The California Garden Tour: The 50 Best Gardens to Visit in the Golden State

The California Garden Tour: The 50 Best Gardens to Visit in the Golden State

by Donald Olson


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A fantastic garden journey that only California can provide

In The California Garden Tour, veteran travel writer Donald Olson highlights 50 outstanding public gardens and provides all the information you need to make the most of your visit. From San Francisco and the East Bay to Palm Springs and San Diego, Olson includes iconic gardens like the Getty Center, new favorites like Alcatraz, and uniquely Californian destinations like Lotusland and Sunnylands. The easy-to-use format includes visitor information, an evocative description, and full color photography for each garden. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781604697223
Publisher: Timber Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 08/09/2017
Pages: 296
Sales rank: 775,961
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Donald Olson is a travel writer, novelist, and playwright with a longtime interest in gardens and gardening. His work has appeared in the New York Times, National Geographic, and other national publications, and he is the author of several travel guides. An avid gardener himself, Olson has been exploring the great gardens of Europe and the Pacific Northwest for many years.You can visit his website at

Read an Excerpt

“I firmly believe from what I have seen that it is the chosen spot of all this earth as far as Nature is concerned.” Luther Burbank wrote those words in 1875. He had just arrived in California and could barely contain his excitement. The state’s natural beauty, diverse plant life, and Mediterranean climate acted on this transplanted New Englander just as it has on millions of visitors since.

Of course, California is a very different place from what it was in Burbank’s time. He arrived only twenty-five years after California had achieved statehood. It hadn’t yet become the political, economic, and agricultural powerhouse it is today. Now, with a population of nearly 39 million people, California shares the same urban and environmental woes we all share, and a few that are unique to California alone. But California also has some of the greatest gardens you will ever see, anywhere. Period. And once you visit a few of them, you may find yourself texting, tweeting, or emailing your friends back home using the same exultant language that Burbank used in 1875.

A Brief History of California Gardens
The fifty gardens I’ve included fall into four basic types: estate gardens (once private, now public), botanical gardens, parks, and art gardens. In each entry I describe the background or backstory of the garden, but it’s also useful to have a historical overview of gardens and gardening in California as a whole.

Native Peoples
Dates vary, but it’s safe to assume that California has been inhabited for at least 12,000 years and probably longer. The two primary native groups were the Tongva people, who lived in the south, roughly from the Los Angeles Basin to San Diego, and the Ohlones, who inhabited the San Francisco Peninsula down to Monterey. Although it’s possible that there was some cultivation of plants, the two indigenous groups were primary hunter-gatherers who subsisted on game, fish, shellfish, and a seasonal harvest of acorns, berries, seeds, and roots. They also used native plants for basket weaving and dyes, and to make their shelters.

The San Diego Botanic Garden’s Native Plants and Native People Trail features a re-creation of the frond-roofed, dome-shaped dwellings of the Kumeyaay people, and shows the plants they
used. The Native Basketry Garden at the Marin Art and Garden Center is a habitat garden created to show the kinds of plants native peoples used to fashion their baskets.

The Mission Era
Gardening in California began in the late eighteenth century with the establishment of Catholic missions by the Spanish Franciscan Order. Twenty-one missions were founded from San Diego
to Monterey and as far north as San Francisco between 1789 and 1833. Their goal was to convert (“civilize”) the Indians and further cement Spain’s claims to Alta California (what is today California). The Franciscans had to become self-sufficient in short order and feed the Spanish military forces. To that end, they created farms and gardens at each of their mission outposts and began cultivating European fruits, grains, and vegetables.

To maintain their gardens and ranches (livestock was also raised), the missionaries basically enslaved the native populations and forced them to work in the fields. So, even as it introduced agriculture to California, the mission system undermined and eventually helped to destroy a way of life that had existed for thousands of years.

Barley, maize, and wheat were the most common cereal crops grown at the missions. The Franciscans also planted the first stone fruit and citrus trees in California. These were grown from seeds brought from Europe. Their fruit crops eventually included apples, peaches, pears, figs, and oranges.

The first grapes in California—criolla or Mission grapes—were planted in 1779 at Mission San Juan Capistrano and used to make wine. The region’s first citrus orchard was planted in 1804 at Mission San Gabriel Arcángel. Olives were first cultivated and pressed for their oil at Mission San Diego de Alcála. None of this could have happened without water. The Franciscans created the first irrigation systems in California, channeling water from rivers and streams to water crops, fill cisterns, and trickle from fountains. You can see a preserved portion of one of their aqueducts, built with Indian labor, at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.

Farming, yes, but what about gardens? The Franciscans were focused on food, but it seems more than likely that some prized and purely ornamental plants, vines, and trees made their way into protected courtyards and perhaps into graveyards. We can’t know for sure, because although the missions have been restored—they are the oldest buildings in California—none of the mission gardens survived. The gardens you can see around the San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission in Carmel-by-the-Sea and the courtyard garden in Mission Santa Barbara are both recent, and don’t necessarily reflect the original plant material or how it was cultivated. But if you visit Marin Art and Garden Center, you can pay your respects to a living descendant of the mission era: a pear tree grown from a graft taken from the last remaining pear tree in the orchard of Mission San Rafael.

Table of Contents

Introduction 8

Northern California 28

$$$ 30

Alcatraz 32

Filoli 38

Elizabeth F. Gamble Garden 44

Golden Gate Park 48

Presidio of San Francisco 55

Hakone Gardens 56

Montalvo Arts Center 60

San Francisco Botanical Garden 64

$$$ 70

Ruth Bancroft Garden 72

Berkeley Rose Garden 78

Blake Garden 82

Forrest Deaner Native Plant Botanic Garden 86

Morcom Amphitheater of Roses 90

Kaiser Center Roof Garden 92

Oakland Museum of California 93

Regional Parks Botanic Garden and Tilden Nature Area 94

University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley 98

$$$ 104

Marin Art and Garden Center 106

Luther Burbank Home and Gardens 110

Gold Ridge Farm 115

Cornerstone Sonoma 116

Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery 120

Quarryhill Botanical Garden 124

$$$ 128

Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens 130

The Secret Gardens of Monterey 134

University of California Santa Cruz Arboretum 140

Southern California 144

Los Angeles & Vicinity 146

Adamson House 148

Getty Center 152

Getty Villa 158

Greystone Mansion and Gardens 164

Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden 168

Virginia Robinson Gardens 172

Pasadena & Vicinity 178

Descanso Gardens 180

Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens 186

Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden 192

Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden 198

South Coast 202

California Scenario 204

Hortense Miller Garden 208

Rancho Los Alamitos 214

Sherman Library and Gardens 220

South Coast Botanic Garden 224

Santa Barbara & Vicinity 228

Alice Keck Park Memorial Gardens 230

Casa del Herrero 234

Lotusland 240

Santa Barbara Botanic Garden 246

Palm Springs & Vicinity 252

Joshua Tree National Park 254

Moorten Botanical Garden 259

Sunnylands Center and Gardens 260

San Diego & Vicinity 266

Balboa Park 268

San Diego Botanic Garden 274

Acknowledgments 278

Photo Credits 279

Index 280

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