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10 'secret' must-visit gardens in Southern California

San Diego Botanic Garden Photo courtesy San Diego Botanic Garden

These lesser-known gardens show off with an amazing diversity of plants, landscaping, and design.

With Southern California’s year-round mild climate, it’s no surprise that the region is home to a treasure trove of gardens to visit. Of course, there are the heavy hitters: The Huntington, Descanso Gardens, the Getty Villa and the Getty Center, Los Angeles County Arboretum, Balboa Park, and South Coast Botanic Garden. But if you stick with just those, you’ll be missing some lesser-known gems.

Our list of 10 “secret” gardens that are open to the public will leave you thrilled with the diversity of plant life in Southern California.

1. Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden

Santa Barbara Street between Micheltorena and Arrellaga streets, Santa Barbara. 805-897-1982

Admission: Free

Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden

Photo by Yvonne Savio

The Alice Keck Memorial Garden, spanning one block in a residential area, is a family adventure. Kids will be enthralled with the butterfly garden, the koi pond, and the antics of the resident ducks and other birds. With trails meandering through swaths of 75 different tree and plant species (mostly drought-tolerant), something’s always in bloom. A sensory garden with audio posts and interpretive Braille signs adds to the delights in textures, fragrances, and sounds, especially for visually and physically impaired visitors. A gazebo serves as a rest spot.

2. Arlington Garden

275 Arlington Drive, Pasadena. 626-578-5434

Admission: Free

Arlington Garden in Pasadena, California | Yvonne Savio

Photo by Yvonne Savio

In 2005, Betty and Charles McKenney created a public garden in place of a trash-strewn vacant lot in their neighborhood.

Since then, Arlington Garden has matured into a hive of activity with the support of many people in the community. You’ll see mostly California native and drought-tolerant plants, as well as lizards and butterflies. Its many alcoves and sitting areas are frequently filled with visitors.

An orange grove is a reminder of the area’s citrus-growing history, and the fruits are made into marmalade in partnership with a historic local marmalade producer, Waldo Ward and Sons.

3. Earl Burns Miller Japanese Garden

California State University, Long Beach. 562-985-2169

Admission: Adults $5.

Earl Burns Miller Japanese Garden in Long Beach, California | Yvonne Savio

Photo by Yvonne Savio

Earl Burns Miller is arguably the most pleasant of the nearly 20 public Japanese gardens in Southern California.

Established on the Cal State Long Beach campus as a community and educational resource and outdoor classroom, the 1.3-acre hill-and-pond–style garden encompasses the critical elements that make traditional Japanese gardens such a pleasure to slowly explore. Those elements include evergreen and seasonally blooming plants pruned into asymmetrical forms; rocks, boulders, and gravel; and ornamental stone lanterns.

A stroll here will leave you feeling refreshed, tranquil, and serene. Be sure to purchase food to feed the ducks and the koi in the lake (the latter are known to come to the lake’s edge and eat from people’s hands).

4. Ganna Walska Lotusland

Montecito. 805-969-9990

Admission: See website. Tour reservations are required for all visits.

Ganna Walska Lotusland

Photo by Yvonne Savio

This unique and sometimes bizarre garden of unusual plants grown on 37 acres is the later-in-life horticultural passion of Ganna Walska, an opera singer perhaps known more for having outlived six husbands than for her musical talent.

Located in a residential neighborhood, Lotusland boasts one of the world’s most complete collections of cycads, plants that were prolific in the dinosaur age. You’ll also find many palms, mature euphorbias and other succulents, bromeliads, aloes, ferns, oaks, topiaries, a garden of exclusively blue plants, and a lotus pond that blooms in July and August.

A so-called gnome garden (the antique stone figures are more accurately called grotesques) salutes Walska’s opera career. The insectary and pollinator garden includes perennial blooming plants, a citrus orchard, and a birdhouse. The aloe garden surrounds a fantasy pool rimmed with abalone shells and a giant clamshell fountain.

5. Moorten Botanical Garden and Cactarium

1701 S. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs. 760-327-6555

Admission: Adults and seniors, $5; kids ages 5–15, $2; kids under 5, free.

Moorten Botanical Garden and Cactarium

Photo by Yvonne Savio

The cactus collection at Moorten Botanical Garden was founded in 1938 by Chester “Cactus Slim” Moorten. He and his wife, Patricia (an avid desert-plant collector in her own right), moved the garden to its present location in the mid-1950s. Today, it boasts some 3,000 examples of succulents and other desert-adapted plants in a 1.5-acre walled garden and “cactarium” greenhouse.

The collections, grouped by geographic region of origin (Arizona, Baja California, California, Colorado, Mojave Desert, Sonoran Desert, South Africa, South America, and Texas), exhibit a wide range of plant forms and textures. Silly signs and other curios add levity, including petrified wood and a “prehistoric garden” with dinosaur footprint fossils from Utah and Texas.

6. Natural History Museum Nature Gardens

900 Exposition Boulevard, Los Angeles. 213-763-3466

Admission: $15

Natural History Museum Nature Gardens

Photo by Yvonne Savio

Every flower, bush, and tree at the Natural History Museum Nature Gardens was planted to attract creatures such as butterflies, hummingbirds, dragonflies, squirrels, and even lizards, snails, and pill bugs.

The Pollinator Meadow attracts hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies. The Edible Garden highlights vegetables, fruits, and herbs. The Living Wall is a giant raised garden filled with plants that thrive in exposed, dry places. The Dry Creek Bed, lined with local native plants, portrays local seasonal rivers and streams.

Be sure to visit the bird-watching platform; Los Angeles County is home to 525 bird species, and about 110 species have been recorded at the Nature Gardens.

7. The Rancho Los Alamitos

6400 E. Bixby Hill Road, Long Beach. 562-431-3541

Admission: Free

The Rancho Los Alamitos

Photo by Yvonne Savio

The Rancho Los Alamitos garden evokes the history of Southern California, from early Native American settlements of the Gabrielino–Tongva native peoples, through Spanish land grants, to ranching and 21st-century urbanization.

The adobe-core ranch house evolved over two centuries. The 4 acres of gardens were overseen first by Susan Bixby, who planted what are today two massive Moreton Bay figs, and then by her daughter-in-law, Florence Bixby, with help from such notable landscape designers as the Olmstead Brothers Firm, Florence Yoch, and Paul Howard in the 1920s and ’30s.

The gardens highlight oleanders, desert plants, roses, perennials, palms, pepper trees, wisterias, jacarandas, geraniums, and a Friendly Garden in intimate outdoor rooms. The original barns house farm-type demonstrations, a functioning blacksmith’s shop, corrals, and farm animals.

8. Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden

1500 N. College Avenue, Claremont. 909-625-8767

Admission: Adults, $10; seniors and students, $6; children ages 3–12, $4.

Rancho Santa Ana

Photo by Yvonne Savio

The 86-acre Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden is one of the state’s largest botanical gardens dedicated exclusively to California native plants. It displays 1,100 of California’s 6,000 native species, including 600 rare or endangered ones, in three distinct areas. Indian Hill Mesa highlights themed collections and demonstration gardens for home landscapes, including ponds, containers, cultivars, and attracting butterflies.

The paths in the Alluvial Gardens wander amid palms, cacti, and wildflowers. The California Plant Communities section—55 acres of chaparral, sage, desert plants, pines, and Joshua trees—is fun to explore by tram or guided walking tour (by reservation only, via email to It’s the perfect garden to observe natives in all their stages of development and beauty year-round.

9. San Diego Botanic Garden

230 Quail Gardens Drive, Encinitas. 760-436-3036

Admission: Adults, $18; seniors and active military, $12; children ages 3–17, $10; kids 2 and younger, free.

San Diego Botanic Garden

Photo courtesy San Diego Botanic Garden

The collections at the San Diego Botanic Garden–which opened to the public in 1970 as Quail Botanic Gardens in honor of the local wild quail (there are still occasional sightings) and renamed in 2009–have grown extensively over the years, with almost 5,000 types of plants from California, Mexico, Africa, Australia, and various other semi-arid regions around the world.

In the 29 separate themed areas over 37 acres, you’ll find something blooming year-round. A waterfall, which you can hear throughout much of the garden, is the focal point of a tropical plant collection that includes giant taro plants, Australian tree ferns, and bunya bunya trees. Palms, bamboos, cork oaks, begonias, hibiscus, cycads, aloes, daylilies, fuchsias, proteas, and ferns are other extensive collections.

The garden is also a birding hot spot, with more than 150 different species of native and non-native migrating birds sighted.

10. Sherman Library and Gardens

2647 East Coast Highway, Corona del Mar. 949-673-2261

Admission: Adults, $5; kids 12–18, $3; kids under 12, free.

Sherman Library and Garden

Photo courtesy Sherman Library and Gardens

The Sherman Library and Garden is the “bloomingest” whenever you visit, with seasonal color paramount among the wide range of plant collections. At just 2 acres, it’s a lush oasis that’s closest in scale to what a home gardener might accomplish.

With plant origins of its 3,000 species from deserts to subtropical and tropical areas around the world, collections include palms, cycads, carnivorous plants, orchids, bromeliads, roses, and more.  A sensory garden of aromatic plants features scented geraniums, pineapple sage, lavender, and lamb’s ears.

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