“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” — Cicero, first century B.C.

Arlington Garden bills itself as “a water-wise, community-supported Mediterranean garden.”

Comprising three acres, and located a mile north of the 110 and just east of Orange Grove Boulevard in Pasadena, this easily accessible hidden gem is well worth a visit.

LA has lots of wonderful gardens. Most charge to enter. Arlington, by contrast, is entirely free.

Unlike the Huntington, its posher neighbor, Arlington allows picnics.

Unlike the 150-acre Descanso, also lovely, the Arlington is traversable in a leisurely half-hour. And unlike most public gardens that have security guards, docents and a gift shop, here one wanders unmolested by either overseers or the nagging thought that one really should buy a hummingbird refrigerator magnet.   

Arlington Garden is open daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Leashed pets are allowed. Classes and programs are offered throughout the year. The “layout and moveable furniture,” as its website notes, “invite people to come and stay rather than be quickly ushered in and out.” 

You can sit on a wooden bench and watch the butterflies throng a yellow Mexican bird-of-paradise.

You can laze in the shade, inwardly marveling at the variety of plant heights, textures, light, shade, color and fragrances. The eye wanders over stones, weathered logs and terra-cotta pots that look like they came from the terrace of an 18th-century Italian palazzo.

You can walk the river-rock labyrinth, built with the help of students from the Mayfield Senior School, and contemplate the state of your soul.

You can take a nap, even.

Small groups murmur around tables in the courtyard, evoking the sense that they meet here often. Ribbon banners hanging from branches on the Wish Tree Terrace read “Happiness in Bloom.” “True Love.” “Thank you for a heart full of wonder.”

One trellis drips with scarlet passion flower, a second with amber bougainvillea, a third with tiny pink roses. The tops of trees waft in the breeze. Bees drowse, hummingbirds flit, their vermilion-pink gorgets thrillingly catching the light. 

Founded in 2005 by garden-lovers Betty and Charles McKenney, Arlington was designed by Mayita Dinos.

The aim was to create a public, water-wise garden that celebrated Southern California’s Mediterranean climate. Jan Smithen’s book “Sun-Drenched Gardens: The Mediterranean Style” was one inspiration.

The site is owned by Cal-Trans, leased to the City of Pasadena and entrusted by the city to Arlington Garden in Pasadena, a nonprofit. Support comes from garden clubs, local businesses, nurseries, neighbors, friends and sales of the renowned Arlington Garden Orange Marmalade.

The unifying element is a reliance on drought-tolerant plants rather than a strictly native plant palette. Pepper, pine and sycamore trees provide shade. Australia is represented by eucalyptus, grevilleas and hakeas (aka pin-cushion trees).

The area is loosely divided into California and Mediterranean sections, based more on design than plant selection. Pasadena Avenue’s eastern edge features, among other plants characteristic of California, citrus and Washingtonia Palms. 

The upper western edge, more Mediterranean in feel, boasts an allée of olive trees and lavender, vine-covered walls and Cherokee roses, a holdover from the vast John Durand estate that occupied the entire block on what was then called “Millionaire’s Row” in the early 1900s.

Arlington Garden is a Certified Wildlife Habitat, providing the four elements — food, water, cover and places to raise young — required for wildlife to thrive.

Scannable QR codes mounted with commentary throughout provide plant identifications and audio tours.

But as I meander through, I’m never thinking in terms of California versus Mediterranean, or QR codes, or even botany.

I’m thinking that the soft dirt paths are forgiving to tired bones.

I’m thinking how everyone’s voice lowers to a hush when they enter Arlington Garden: children quietly drawing, families grouped in alcoves, a trio of coltish teenage girls snapping one another’s photos.

I’m thinking that heaven must smell of sun-warmed sage.

I’m thinking how a garden born from love invites respect, reverence and more love.

Case in point: Last time I went to the Arlington I met my friend Donald there. Donald grew up on Pasadena’s Arroyo and is the best kind of LA native son. He is always bringing over a jar of quince preserves, or loquat jam, or preserved lemons or dried oregano — all the fruits of his own garden.

This particular day he had packed a wicker basket with a thermos of tea, old-timey china cups and a plate of homemade oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. We talked about our respective compost bins, our vocations and blacksmithing classes.

We spoke of road trips to Death Valley and pie crust recipes and trying to do the right thing.

We looked up at the deep blue sky and gazed over the garden and agreed that in Southern California, we really do live in paradise.

Cicero, a Roman politician, was assassinated. Perhaps he never knew that in addition to a library and a garden you need a third thing in this world — a friend.


Heather King is a blogger, speaker and the author of several books. For more, visit heather-king.com.

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