There’s a secret garden in the Berkeley Hills

High up in the Berkeley Hills lies Blake Garden, an oasis of blossoming lilies and burbling water that’s used for experimental research. Never heard of it? That wouldn’t be unusual, as it’s about the closest thing to a secret garden you’ll find in the Internet age.

Blake, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, is operated by the University of California system and is typically only open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. – rather inconvenient for working folks. On any given afternoon, you might see a mom and child picnicking under the trees, a local power-walking up the steep paths, a staff gardener and no one else. It’s worth carving out time to join this sparse crowd, though, as the garden and its architecture are beautifully designed and carry a fascinating history.

The Blakes were a well-to-do family that resided in Berkeley but got eminent-domained off the land in the 1920s to make way for Memorial Stadium. Avid horticulturalists, they persuaded the university to dig up their old garden and move it to their new home in Kensington, a remote plot with rocky outcrops and an eagle’s-nest view of the Bay. It wasn’t such a huge undertaking, only involving the physical transport of 34 cartloads of plants.

The redwood canyon at Blake Garden has 100-year-old trees that were brought in young from St. Helena.
The redwood canyon at Blake Garden has 100-year-old trees that were brought in young from St. Helena. (John Metcalfe/Bay Area News Group)

There the family tapped architect Walter Bliss – who contributed to the design of the present-day American Conservatory Theater and Southern Pacific Building in San Francisco – to site a manor that would block the ocean weather from their vegetation. Mabel Symmes, pioneering student of what now is UC Berkeley’s Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning, helped create a garden design that highlighted microclimates and the sharply changing topography. (There’s a main path that’s ADA-compliant, but many trails are narrow, winding and steep.)

The Blakes eventually deeded the property to the university, which in the 1960s took over the garden and a house that, at this point, needed some work. “The first thing they did was to make it a graduate women’s dormitory. That just didn’t work out,” says garden manager Meghan Ray. “It was too far from campus and pretty run down and scary at night. I think the first year, they had 10 to 12 women sign up, and the next year they had zero.”

The university then decided to make it into the official residence for presidents of the University of California system. The first one moved in during the 1960s and for years, the space was used for parties and functions. “Then they did a seismic safety inspection and discovered serious issues, as you would maybe expect in a 1922 house that is built on the Hayward Fault in an historic landslide area with lots of underground springs,” says Ray. The property went vacant in 2008, and remains in search of funds to retrofit it for a new use.

The deceptive mirror bridge leads to a wall protecting the Carmelite Monastery next door.
The deceptive mirror bridge leads to a wall protecting the Carmelite Monastery next door. (John Metcalfe/Bay Area News Group)

But there’s still the 10.5-acre garden for the public to enjoy. Spring is a popular time, with its explosion of magnolias and a cottage-style garden with poppies and sweet peas and fox gloves. In the early summer one might catch the last of the roses and shaded dells with tangerine and lavender-hued lilies. There’s an enchanting redwood canyon that the Blakes grew from young trees brought in from St. Helena in Napa County. Flitting everywhere are monarch butterflies – they feed on the local milkweed and have their own “Caterpillar City” marked with a sign, “Squirming in Progress.”

A formal garden inspired by Italian villas graces the front of the shuttered house, with a reflecting pool stocked with drifting koi. A daylighted tributary of Cerrito Creek adds to the water features. For children, there’s an oversized chess set and a “nature zone” to build primitive structures from branches and leaves.

“There are also a couple of tunnels that kids like a lot – you can run through a blackberry tunnel,” says Ray. “I can tell I’m not a kid because they’re like, ‘Can we go again?’ And I’m like, ‘Sure, go! I’ll wait here.’”

One of the garden’s hidden treasures is located on a stone bridge leading directly into a wall, beyond which is a Carmelite Monastery. “Carmelite sisters are cloistered in silence, so they needed a completely walled space,” explains Ray. (Google review of the monastery: “Feels like Middle Ages! Amazing!”)

“My coworker thought, ‘That’s funny. It’s one of our most beautiful architectural features and it’s a bridge into a wall?’ So he put in a big mirror,” Ray says. “People are like, ‘There’s a hole in the fence!’ But then they get over and see it’s not. Dogs are very funny – they get excited – and little kids.”

One of Blake Garden's many carefully manicured spaces.
One of Blake Garden’s many carefully manicured spaces. (John Metcalfe/Bay Area News Group)