A Mid-Winter Holiday Walk in the Woods: Dunsmuir Botanical Garden

“Always free, always beautiful.” That’s what Candace Miller and Judy Harvey said of the Dunsmuir Botanical Gardens as they toured me around recently. Judy, married to a former Dunsmuir City Manager, is the Chairman of the Board of Directors and Candace the lead horticulturalist for the non-profit, 10-acre wooded gardens which are tucked behind the Dunsmuir City Park along the banks of the Sacramento River. Photo: Dogwood leaves in festive fall color.

Chances are, you either did not know there was a small gem of a public garden in Dunsmuir, or, like me, you had driven at 65 miles an hour (ok, ok maybe 72 miles an hour) past the billboard-sized sign visible from I-5 going north through Dunsmuir, which reads: Dunsmuir Botanical Gardens, and which is ornamented with a painting of dogwood blossoms. Really? I would say to myself each time I drove by. But eventually my curiosity as a gardener got the better of me and I stopped to take a peek. Photo: The long view across the Great Lawn at the Dunsmuir Botanical Gardens.


I have now visited the gardens several times in several seasons and this little pocket garden of meandering walks through soaring northern woods is well worth the stop – for a half an hour reprieve or a two hour mid-winter holiday ramble through the woods and along the river. This time of year, you can hike down from where the road is closed off for snow or you might take your snow shoes. “Snow shoeing down into the garden in winter is magical,” Candace told me once, and the thought of it continues to entice me. The atmosphere of the Dunsmuir Botanical Gardens ranges from tranquility pooling in the central open meadow-like great lawn, to dramatic grandeur as you make your way around the interesting if small collections of plantings. Photo: Signature rock work stairs welcoming visitors to the Dunsmuir Botanical Gardens.

Officially started in 1990, with the first of what have become annual fundraising concerts held in the gardens by the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra each June, the DBG turned 20 in 2010. Judy has been involved for over 16 years, she helped to write the 501c-3 in 2001 and has been on the 11-member BOD since 2006. On the BOD since 2006, Candace is a Dunsmuir native who took her BS in Horticulture from Chico State and then spent many years in the commercial greenhouse world. A ceramic artist as well, she returned to her hometown in 2005 and quickly became involved in the DBG. She has helped to grow the gardens along a more clearly defined path: “Started with the idea of community revitalization, the gardens had developed as several small collections of not necessarily related garden plants and plantings. I asked the board: ‘What do you want to be?'” Photo: Lead Horticulturist, Candace Miller at the Dunsmuir Botanical Gardens.

With Candace’s purposeful and artful eye, and Judy’s administrative one, a 2003 Master Plan for the gardens has evolved and much of the gardens and gardeners’ work now is aimed at honing the fledgling of a botanical garden’s collections to focus on interesting woodland native plants, including their signature dogwood collection. Others of the gardens’ strengths include a well-known Japanese maple collection, as well as fern, rhododendron and hosta collections. Photo: Japanese maple in full fall color.

In the past few years, Candace – who was named Citizen of the Year for Dunsmuir in 2010 -has successfully applied for several grants to keep the gardens growing and directed. “The gardens are on a sloping heavily wooded site – and getting enough sun is always a problem,” she tells me and one of the big grants went to removing unwanted trees and overgrown shrubs that were crowding and shading out smaller plants or collections. Candace has also diligently forged symbiotic relationships with regional native plant people including Forest Service botanists from nearby Mt. Shasta and Mt. Eddy, the local fire council and resource conservation district and more. Candace trades growing information and actual plants with these resources. Improving signage for individual plants as well as the gardens as a whole, and cataloguing the collections is also being worked on, and Candace has even started an herbarium catalogue of the gardens and the site for educational and reference use in the future. A demonstration, teaching garden is being dreamed of for the future. Photo: The Dunsmuir Botanical Gardens are rightly proud of their growing native plant collections with some choice specimens of native woodland plants such as the wild ginger and the creeping variegated ceanothus seen here. Other plants to look for when you visit are the penstemons, the rattlesnake plantain and the two Shasta Snowwreaths once thought to be extinct.


The cool, shady nature of the site affords interesting opportunities as well as challenges. One of these opportunities is growing unusual plants that might enjoy the cool shade – specifically alpine plants that many other regional display gardens might be too hot and sunny to grow well at their lower elevations. With this in mind, the DBG applied for and received a grant to install a crevice rock garden at the sunny end of the great lawn. Over the course of 2009/2010 the grant paid for internationally renowned alpine rock garden expert Josef Halda from the Czech republic to come to the North State to design and install the garden, which will be planted in spring 2011. Look forward to an article on this as work gets underway. Photo: View across the mounded scoria rocks of the Crevice Rock Garden at the Dunsmuir Botanical Gardens.

One of the things that I enjoy about the DBG is its easy combination of natural environment and gardens. Is it a park? Is it a garden? Is it a nature walk? It’s all three.

Another aspect I enjoy about the DBG are the formal elements that thread their way around the gardens, from the Alexander Dunsmuir fountain as you near the entrance to the gardens, to small benches and local-rockwork walls and hardscape throughout. Many of these elements have been donated over time and are testament to the success of the “revitalization” project that was at the heart of the founding the gardens 20 years ago.

“It’s fun and often touching to see how many people use the gardens and site each year, as well as how they use it,” Candace and Judy share with me. “Anglers on the river use the great lawn for casting practice, highschool groups come to volunteer time and labor, and we have one elder couple who come for a picnic lunch nearly every Thursday – early spring to late fall. It is truly a public garden.”

And no matter where you live or where you might be traveling to or from, a walk in the woods – or park or garden – is a welcome gift this time of year.

The Dunsmuir Botanical Gardens are supported by sustaining memberships, annual fundraising and educational events, donations and grants. For more information visit: http://www.dunsmuirbotanicalgardens.org/index.html

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Jennifer Jewell
In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.
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2 Responses

  1. Thanks for sharing this hidden gem. I'll definitely have to stop next time I'm passing through.

  2. I delight in, lead to I found exactly what I was looking for. You have ended my 4 day lengthy hunt! God Bless you man. Have a great day. Bye