Retired teacher Juana Mueller doubted whether a 1-acre swath of land in the shadow of the Central Library could be restored when a fellow volunteer with the Huntington Beach Tree Society suggested they take on the project in 2014. Passion vines snaked over practically every exposed surface, and overgrown pride of Madeira shrubs made it impossible to even find the path winding through it.
“You see that big huge opening, right here?” she said pointing to a 15-foot gap between chain link fencing leading from the garden to the bank of Talbert Lake. “We had no idea it was here. We started clearing and clearing and clearing and this thing opened up.”
A cracked walkway in what eventually became known as the “Secret Garden” was torn out, Tree Society volunteer and retired aerospace project manager Steve Engel said. Chunks of it were recycled into concrete tiles separating a gravel path from the alder, live oak, cherry blossoms and other plants being preserved by the nonprofit.
Volunteering in the garden gives Betty Reinertson, also a retired teacher, a chance to get out and appreciate nature without having to leave town. And seeing people who stumble upon it stroll along the path while she’s pulling weeds always puts a smile on her face.
She and the rest of the Tree Society believe having green spaces like the Secret Garden for the community to enjoy is priceless. However, Mueller estimated it would cost around $50,000 a year in supplies and labor if paid hands were taking care of it.
“We could just go, with our hat in our hands, to the city and say ‘Hey we need all this stuff,’” Engel said. “But I think we made a decision a while ago to not really do that.”
City officials recently stepped in to pay for a new archway marking the entrance of the garden, which people still tend to miss even though it’s located directly behind the Central Library. And supporters of the Tree Society came together to fund a bike rack and storage boxes for their tools.
But there are potential safety hazards that need to be addressed, Engel said. Over the years, water flowing downhill into the garden has created furrows in its gravel path that someone could trip over. Those and uneven portions of its surface created by puddles left by occasional rainfall make the terrain difficult to traverse for strollers and wheelchairs.
Volunteers want to ensure the Secret Garden is safely accessible to all members of the community. But addressing those repairs is a tall order for the team of about six volunteers to handle in a timely fashion, Engel said.
This year’s class of the Robert Mayer Leadership Academy has decided to lend them a hand. In addition to rolling up their sleeves alongside Tree Society volunteers, they are spreading awareness and raising money to hire professional landscapers to resurface the path by July, academy participant Jessica Cuchilla said. They hope to raise $5,000 by the summer.
“It’s in our backyard,” academy participant Adame Edelman said. “It’s something that anyone can use. And I feel like we live in this hectic world right now. It’s so nice to get away to something that’s serene and quiet where you can let your thoughts go crazy a little bit. That’s why we thought this would be a great way to give back.”
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