Two sisters, two coasts, one blog

Favorite Places in Sacramento, part 1: WPA Rock Garden


Happy Sunday All! After staring a this flashing cursor for some time, I’ve just had an inspiration. I’m going to start a new little series-within-our-series, every once in a while visiting  some of my favorite places in Sacramento for your elucidation. On weeks like this when I’m stumped for a topic I’m going to remember this “series” and endeavor take you through a few of the special gems unique to this town. You up for it?

And our inaugural feature is : The WPA Rock Garden in Sacramento’s William Land Park.  Located across from Fairytale Town and behind the duck pond, the garden is a delicious retreat of meandering pathways, rustic wooden rail fences, rock walls, and a stunning array of plant life.

Just taking a few steps down into the gentling sloping landscape brings the immediate sensation of having entered another world. Children especially seem to love the many pathways which wind through the one-acre garden. Perfect for running through and leading hither and thither; even when the kids disappear from sight you can still keep track of them  by their laughter and shouting ringing through the air, “Catch me if you can!”

Sketched overview of the WPA Rock Garden's layout. (via

The WPA Garden was born in 1940 as a part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was a Depression-Era work-relief program which employed out-of-work people including some artisans, craftspeople and fine artists to work on projects that to improve towns and cities all over the country.

The rock walls and pathways and overall  structure for the garden were laid between 1939-1940 but like many WPA projects, once the New Deal funding ended the site was left untended for many years. The garden we know today was born when renowned Sacramento horticulturalist Daisy Mah began it’s restoration in 1988.  In this interview with Daisy, she describes how she came to the site 20 years ago and found it buried in invasive ivy and vinca, and how the garden was known  then as ” ‘The Jungle’ or ‘The Maze’ or the ‘Ivy Garden’ “.

An amazing legacy: gardener Daisy Mah beneath a bunya-bunya tree (Araucaria bidwillii) that she grew FROM SEED in the WPA Rock Garden. (via

The result of two decades of dedicated hard work, conscious planting choices (focusing on Mediterranean- climate species and California natives) and a huge amount of  thoughtful effort and love have resulted in a magical gift for the public.

WPA rock garden, Sacramento CA

It’s easy to get a little lost and leave the city behind as you wander through the garden admiring the flora. I love to go there in spring and summer when the plants are in a riot of bloom and the bees and butterflies in an equal riot of pollinating ecstasy.

I get a thrill to recognize so many of the species there as those I have in my own garden as well, but to see them in their mature 20-year old state is often an eye-opener. Several times I’ve come home from a visit to the WPA garden and had to re-assess my garden scheme, with the new understanding that I haven’t left  enough room for some of these plants to get as big as they are going to get!

Oxalis purpurea at the rock garden. Just planted this one at home too!

WPA rock garden, Sacramento CA

In the fall, the cool color of the many succulents in the rock garden are in incredible contrast to the rich autumn leaves of Land Park’s trees. Many of the perennials are already bedded down for the winter months, pruned and  austere but the garden’s beauty is still intact with the complementary forms of many dramatic plant combinations. Here and there,  new growth can be seen budding through already (we are after all in California) heralding the new season of life just waiting to come through.

What is this? I'll have to come back in Spring to find out....

WPA rock garden, Sacramento CA

WPA rock garden, Sacramento CA

dramatic forms - grass meets cactus

The WPA rock garden is a kind of safe haven for me, a place to go whenever I need to let the wind blow through my mind and free my imagination to wander. I think my kids feel the same way as it is an oft requested pit-stop in the midst of our busy lives. They like to run I like to wander, but for all of us it is a precious gift.

Lincoln at the WPA

And needless to say all this bountiful beauty is a perfect place for artists of all types. I’ve seen folks in there sketching, strumming guitars and most often taking photographs. Some photographers come for the plants, with powerful lenses capturing the specimens up-close. Others come to use the garden, rock walls and the small stone gazebo as a backdrop for portraits, amateur and professional alike.

Recently I was assisting my photographer friend Justine Belson on a shoot at the WPA garden, a couple of family portrait sessions. This day there were at least four other photographers with clients at the garden; all taking advantage of the clear November skies, the striking fall colors and the last chance to get pictures done for the upcoming Xmas-card season.

A good time was had by all and the garden itself was  a patient subject, offering good light and a fantastic backdrop. When my husband and kids came to pick me up (the family with only one car, together is how we roll) Justine offered us an impromptu portrait session seeing as we have very few pictures of the five of us. A little sneak peak for those on the Christmas card list, I think these give the idea of just what a sweet environment the WPA  is to be in!

photos courtesy of Justine Belson Photography

So… thanks go (in no particular order) to President Roosevelt and his New Deal funding, the City of Sacramento and most especially to the visionary and dedicated gardener Daisy Mah who has tended and raised this quiet treasure for over twenty years.

The WPA rock garden is one of my most very favorite places to go in Sacramento, but there are certainly many others. And those my friends I shall tell you more about, in the future, when the time is right.

to be continued…..


9 Responses to “Favorite Places in Sacramento, part 1: WPA Rock Garden”

  1. Mary

    This is news to me! I can’t wait to check it out!! And what great pics of all you guys 🙂

  2. Jacquelyn Marie

    I want to visit that garden next time I visit you all!!

    And love the photos!! Beautiful people!! And your smile makes everyone else smile, Rucha!

  3. Norman Ross Powers

    Nice spot! I followed the Daisy Mah profile link and was gratified to read that the Sacramento Parks Dept. has allowed her to make a career of the WPA Rock Garden and has given her a free hand there. Other California cities are cutting parks staff while Sac apparently invests in beautiful public gardens and stands by it’s dedicated employees.

  4. spongey stef

    the boys &I went for a foray into this Gnomeyland the day that i took them adventuring ..&..Royal climbed into the doggiehouse near Chipotle…. I had cute fotos that are long gone with the phone i lost….

    time for an upgrade into the new millenium with a phone thats “Smarter than Tante”….so i can share some of my photos B4 I lose the phone!!

  5. oami powers

    What a beautiful spot, and such a contrast visually, to what I’m used to looking at these days. You photos look awesome (not just the ones Bean took of you all either) did you get a new camera or are these taken with your phone??


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