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The OMCA Garden – Oakland’s Gathering Place

“The ease and delight with which the visitor can move from the study of art, cultural and natural history to the contemplation of nature itself, makes Oakland Museum one of the rare places of the world.” (Architectural Record, 1970)

Oakland’s Not-So Secret Garden

Since its construction in the late 60s, the OMCA Garden may be one of Oakland’s best kept secrets, but word is getting out about the serene space in the heart of Oakland. This summer, OMCA opened the new, public entrance on 12th Street near Lake Merritt to welcome visitors into the redesigned garden which is free to the public during Museum hours.

With the new public entrance, people are strolling in from the Lake to take a rest, stopping by for a lunch in nature, meeting friends and playgroups, and making plans to experience the live music during Friday Nights at OMCA with Off the Grid. With access to free wifi, people are even beginning to use the gardens as a place to WFH and take meetings outdoors in the lush green grass.

In other words, the OMCA Garden is the gathering place for Oakland.

Featuring the Bioregions of California

While the green grass surrounded by picnic tables on the lower level of the gardens is a lovely place to relax, there are actually four levels of gardens representing various diverse bioregions of California. Each level hosts different California plants and offers distinct ecological communities for insects, birds, and animals to thrive.

The Living Collections team at OMCA is working with East Bay Wilds, a local landscape contractor with extensive experience with California plants, to help make the gardens more beautiful, drought tolerant, and sustainable.

Here is what you need to know about each level

Lower Level from the new 12th Street entrance or from inside the Museum, and you’ll find lush California grasslands surrounded by  a cool, shady redwood grove. Peeking out in this landscape are two prominent sculptures – Two Red Lines and Mr. Ishi – which  sway in the native grass meadows. You’ll also find OMCA’s new outdoor stage in front of a deciduous alder and maple forest which brings natural seasonal variation as a backdrop to OMCA’s performances.

As you move up a level, you’ll find a California coast forest and oak woodland habitats, characterized by redbud, buckeye, and oak trees as well as manzanitas, buckwheats, flowering currants, and bunches of native grasses.

Mid Level – The habitat transitions into chaparral and scrub plant communities with low perennial sages, artemisias, and wildflowers. Look toward the lake to the high, narrow “catwalk” beds for a glimpse of tenacious coastal bluff plantings, similar to what you would see growing in sand and rocks overlooking a California beach.

Yet to be planted, the Upper Level will be home to unique plants from the remote and beautiful Channel Islands plant community, and transition into a drought-tolerant, low desert landscape. And finally, when Level 4 opens in the next year, it will feature mediterranean plants, well-adapted to thrive in the Bay Area climate.

A sustainable garden

Almost all of the plants in the gardens are native to California and therefore drought-tolerant.

An intention to create a sustainable garden has also been one of the driving forces behind the redesign. For example, there has been a complete restoration to the bioswale on the corner of 12th St and Lake Merritt Blvd with sedges planted surrounding a water catchment system designed to capture and treat stormwater runoff. The beds have been planted with new sedges and the beds surrounding the walkways of the entrance have been planted with various California plants.

More to discover in the OMCA Garden

With over seven acres of indoor and outdoor spaces to explore on OMCA’s campus, there are a few more favorite spots to check-out during your next visit.

The Koi Ponds
There are actually two adjacent Koi ponds on the first level between OMCA’s Level 1 garden and amphitheater. Both ponds are 32 inches deep, universally flat and rectangular, and each hosts about 50,000 gallons of water.

One of the ponds houses colorful koi fish, many of which are over 10 years old. Some of these fish may be up to 20 years old, but the team cannot say for certain since they have been breeding there for decades.

The pond further back hosts plants, fish, turtles (Western pond turtle and the Red Eared Slider), ducks, and birds, including several Night Herons, all native to California.

In addition, there are two five-foot sturgeons swimming in the latter pond. The sturgeon, along with many of these fish are good at hiding so they don’t get eaten in the wild or seen by museum-goers, but you can see many of these same species in the Gallery of California Natural Sciences.

The Vegetable Garden
Oakland is a particularly great place for growing produce, as the ample sunlight works wonders on a young garden. A few years ago, OMCA staffers noticed some empty areas on the third level where a vegetable garden could be planted.

The vegetable garden, now surrounding the new Town Fare sun deck, is an ongoing project to grow produce throughout the season. Museum staff are responsible for maintaining it and are also invited to interact with the vegetable garden in a way that provides positive, healthy, gardening knowledge and experiences, along with fresh produce to take home. It is also one of the many ways OMCA creates a community for the staff.

Check out what vegetables are growing in the OMCA Garden the next time you eat at Town Fare.

With all the thought and planning that has gone into OMCA’s outdoor renovations, we hope that you, along with people from all corners of our city will continue to come and enjoy all that these free, outdoor gardens have to share.