A hummingbird is hovering above the fuchsia trumpet of a penstemon, shade and sunlight dapple the ground beneath a winding willow maze, and clumps of columbine and yarrow adorn trails that lead to secret places. This is the Santa Ynez Valley Botanic Garden, a hidden gem and labor of love located ― unexpectedly ― in Buellton. I cannot believe I’ve missed it until now.
“There’s not a day that I come here and don’t find a little miracle,” muses landscape designer Eva Powers, who is on the board of trustees for the SYV Botanic Garden Foundation, and one of the dedicated volunteers, along with Puck Erickson Lohnas, Steve Schulz, and others, who envisioned this place fifteen years ago and worked to make it real. When the adjacent River View Park was developed, a requirement was put in place to set aside 2.5 acres as habitat for the endangered Western Willow Fly Catcher, and so it was, but more exuberant ideas took root in the collective imagination of the locals. What had once been a wasteland of cement, construction debris, and gravel was gradually transformed into a living replica of the natural landscapes of the Valley.
Eva leads me along hand-cut trails through the plant zones of Figueroa Mountain, the Gaviota Coast, the Channel Islands, and a Santa Ynez River rain garden. There are healthy stands of sycamore, alder, pine, and oak trees in once-barren places. Native grassland thrives, butterflies flutter, and slopes are soft with buckwheat.
There are human-made surprises also: Chumash-inspired stone carvings by artist Lon Etzel, colorful mosaic animal images by visiting school kids, and a dome-shaped Chumash hut constructed of bundled tule reeds attached to a willow branch framework––a project led by volunteer Julio Carrillo III. Nearby, the branches of a wishing tree are hung with poignant messages handwritten on brown paper slips that will eventually be mulched, true to the cyclical nature of things, to help fertilize the wishing tree: I wish my grandpa would get better. I wish for a sleepover for my birthday. I wish Covid will go away.
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“The pandemic has actually led more people to the garden,” Eva tells me. “It’s an outdoor place to go, a refuge. People can help with activities and maintenance, or just quietly be here and reconnect with nature. Maybe sometimes we forget how important that is.”
Indeed, the garden provides a kind of sustenance, and I feel replenished just knowing it is here, a sanctuary for plants, wildlife, and humans. Behind the gas stations, stores, and Highway 246, nature is trying to continue, mountains loom like munificent elders, and wonders abound. The miracle within the miracle, however, is the dedicated community that birthed and tends it.
“Good people find each other and make good things happen,” observes Kyle Abello, the City Liaison to the Garden. “This is a beautiful example of a public-private partnership and the collaborative effort of neighbors.”
The Foundation is grateful for a recent grant from the City of Buellton, but local contributions of materials, building supplies, and expertise have been crucial, and it continues to run primarily on donations and the hard work of volunteers. This has allowed it to be a relatively unstructured, welcoming, admission-free destination, and a creative venue for environmental education, native plant propagation, arts and crafts, and peaceful reflection. It’s organic, as it should be, a work still in process.
I stand still for a moment before traversing the wooden bridge that leads back to the park and playground area. As I walk to my car, I hear the shouts of children playing in the distance, an elderly couple in wide-brimmed hats strolls along hand-in-hand, and a trellis of wisteria casts a crisscross of shade upon a picnic table. I feel giddy, and I don’t know why, until it dawns on me that I have just glimpsed the very things that I believe will save us: community collaboration, and the precious natural world.
The enchanted garden remains a hidden gem until directional signs are installed, but the physical address is 151 Sycamore Drive in Buellton, at the West end of River View Park, just two turns off Highway 246. Come. Be inspired, learn, reflect and feel hopeful. Donate if you wish.