18 Must-See Public Gardens of San Diego
By Cory Peters
With its remarkable climate, San Diego is a garden lover’s paradise. The city and its surrounding area teem with must-see public gardens to give visitors a cornucopia of outdoor delights. Here are some of San Diego’s gardens, from A-Z, that should be on every visitor’s list. Note that many are in or near the city’s famous Balboa Park:
1. Alta Vista Botanical Garden
Alta Vista Botanical Garden is a place where nature meets high-tech. Interactive technology lets you learn and participate as you wander among prehistoric, subtropical, and herbal gardens.
The California Natives garden offers inspiration for brightening up your own yard. Don’t miss the Children & Musical garden and Rare Fruit garden. The Alta Vista Botanical Garden is kid and dog-friendly. Admission is only $5 for adults, $3 for kids 12 and under.
2. Balboa Park Botanical Building
Balboa Park is the centerpiece for entertainment and culture in San Diego. For the nature lover, the Botanical Building (pictured) contains more than 2,1000 plants that vary from tropicals to seasonal displays.
3. Balboa Desert & Rose Garden
The Balboa Park Desert Garden is located near the Botanical Building and contains more than 1,300 plants that include succulents and drought-resistant plants. It’s not only kid and dog-friendly, it’s also pocketbook-friendly. Admission is free.
4. Balboa’s Trees for Health
Another gem within Balboa Park, Balboa’s Trees for Health is a space dedicated to medicinal trees. It’s home to 70 medicinal trees and shrubs spread over more than 3 acres. Its mission is to help people identify and learn about the healing power of plants.
5. Butterfly Farm
You won’t find barns at the Butterfly Farm in Encinitas. You will find a vivarium, a greenhouse-like structure that’s home to many butterfly species, including the
endangered Monarchs. The Butterfly Farm was established out of concern over the decline of pollinators. Kids will love it, but dogs are a no-no. Admission is $6 for adults, $2 for kids, and free for active-duty military.
6. Dave’s Rock Garden
As inspirational as it is quirky, the rock garden was begun by Encinitas resident Dave Dean, who began painting rocks to place among the succulents on his property.Although he initially encountered resistance from the city, the garden has since enjoyed immense popularity. It’s a great place for entertaining kids, and dogs are also welcome. It’s free to roam around the grounds.
7. Dog Beach Memorial Garden
At the entrance to Del Mar Dog Beach, you’ll find a garden with lovely blooming flowers and succulents. Look closer and you’ll discover the garden is actually a memorial for canines that have gone to doggy heaven.
Dog Beach Memorial Garden is filled with mementos to beloved pets. Dogs and kids are welcome. Admission is free, but a Go Fund Me page asks for donations to keep the garden pristine.
8. Harper’s Topiary Garden
This is one couple’s effort to turn their front yard into a delight for the public. The topiaries are “carved” from vegetation into the shapes of life-sized figurines. It’s fun to figure out what they all are! Dogs and kids are welcome.
9. Hermitage Self-Realization Gardens
The Hermitage Self-Realization Gardens were inspired by Paramahansa Yogananda, a teacher of Yoga, whose spiritual and humanitarian work was intended to foster a spirit of greater harmony and goodwill. The breathtaking gardens overlook the ocean. Sorry, no dogs allowed, but kids are welcome. Note: The garden and chapel are temporarily closed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
10. Japanese Friendship Garden
More than 100,000 people visit the Japanese Friendship Garden every year. Located in Balboa Park, its attractions include stone arrangements, koi ponds, water features, and sukiya-style buildings and landscape.
The garden’s purpose is to be a haven of Japanese simplicity, serenity, and aestheticism. Its name comes from the relationship between San Diego and its sister city, Yokohama. Kids are welcome, but leave Fido at home. Admission is $12.
13. Keys Creek Lavender Farm
If lavender is your thing, Keys Creek Lavender Farm is a must. It features two dozen varieties of lavender spread over 8 acres. The lavender farm is open on a regular schedule during blooming season in May and June, but make an appointment any other time. Kids are welcome, but anyone under 14 must have adult supervision. Service dogs are welcome, but only with proper identification.
14. Lucy Evans Lauren Memorial Garden
A San Diego philanthropist dedicated this public garden to his late wife. In addition to beautiful plants, the garden features benches, pathways, and a gazebo for visitors’ enjoyment. Admission is free for people and dogs.
15. Marston House and Garden
The Marston House and Garden is another gem within Balboa Park. The house and gardens were begun by department store mogul George Marston and his wife, Anna. Now, more than a century later, the 5 acres of formal gardens are open to the public for free, but it will cost you $15 to tour the historic house. Dogs are allowed on the grounds, but not inside.
16. San Diego Botanic Garden
Located in Encinitas, this nature spot has four miles of garden trails set in 37 acres that includes the nation’s largest bamboo collection. It’s also home to an interactive children’s garden. Tickets are $12 for adults, $6 for kids. Sorry, no dogs allowed.
17. Summers Past Farms
This 5-acre family-owned farm is a nursery that expanded to include classes, a soap shop, and special events such as a Geranium Day and a Pumpkin Patch in October. The owners still work the garden themselves. Admission is free, but professional photographers pay a $35 fee to use the farm as a backdrop. Kids and dogs are welcome, but you must clean up after both.
18. Water Conservation Garden
The mission of this public garden is to “to educate and inspire through excellent exhibits and programs that promote water conservation and the sustainable use of related natural resources. The Water Conservation Garden has 5 acres of displays for dedicated gardeners or visitors just looking for a delightful afternoon stroll. Admission is free, but the garden accepts donations. Kids and dogs are welcome.
San Diego has gardens and farms spotlighting lavender, Japanese friendship, topiaries, butterflies, desert plant life, water conservation, the medicinal properties of plants, and even colorful rocks. There’s a garden for everyone in San Diego -- whether you tip-toe, mosey, saunter or mosey among the plants and butterflies. Just be sure to stop to smell the roses and lavender.
Cory Peters is a wedding photographer who does her best work at outdoor venues. She has photographed couples tying the knot on the ski slopes in Colorado and in the Everglades in Florida. She has a passion for shooting flower gardens all over the world.