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JAUNTS : Unexpected Gem Is Found Off the Beaten Path : Hidden in the hills of Thousand Oaks, a botanic garden lures plant enthusiasts and hikers. It is maintained by volunteers.


For the last 10 years in the hills of Thousand Oaks, near a stream hidden by towering oak trees, a botanical garden has been nurtured by a small band of residents.

It's not as posh and manicured as the famous Huntington Gardens in San Marino, or as plentiful as the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. But the Conejo Valley Botanic Garden is a local jewel for gardening types and hikers.

Located on 35 acres next to Conejo Community Park, the garden includes a 1 1/2-mile nature trail that dips down along a secluded stream and then winds up high atop a hill overlooking the Conejo Valley.

"Our greatest asset is our view," said Steve Heidmann, president of the Gregor Mendel Botanic Foundation, a nonprofit volunteer group that maintains and operates the garden.

The garden has about 300 plants and trees, some of them in natural settings and others in landscaped areas. A path loops through these areas near the entrance, while the longer nature trail meanders through terrain left pretty much in its natural state.

"We have a nice start on a collection of California natives," Heidmann said, pointing to a Monterey cypress and a California redwood. Foundation members also have started a collection of oak trees from around the world, with 15 different varieties already in the ground.

The garden has a few unexpected pleasures, such as a new rare-fruit orchard. It's the brainchild of Thousand Oaks physician Ed Hager, who is involved in the California Rare Fruit Growers Assn. So far, Hager has planted 20 or so rare varieties of fig, jujube, chestnut, cherry, macadamia, pomegranate and persimmon, to name a few.

The newest addition is a display of sage plants from all over the world, designed and planted by Barbara Song and Janet Main. For years, Song and her husband, Garry, have spent two or three days a week working in the garden just planting, weeding and mulching.

The foundation has 30 members, but there is a group of "eight die-hards" who do most of the physical labor, Heidmann says. One is a retired teacher with arthritis.

The garden is owned by the Conejo Valley Recreation and Park District, which pays the water bill. It was donated by the Klingbiel Corp. in 1973 and later taken over by the foundation under a 50-year lease.

A federal grant paid for construction of the trail system in 1981. Hikers will find the trail easygoing, with benches in spots along the way (thanks to several local Boy Scout troops).

The creek is actually a large drainage channel that draws run-off from neighboring subdivisions. It flows year-round, and with the canopy of oak and willow trees it's a cool hideaway on a hot day.

As the trail circles up to the top of a hill, the view expands, but don't expect a total wilderness experience. The sound of traffic is still audible, and houses, apartments, even The Oaks mall is in view. Still, the 360-degree view is well worth the hike.

Weeds encroach on the trail in a few spots, and Heidmann admits the garden has a "weedy look" despite the tireless efforts of volunteers. There is, he says, still much work to be done.

Heidmann estimates only 20% of the garden is developed, and members want to see more new displays such as the sage and rare-fruit areas.

"There is incredible potential up here due to the lay of the land," Heidmann said. He envisions full development, but acknowledges it won't ever have the finished look of the Huntington Gardens.

Instead, it will retain a more casual, informal feel.


WHAT: Conejo Valley Botanic Garden

WHERE: Conejo Community Park, 1300 Hendrix Ave., Thousand Oaks

WHEN: 8 a.m. to dusk

COST: Free

INFORMATION: Call 494-7630

FYI: Dogs are allowed in the garden but bicycles are not. Also, the Gregor Mendel Botanic Foundation, which operates and maintains the garden, is looking for volunteers to work in the garden on Saturdays from 9 a.m.

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