Some garden groupies are plant lovers who delight in discovering a new plant or inspiration in the mix of shapes, colors, and textures. Others seek peace and solitude in the garden or time to relax and reflect. Some of us wander the garden path to revel in the beauty, to learn about a new landscape and the plants that perhaps help shape its culture and cuisine.
Whatever you seek from an outdoor oasis, you’re likely to find it in the gardens of San Diego, California. With its sunny climate and cooling marine breezes, the city is a plant lover’s playground. From flowers to fruits, palms to prickly cactus, a wide variety of plants thrive in the gardens of San Diego.
Some gardens generously hosted me, but all opinions are my own.
Here are seven unique gardens you won’t want to miss.
1. San Diego Botanic Garden, Encinitas
This sprawling 37-acre garden has so much lush vegetation and many winding paths that I got lost twice trying to find the Bamboo Garden. For some reason, I repeatedly found myself in the Australian Garden instead. I enjoy getting lost, but you might want to print out a map (PDF) to bring with you if you don’t want to be glued to the map on your phone (paper maps aren’t available on-site). Four miles of curving paths (some dirt, some paved) connect 29 themed gardens from around the world.
Wander through the primeval-looking Palm Canyon, the verdant Tropical and Temperate Rainforest, and the African Garden. Compare the Old World Desert Garden to the New World Desert Garden. Watch the turtles at the pond in the Bamboo Garden or find citrus ripening on the trees in the subtropical fruit garden. You can also learn more about the plants that thrive in California Gardenscapes, or browse the gift shop. Wherever you roam, the sheer variety of plants is fascinating.
The garden started as the personal project of Ruth and Charles Larabee in the early 1940s. Over 7 years, they planted more than 200 varieties of plants in a low-water landscape. Ruth Larabee donated the property to the city in 1957.
Located in Encinitas, the garden is 27 miles north of downtown San Diego. Some sections of the Botanic Garden have hills, but many areas are ADA accessible. Wheelchairs are available at the gate. Timed admission tickets are sold online, and once you’ve entered, you can stay until closing. Only service dogs are allowed in the garden.
Pro Tip: The garden is filled with birds and butterflies. Don’t forget your camera and binoculars!
2. Balboa Park Botanical Building
If you’ve seen photos of Balboa Park, then you’ll probably recognize the iconic Botanical Building. Its soaring domes, lath construction, and reflecting pool date to 1915, when the Botanical Building was constructed for the Panama-California Exposition. Then, as it stands now, it contains a stunning collection of unusual plants.
Seasonal displays and more than 2,100 varieties of palms, cycads, ferns, and orchids draw more than 500,000 visitors every year. It’s a jungle in there, albeit a well-kept, elegant one with paved paths for strolling and benches for soaking up the leafy atmosphere. Watch for blooming orchids in amongst all the green areas. Admission is free.
At the time of this writing, the Botanical Building is undergoing a major restoration to counter termite damage, rust, and other problems. The building will include ADA access, restrooms, educational space, and other improvements when the work is completed.
Pro Tip: During World War II, soldiers learned to swim in the reflecting pond.
3. Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden And The Desert Garden, Balboa Park
The Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden and the adjacent Desert Garden couldn’t be more different. One offers color and fragrance, with a fountain in the middle; the other, prickly textures in a variety of shapes. But they’re both an excellent place for finding beauty and an escape from the crowds in Balboa Park.
The 3-acre rose garden features 1,600 individual rose bushes, representing 130 varieties. New varieties are added each year. Look for the kiosk; it provides a planting map for each flowerbed, so you can learn the name of that rose you’d like for your home garden. The roses bloom from March to December. For the most blooms, visit in April and May (skip the garden in February when the roses are pruned).
Beside the rose garden is the Desert Garden. More than 1,300 cacti and succulents from around the world create this fascinating dry landscape. Trails (some paved, some not) wander through the 2.5-acre garden. What the plants lack in scents they make up for in an astounding variety of textures, leaf colors, and shapes. The best time to see blooms is in January through March.
To reach these two gardens, follow the paved paths east of the San Diego Natural History Museum. An arched footbridge crosses Park Boulevard and splits on the other side. Left takes you to the Desert Garden; right goes to the rose garden.
4. Dave’s Rock Garden, Encinitas
With more than 7,000 painted rocks, Dave’s Rock Garden is brimming with inspiration and whimsy. The small lot at the corner of Second and B Streets in Encinitas is a riot of colorful stones with commemorative names and dates, words of wisdom, or detailed, handpainted pictures. Look closely and you’ll find animated characters from popular movies, cartoon characters from the comic pages, and artistic portraits of birds and other animals.
But there’s more to this ruthlessly tidy garden than just rocks. Tucked in among the stones are various succulents, cacti, flowers, and an assortment of hardy plants. Chunks of logs are scattered throughout the garden for rustic seating. It’s a great place to stroll and meditate. The park is free to visit.
Pro Tip: When you’re done visiting the garden, head for the beach! Moonlight State Beach is just two blocks away. A large lot at the top of the hill and up Third Street provides parking.
5. Japanese Friendship Garden, Balboa Park
Almost hidden in Balboa Park is a place where waterfalls tumble, vividly orange and white koi fish swim lazily, and cherry trees bloom along winding paths. Bright liquid notes of birdsong fill the air as the persistent hum of traffic fades into the background. The 12-acre Japanese Friendship Garden is a true San Diego gem that celebrates natural beauty and inspires serenity.
The garden, opened to the public in 1991, is named San-Kei-En after a garden of the same name in Yokohama, Japan. The San Diego garden expresses the ties and friendship between the two cities. The garden’s design blends traditional principles of Japanese gardening with the local landscape and climate.
Curved pathways lead through the Upper and Lower Gardens, gradually revealing another scene in the garden. Streams, koi ponds, bridges, and a grove of ornamental cherry trees invite visitors to linger. One of the most peaceful spots in the garden is in a sheltered clearing beside a waterfall, where the 12-foot bronze statue of Kannon Bosatsu, a goddess of compassion and mercy, stands.
The garden is wheelchair friendly, though a gradual sloping gravel path connects the upper and lower portions. Admission fee is required.
Pro Tip: If you look closely, you’ll see the koi pond in the Upper Garden is shaped like a mother turtle — and the tiny island in the middle is a baby turtle on her back.
6. Alcazar Garden, Balboa Park
Alcazar Garden is a floral oasis in Balboa Park. Tucked neatly between the Mingei International Museum and the Museum of Us, the garden seems removed from the world. It’s a lovely spot to enjoy a cup of coffee or a bite to eat. Formal boxwood hedges frame tiled fountains and a vibrant display of more than 7,000 annual flowers. The picturesque California Tower rises above the garden for postcard-perfect views.
Inspired by the Spanish and North African architecture he’d seen during his travels, landscape designer Richard Requa created the Alcazar Garden for the 1935–36 California Pacific International Exposition. Admission is free.
7. Lucy Evans Lauren Memorial Garden, Point Loma
San Diego philanthropist George Lauren created this quiet public garden to honor his late wife, Lucy Lauren. Set on a residential street in the Point Loma neighborhood, the park is well off the beaten path. You may find you have the gazebo and grassy pathways all to yourself.
The garden is a treasure trove of flowering plants such as birds of paradise, roses, and hibiscus. Small flowerbeds, showcasing a mix of colors and textures, break up the lawn. Hummingbirds dart from shrub to tree, and the gazebo offers a cool spot of shade and a place for a picnic.
The garden is located on the corner of Golden Park Avenue and Lucinda Street in the Point Loma area. Stairs lead from the sidewalk to the garden, which is built on a slight slope. Admission is free.
Pro Tip: Walk down Lucinda Street toward San Diego Bay for expansive, Instagram-worthy views.
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