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Woodlake gardens flourish with aid of volunteers

Woodlake gardens flourish with aid of volunteers

Group of gardening organizations bring Woodlake’s vibrant rose garden back to life, worry about who will take care of it after they’re gone

By Nancy Vigran
Reporter for the Sun-Gazette

WOODLAKE—The Woodlake Rose Garden lost some of its luster last year. This year, however, the gardens are blooming brightly again.

Originator of the gardens was the same man who developed the neighboring Botanical Garden through the Woodlake Pride foundation which he also created, Manuel Jimenez. Jimenez is a retired UC extension small farms advisor, concept was simple—“to get kids off the television and off the streets” while beautifying parts of the City.

It evolved from the City looking for help developing a 14-acre barren parcel of land between Naranjo Blvd. and Bravo Lake. The land, which the City had purchased, was previously owned by the Visalia Electric Railroad. Jimenez along with his wife, Olga, and some Woodlake Pride youth had already been working on small projects around the City and they were a natural fit for this, too. The project began to take shape after the turn of the century.

A variety of plantings were plotted through donations by a variety of nurseries and local service clubs. The Botanical Garden is quite diverse and incudes plants which evoke all of the senses from the obvious sight and smell, to taste with an assortment of edible vegetables and fruits, to hearing the sounds of nature and wildlife.

But, a few years back, the Jimenez’s decided to take a step back from the gardens asking the City to step in and care for them. This along with the drought, was hard on the plants and trees. No other volunteers were found to take on the project. Some of the land became fallow and weeds became a problem.

City staff applied Round-Up, which was hard on the roses, said Chuck House, a member of the Kiwanis Club of Woodlake, who had a particular interest in the gardens. Many of the bushes died, and still others needed nursing to get back to good health.

House had grown up working at Monrovia Nursery during his high school days in his hometown of La Habra. As a young man, he managed a Colorado nursery before he began his life of work in the field of education. Now retired and having moved to the Woodlake area with his wife, Jenny, some six years ago, he discovered the gardens and more recently saw they needed extra help. He asked fellow Kiwanians to step up to the plate, and he formulated a plan to divide up the work involved in caring for the rose garden.

The Rose Garden is now divided into nine partner-plots. The garden is not, however, entirely roses. Woodlake Pride cares for a section referred to as the Everett Krackov Cactus Garden dedicated to the late Krackov who was recognized as a humanitarian, farmer, gardener, and friend by the Woodlake Pride Board of Directors 11 years ago.

Kiwanians care for one plot, and five more partners have committed to the upkeep of specific plots including Woodlake Rotary, Sequoia Riverlands Trust, the Homegrown Project, Tulare-Kings Master Gardeners, and Green Dragon Graphics. One more unofficial group of caretakers involves members of Woodlake’s homeless community. A gentleman named Dane puts a lot of time in and suggests that members of his community should each offer up a minimum of two hours per week.

There are other partners as well, the City, and the Wutchumna Water Company who owns Bravo Lake and allows plantings on part of the lake’s berm. Still others are the nurseries who have generously donated roses and other plants to both gardens including the local division of Monrovia Nursery.

Roses, as it turns out, are big in this part of the state.

The majority of hybridized rose winners in the past 50 years were developed and grown within 50-or-so miles of Woodlake, House said. These include hybridizers and growers such as Star Roses in Dinuba, Weeks Roses in Wasco, and the late Ralph Moore’s Miniature Roses in Visalia. Mann in particular has been a big proponent of Woodlake Pride and the gardens.

Over the past 15 years, Mann has donated more than 600 rose bushes of nearly 200 varieties, according to Jimenez. Recently, he donated a selection of plantings to Woodlake Pride for use in the Botanical Gardens. Woodlake Pride intends to honor Mann for his generosity with a dedication ceremony and plaque toward the end of May, Jimenez said. 

“He’s also retiring this year and giving up ownership of the Star Roses,” Jimenez added.

Bill Mansel, Master Gardener Laura Mansel, Marsha Ingrao, and Chuck House are just some of the volunteer gardeners who care for the three acres that comprise the Woodlake Rose Garden. Recently House has sought out various service clubs and groups such as the Tulare & Kings Master Gardeners program to partner and care for different plots within the gardens. Photo by Nancy Vigran.

Bill Mansel, Master Gardener Laura Mansel, Marsha Ingrao, and Chuck House are just some of the volunteer gardeners who care for the three acres that comprise the Woodlake Rose Garden. Recently House has sought out various service clubs and groups such as the Tulare & Kings Master Gardeners program to partner and care for different plots within the gardens. Photo by Nancy Vigran.

Speaking of retirement that is a concern that Jimenez, House, and others share. Many of those involved in caring for the gardens are retirees and advancing in years. The question of who will continue the legacy of Woodlake’s Botanical and Rose Gardens is concerning, Jimenez said.

But there is some fresh blood. Master Gardener Laura Mansel was the instigator for getting the Tulare-Kings UC Master Gardeners involved in one of the plots consisting of 1/3 of an acre. She and her husband, Bill, are Woodlake residents, who are also retired. Mansel graduated from the UC Master Gardener program last year. She coordinates volunteers for the Woodlake Rose Garden. And, she recognizes the work the Jimenez’s have put in over the years and is honored to be helping out.

“Manuel and Olga—this is their work of art,” she said. “We’re just trying to bring it back, to get it back into shape,” she said.

Mansel admitted to being somewhat a novice to roses, or at least to their identification. At the beginning of the year, some of her fellow Master Gardeners offered a workshop on pruning and other rose care to volunteers for the garden. As the weather starts to heat up, most work through the summer consists of weeding and dead-heading, or removing the wilting blossoms.

“I have a new understanding and a big appreciation for roses, and those who care for them,” Mansel said.

Marsha Ingrao, a member of the Kiwanis of Woodlake agrees.

“What Manuel and Olga have is the creative talent to see the potential beauty in a piece of land,” she said. “Currently they work daily to plan, create and maintain the Botanical section of the 14-acre gardens. What they don’t have, none of us have, are unlimited lifespans. Others must step up and come along beside the creators and the City, and ‘own the gardens,’ to take pride of ownership into the future.

“The entire piece of land along the foot of the Bravo Lake levee has the potential of being one of the biggest draws in the County, other than the National Parks. I think we all see that and we want to be part of the legacy we can build here in Woodlake. We all need to work at this, cooperatively, to make it work out.”

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