Impressive City Gardens
San Diego's Balboa Park sets the bar high for amazing city gardens.
I consider myself a country girl. For starters, I attended a high school smack dab in the center of a cornfield. And, until recently, the closest shopping center to my house worth visiting was a half-day trip away.
Now I’m all grown up and have moved to the city. Although I’m on the outskirts and am still able to enjoy my small backyard, I can’t help but notice the snippets of gardens all around me. Sure, they’re often smaller than I’m used to, but that doesn’t make them any less beautiful.
Gardens in a City of Millions
Truth be told, it’s possible to find spectacular gardens in bustling urban areas. In a city with a population over a million, Balboa Park is a San Diego gem. With 19 gardens spread across 1,200 acres, including the San Diego Zoo, the park delights travelers and natives alike.
If you visit, you’ll find that the gardens are designed with diversity in mind. The trees alone represent more than 1,200 species.
“We’re lucky to have a park set within a Mediterranean climate, where almost anything can grow,” says San Diego Park Ranger Kim Duclo. “Our gardens have native plants, but the bulk of them come from other regions with similar climates.”
Kim promises guests will see delicate orchids, cacti and other plants from areas such as Australia, the Canary Islands and Chile.
“We’ve created an exotic natural landscape by bringing in over 2 million plants,” Kim says. “One of the park’s highlights is the combination of the Inez Grant Parker Memorial Rose Garden and the adjacent Desert Garden. With the variety of the two gardens, guests have fun contrasting and comparing them while both are in bloom.”
According to Nursery Supervisor Mike Rasmussen, the focal point of Balboa Park, and the home of perhaps the most popular garden, is the Botanical Building. Built for the 1915-’16 Panama-California Exposition, it is one of the largest lath structures in the entire world.
“The Botanical Building is always kept in perfect condition,” Mike says. “We rotate the orchids every week, creating a museum atmosphere. Guests know they can always find new plant material.”
Along with the Botanical Building and the Rose Garden, the Japanese Friendship Garden is counted among Balboa’s most cherished assets. It’s a big part of why Forbes magazine ranked Balboa among the best city parks in the U.S. in 2009.
Top City Garden Contenders
Although beautiful, San Diego has some impressive competition. In New York City, for instance, the New York Botanical Garden boasts more than 1 million plants. The garden’s 3,500 roses represent so many different varieties that there’s something blooming for six months out of the year.
What about extreme climates? With average summer highs reaching over 100 degrees, Phoenix, Arizona might be the last place you’d think to find lush gardens. Luckily, the Desert Botanical Garden has you covered with more than 145 acres of plant displays, including an herb garden and a wildflower trail.
While smaller than the others, the Texas Discovery Gardens in Dallas feature both native plants and species from around the world. They’re also the state’s first public gardens to be certified 100 percent organic by the Texas Organic Research Center.
For a collection of 17 award-winning themed gardens, check out the Toronto Botanical Garden, where the emphasis is on education and hands-on learning. The compact gardens mirror the scale of typical urban landscapes, giving visitors plenty of ideas to try in their own backyards.
Cities can overwhelm the senses, but they can also surprise you with islands of calm and beauty. The next time you’re craving an urban retreat, whether you’re visiting or call the city home, find out whether there’s a public garden nearby. You never know what you’ll discover.
Gardening in your own small space? We asked other city gardeners how they deal with the challenge. Here are their best tips.