes and close to 200 varieties of stone fruit like peaches, plums and nectarines. We try to grow a little bit of everything.”
With so much ground to keep up, the two are not alone. With the help of volunteers from Woodlake Pride, a nonprofit that the Jimenezes began in 1972, they teach youth the joy of community service. Before the botanical garden took its roots, it was a lonesome fragment of land once used by the Visalia Electric Railroad. With their track record of beautifying the town with Woodlake Pride, the Jimenezes approached the city of Woodlake for permission to create something new, seeing the bareness as an opportunity. “The city bought the property and told us we could go for it. It all came into fruition. We’ve been there for 11 years since building the first agriculture botanical garden in California,” says Manuel.
Standing in small parts of the garden are a couple of replicas of homes, such as the Farmer’s House display, built to showcase what it was like for farmers long ago. “Back in the day, when the orange season was not as long as it is nowadays, people would pack up and leave this little town. Woodlake would become like a ghost town. Everybody took off to go pick cherries in Hollister, apricots in the Napa area, and just follow the crops. Wherever it was that they arrived they would make a little home,” says Olga. “This happens to be grape boxes,” as she points to the framing of a small shelter she’s standing in. “This gives you an idea of how little walls were made up of. No electrics. No running water. Just the essentials.” Other artifacts such as old bed frames and boxes from the old Woodlake ranch are saved for special fundraising events to help create a visual of the past so guests can appreciate the history of local agricultural roots.
“These days, people find themselves really busy. They’re always doing something, and it’s hard giving up your valuable time. When we get kids to come out, their time is really precious. When they come, they work hard. It’s a lot of work. Huh, boys?” Manuel asks the group of volunteer teenagers who are tending to the garden. Stretched across the back of their shirts are the words, “Planting seeds for tomorrow.”
“The main mission is to get kids to learn, to work, to socialize and learn about community service. This is for all of our good. We want to teach people that if they want nice things for themselves, all they have to do is come out as a group. As a group, it’s not that hard to do a project,” says Manuel. Groups like Roots & Shoots, an ecology club at Woodlake High School, visit throughout the school year to contribute labor and love into the gardens.
“When we first started the garden project, people like Everett Crackoff would donate resources or money to make sure that our projects went forward. He was a farmer and also helped start some of the anti-poverty agencies in the late ‘60s. He was a good guy. In fact, we have a garden dedicated to him on the far end. And nurseries have been really kind to us. When you look at all the trees that we have here – we paid for almost none of them – they’ve been donated by a nursery,” says Manuel.
About a mile into the gardens is a grassy area with tall trees providing shade above benches that guests may rest on. The Jimenezes take a break and tilt their faces into the welcoming breezes that come their way. As an old Chinese proverb goes, “If you want one year of prosperity, grow grain. If you want 10 years of prosperity, grow trees. If you want 100 years of prosperity, grow people.” For Manuel and Olga Jimenez and the Woodlake Pride youth and volunteers, the gardens represents a place where people can partake in the reward of nature sowed out of attentive love and care.
Bravo Lake Botanical Gardens • 400 E. Naranjo Blvd., Woodlake
(559) 280-2483 • Open daily, 8am to noon, free admission