Posted: February 5th, 2016 | Columnists, Featured, Growing Balboa Park | No Comments

Beautifying Balboa Park one garden at a time

By Lucy Warren | Growing Balboa Park

Balboa Park is world famous for its beautiful gardens. In fact, the 1915 Panama California Exposition was billed as a “Garden Fair.” People came from all over the country and all over the world to marvel at San Diego’s climate and the displays of all the varieties of plants that can be successfully grown here.

logoIt is no secret that Park and Recreation budgets were cut during a period of city financial woes. The years took their toll and while Balboa Park was maintained by its dedicated staff, it fell behind.

A few years ago the question was posed, “So, what if gardeners, societies, businesses and nonprofits were allowed to ‘adopt’ a garden in the park to plant and maintain for the Panama-California Exposition centennial year?”

Long before the event, that possibility was pondered, researched, run through legal channels and finally approved by the city of San Diego as a pilot program to enable citizens to participate in the enhancement of our “Crown Jewel of San Diego” to help it sparkle once again.

Pioneers of this idea had led the way successfully. Volunteers from the San Diego Rose Society have worked in the rose garden for many years. The Trees for Health garden relies on a small core of dedicated experts and the Natural History Museum Canyoneers maintain the California Native Plant Demonstration Garden.

Coordinated through Friends of Balboa Park, interested parties for the “Adopt-A-Plot” program are encouraged to select a garden area in the park to design, plant, and maintain for a year. Plans are reviewed by park staff and modified as needed. The adopting group must fund their project, provide the plants and commit to regular maintenance of their garden. There is no fee, but that space then becomes the responsibility of the group or organization, working with park staff.

There is more going on behind the scenes than meets the eye. All of the adopted areas are evaluated by park staff and many are receiving irrigation upgrades with new water saving technologies appropriate to the location. Some sites historically planted as seasonal color gardens will continue, but with more drought-tolerant plants. All the permanent landscape Adopt-A-Plots feature drought-tolerant plants.

Many sites look very much like new gardens and they are! They are planned to allow plants to grow to their full sizes and provide beauty for years to come.

adopt a plot

(Photo by Delle Willett)

Every plot is different and many have interesting stories. Here are just a few:

  • San Diego Floral Association has been involved in the Marston House formal garden and other sites.
  • The gardens around the east and north side of the Timken Museum were adopted by the San Diego Horticultural Society and showcase some of the newest varieties of drought-tolerant plants.
  • Nearby, at the front of the Lily Pond, some of our youngest volunteers learn to garden every Saturday with sponsor Botany for Kids.
  • The Master Gardeners demonstrate great drought-tolerant plants at Founders Plaza and have participated in the installation of several other gardens.
  • Across the street, Laurie Landscaping installed plants inspired by Kate Sessions behind her statue.
  • Downtown Rotary is providing glorious color in Alcazar Garden, while Daughters of the American Revolution are revitalizing the Bennington Memorial Oak Grove at the base of Golden Hill near Pershing Drive.
  • San Diego High School students designed and installed the native garden in front of the Automotive Museum, while Canyon Crest Academy created a hummingbird garden beside the Park Avenue pedestrian bridge.
  • San Diego Bee Society created a pollinator garden at the Cascades recognized by President Obama.
  • The Dahlia Society has brightened the North Fountain in Plaza de Panama.

To see these installations, tour the park and pay attention to the special signage, which identifies the sponsor of each garden area.

For participants, what could be more fun or rewarding than to be able to garden in Balboa Park — to be a part of this city icon — and have the fruits (or flowers) of your labors seen by thousands of visitors to the park?

Interested individuals can ask to be put on a notification list for open volunteer events. Of course, donations toward the gardens are also gratefully accepted.

The program is working so well, it has been extended through 2017. Current adopters will be grandfathered in if they wish to continue the program and new plots are available for additional interested parties.

Would you or your group like to adopt one of the gardens? You can find out more about the program at or by calling 619-232-2282. Friends of Balboa Park is located at 2125 Park Blvd.

—Lucy Warren is chair of the Friends of Balboa Park horticulture committee, a Master Gardener and a well-known writer and speaker on horticulture. She is also co-author of The California Native Landscape, the definitive guide to planting with native California plants.

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