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How can we get Sacramento growing? A local nonprofit has an interesting plan

Should Sacramento build a botanical garden?

Bruce Ritter and Linda Ching, co-founders of the Sacramento Botanical Garden, talk about their passion project, Thursday, March 21, 2019 and how Sacramento should build a botanical garden.
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Bruce Ritter and Linda Ching, co-founders of the Sacramento Botanical Garden, talk about their passion project, Thursday, March 21, 2019 and how Sacramento should build a botanical garden.

Bruce Ritter loves to push the limits of what he can grow in Sacramento.

Take his backyard, for example. Orchids and staghorn ferns grow from where they hang in the trees. There are a variety of cycads, including the less-ubiquitous giant dioon and Mexican horncone, as well as several species of palms, including palmettos, broadleaf lady palm, dwarf sugar palm and Bolivian mountain coconut.

Ritter has focused on creating a canopy of hardy trees to trap heat and protect the cold-tolerant plants below, mimicking the layering in tropical gardens. Like most gardeners, he is constantly experimenting and redesigning – lately, he has been growing Australian proteas and leucospermums.

Ritter has created a paradise in his backyard. Now he has set his sights on creating another paradise. This one is much larger in scope: 50 acres, which would establish The Sacramento Botanical Garden. His longtime partner, Linda Ching, and a few others who are passionate about plants have joined the effort, founding a nonprofit to get the project going.

One of the reasons Ritter created his own mini botanical garden, he said, is to show others what can be grown in the Sacramento region. His mission is the same with The Sacramento Botanical Garden.

“I sense a desire for a local destination for gardeners to go to where they can be inspired and awed by the possibilities of what they can do in their own backyards,” Ritter said. “I want people to visit our city and be impressed with what they see. Maybe even for them to think, ‘I wish I lived here!’”

A draw for visitors and locals

More than 300 million people visit botanic gardens around the world each year, according to a 2015 paper published in the international journal Biodiversity and Conservation.

A botanic garden doesn’t just play a key role in plant conservation and education – studies have shown they can positively influence environmental attitudes and mental health – but can attract tourists and contribute to the economic vitality of its region.

Ritter has drawn inspiration from his travels across the globe, visiting world-class botanical gardens in Hawaii, Europe, New Zealand and Fiji. He envisions a garden for Sacramento that will be “on par with the best in the world.”

The Sacramento Botanical Garden will feature formal gardens that offer a lush display across four seasons: flowering spring bulbs, summer and fall annuals and even winter gardens. Drought-tolerant and native gardens will be a component as well.

Major elements include a solar-powered conservatory with tropical plants; water gardens featuring the Victoria amazonica, a giant water lily with 4-foot long leaves; a Chinese garden; a butterfly house; a pollinator garden, and an “idea garden,” which would show Sacramento-area gardeners how to enrich their home gardens with ornamental and edible plants.

If the nonprofit’s vision is realized, The Sacramento Botanical Garden won’t just feature plant life: it’ll include a venue for outdoor weddings, events and entertainment, a gift shop and a farm-to-fork restaurant that incorporates some of the garden’s vegetables and edible plants, “so people can literally see what they’re going to be eating for lunch growing on the vine.”

Ritter sees this project differently from the arboretum and gardens at Sacramento State and UC Davis because it is designed primarily as an ornamental garden, rather than scientific, with exhibits that cannot be found elsewhere in the region, such as its water gardens and mass seasonal plantings of decorative plants.

The Sacramento Botanical Garden has some significant hurdles to clear, and they are what most might expect with any new nonprofit: location and funding. The founders anticipate it’ll take $25 million to develop the property and establish the garden. Their fundraising campaign just started. In the meantime, Ritter and Ching have been persistently reaching out to local officials, determined to find a piece of property to make their dream a reality. They have a few ideas in mind but nothing that has solidified.

City councilman’s support

Sacramento Councilman Jeff Harris is a natural supporter of the project – he has a degree in plant pathology from UC Davis, where he worked in the UC Davis Arboretum as an undergrad, collecting, cleaning, labeling, and storing plant seeds. Harris noted that botanical gardens aren’t just for plant enthusiasts. They can be regional focal points for cities, he said, adding to the “total package of what makes a city great.

“A botanical garden is an exposure of diversity of plant life from all over the world,” he said. “It’s an educational opportunity to connect people with the natural world and [help them] see things they’d never see unless they are world travelers.”

He added: “When you add it to the portfolio of what makes us attractive, it [would be] a very significant contributor.”

For Harris, the biggest hurdle for the project is the location. “I totally support the idea,” he said. “Now we need a place and we need [financial] resources.”

Pursuing privately held, undeveloped land is the simplest way to go, he said, though land is at a premium because of the statewide housing crisis, so it is not necessarily easy to acquire. Harris said he would be interested in a public-private partnership if the city could find “the right spot.”

Daniel Pfarr, the plant collections manager at Sacramento State, is familiar with the project because he and Ritter are members of the Sacramento Orchid Society. Rather than seeing the botanical garden as a competitor to Sacramento State, Pfarr sees their relationship as symbiotic.

“Greater awareness would definitely help both of us,” he said. “I think it just needs to be part of the public’s radar, it’s not something that’s 20 years [out] and this unimaginable budget. … Sacramento as an enclave is amazing for the plant societies that are here. If you pick each of those and represented them, I don’t have a huge doubt that it could be funded or well-attended.”

Pfarr added that long-term funding and patronage is crucial. Sacramento State’s arboretum has struggled, he said. It isn’t uncommon that the cost of plant additions and maintenance come from the pockets of the staff managing the arboretum and greenhouse.

Ritter doesn’t want to wait to see his project come to fruition, however. In fact, he sees an urgency in what they’ve set out to do. He doesn’t want Sacramento to end up being “a city that’s two hours away from everywhere” because it built thousands of homes without prioritizing its green spaces.

For him, it all comes down to wanting Sacramento to have what so many others have: “a beautiful destination to spend some time admiring amazing gardens and plants, getting ideas, having a nice lunch in a magnificent setting, and then maybe taking home something special for my own garden.”

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