Victoria (Tora) Rocha is the Park Supervisor for the City of Oakland’s Public Works Department. She oversees all of the Lake Merritt and Downtown districts’ public landscaping. This includes City Hall, the Libraries, Senior Centers, Parks, medians, but perhaps most importantly, The Gardens at Lake Merritt and Historical Morcom Rose garden.
Morcom is an 8 acre park with 4,000 roses. The Gardens at Lake Merritt is comprised of twelve different gardens within 7 acres. It was built by garden societies and clubs in the 1950s and it includes the second largest Bonsai collection in the nation. These are maintained by the Golden State Bonsai Federation and their volunteers. The Palmatum collection is a very impressive collection of outdoor high altitude palms from all over the world.
We talked with Tora about her approach to gardening, pollinator gardens, what inspires her, her favorite plants, and her tips for people who want to grow a pollinator-friendly garden.
Tell us about your garden and your approach to gardening.
Having spent 34 years as a gardener in public spaces, my approach has changed many times and has now come full circle to a more ecological approach. I pay close attention to how I am gardening and how it impacts local ecosystems.
My newest installations in the Gardens at Lake Merritt are three pollinator gardens: a native California pollinator garden, two not-so native pollinator gardens, and the Bee Hotel. I started a new organization called the Pollinator Posse, and the Gardens at Lake Merritt is the home of the Posse. Our mission is to “create pollinator habitat throughout the Urban Jungle.” The Gardens at Lake Merritt are pesticide and herbicide free. Due to all the recent budget cuts, the gardens are maintained mostly by volunteers. Our volunteers are so important to this garden; this is the real meaning of a community garden.
When did you first start to garden? What did you grow?
My grandparents on both sides of the family were avid gardeners; one side grew their own food and the others were lovers of flowers and tropical plants, so I was exposed to a broad variety of plant species early on. My first garden was a 1,000 square foot vegetable garden at our home in Hayward, California when I was five years old. We grew everything from seed and it was a flourishing garden. I remember being very proud of the corn and cucumbers we grew that first year.
Who or what inspires you in the garden?
For a long time I was so inspired by Patrick Blanc; to see a person mimic so accurately some of the most beautiful natural plant spaces in places so far from nature blew me away! His passion for his work is so incredible and keeps me moving forward.
At this moment in my career, what inspires me most in the garden is the pollinators. I never get tired of watching the bees rolling on their sides collecting pollen from a poppy, or watching the monarchs soaring around the milkweed plants chasing anything that flies through that might be a mate. Or having hummingbirds fly right up to your face because you’re a little too close to their nectaring spot.
What do you love to grow? What’s your favorite plant at the moment?
I love aloes, agaves, palms, and aroids, but habitat plants are my big push right now. About seventy percent of what I am planting right now are native habitat plants and the rest are usually South African or Australian long blooming nectar plants.
I have two favorite plants right now: Anisodontea (‘Tara’s Pink”) and Salvia Canariensis. Anisodontea is a South African plant in the Mallow family. It grows to be 6 feet tall by 5 feet wide and is covered with rosy pink little mallow flowers every day of the year. A nonstop bloomer, it provides pollen for bees in the winter when we get mild temperatures and the honey bees are still out and about. It is also the host plant for the Gray Hairstreak butterflies. Salvia Canariensis is a show stopper! The pollinators are crazy about the blooms and the garden patrons love the grey fuzzy leaves.
What books and/or blogs are you reading right now?
California Bees and Blooms by Gordon Frankie and Robin Thorp. It is a fantastic book and we all need to understand more about the plight of the native bees. I also love the new Garden Design Magazine (NO ads!) and Pacific Horticulture Magazine has always been a favorite of mine; it is my go-to morning read. I am just getting into the Garden Tribe scene and really enjoying it!
We know you’re an amazing landscaper, but what was your biggest gardening fail?
Trying to grow succulents in soil infested with wild onions! It has been a maintenance nightmare!
What are your tips and ideas for people wanting to grow a pollinator-friendly garden?
First and most importantly, do not use broad spectrum insecticides. Find out what local pollinators live in your region, than find out not only what they nectar on, but where or what they need to lay their eggs on. This is very important for the butterflies and solitary bees. Make sure there is a very shallow water source for them to drink from without drowning; this could be a trickling fountain or a shallow bowl filled with stones. Have fun and share your experiences with fellow gardeners! Blog about it, and join our Pollinator Posse Facebook page.
What are your favorite pollinator-friendly plants? Tell us in the comments below.
Victoria (Tora) Rocha has been landscaping for the City of Oakland Parks Services Department for 30 years. During her time with the City she has enjoyed rehabilitating two of the City’s public gardens. She is currently the Park Supervisor for all of Downtown and the Lake Merritt Districts, which includes the Gardens at Lake Merritt. Her newest passion is the non-profit she started called the Pollinator Posse of Oakland. The mission for the Posse is “Creating pollinator habitat throughout the Urban Jungle” through outreach and education on the plight of our local pollinators. She is teaching her staff, the park patrons, and volunteers that landscapers are stewards of the ecosystem, not outdoor custodians, and that gardening is a blend of science and art. Tora believes that sharing your passion with others can change a community.