by JENNIFER FRAKES | photos by Soul of Photography

An Urban Oasis

urban_treeSince the days it was known as Quail Botanical Gardens, the San Diego Botanic Garden has helped people develop a respect and appreciation for nature. The Garden aims to create programs, volunteer opportunties, and overall memorable experiences for those who seek to be surrounded by floral, fauna, and fun. From family fun nights to fall festivals to giant tortoises, the Garden has something for locals of all ages. We speak with President and CEO Julian Duval about the Garden’s mission “to inspire people of all ages to connect with plants and nature,” and we provide a look at upcoming projects for this beloved botanical garden.

San Diego Botanic Garden is a beautiful garden oasis nestled on 37 acres in the midst of Encinitas. More than 4,000 different species of plants are found throughout the Garden including endangered, unique, and native plant species. “Thanks to our mild Southern California climate, plants from all over the world thrive here. Our diverse topography provides a wide variety of microclimates, giving visitors the sensation of strolling through a tropical rainforest or hiking in the high desert. Four miles of trails wind through 29 themed gardens, including two specially designed for children – the acclaimed Hamilton Children’s Garden and Seeds of Wonder,” stated Julian Duval, President and CEO.

urban_duval“We all live in increasingly urban environments. It was so different when the Larabees lived here in a house that was less than 1,000 square-feet on 30-plus acres of ocean view property. Now if you look anywhere around the Garden and beyond, houses are huge and take up the majority of the property space. People young and old spend the majority of their time indoors. But we all need a connection to the outdoor environment and there is plenty of evidence of the health benefits when we do take the time to visit a place like the San Diego Botanic Garden. I am convinced that all of us humans desire a connection with the rest of the living world that goes beyond our dependence on the real world in providing the essential air, water, and food we depend on. The Garden is truly a place of rejuvenation for everyone. Knowing this we made the Garden free of charge for a month after the tragedy of 9/11,” said Duval.

The mission of the San Diego Botanic Garden is to inspire people of all ages to connect with plants and nature. Each of the garden areas is unique and provides an opportunity for visitors to enjoy the beauty of the plants as well as learn about the flora that surrounds them. For example, the Tropical Rainforest area includes a spectacular waterfall set amidst a lush rainforest and shady green paths, while the Landscape for Fire Safety Garden is an area where guests can learn about fire-safe plants, landscape design, and maintenance. In addition, guests can explore the Bamboo Garden, which houses the nation’s largest collection of bamboo, some of which is enjoyed by the giant pandas at the San Diego Zoo!

Deep-Rooted History

urban_flowersAgricultural development of what is now the San Diego Botanic Garden began in 1917 when Donald Ingersoll and his family built a home on the property. In the 1940s the property was sold to Ruth and Charles Larabee. In 1957 Ruth Larabee donated 26 acres to San Diego County with the stipulation that the property remain a haven where people could enjoy and learn about plants and wildlife. The Quail Botanical Gardens Foundation Inc. was formed in 1961 and 10 years later Quail Park – as the Garden was previously known – was opened to the public. In 1993, due to budget constraints San Diego County withdrew its staff and support from what was then called Quail Botanical Gardens. San Diego Botanic Garden is now managed by the QG Foundation which consists of a board of trustees, a professional staff of about 30 people, and many dedicated docents and volunteers.

San Diego Botanic Garden At-a-Glance

Name: San Diego Botanic Garden
President & CEO: Julian Duval

Education and Events

San Diego Botanic Garden provides classes, tours, and events for visitors to connect with the natural world around them. Birdwatchers gather together once a month on Monday mornings at 8 a.m., docent-led tours occur every Saturday morning, and special group tours can be booked in advance. Classes are also offered in a variety of subjects, from planting a vertical garden to creating beautiful wreaths made from succulents. Visit for the most up-to-date schedule of classes.

Throughout the year the Garden offers a wide variety of interactive, fun, educational, and family-friendly events. During the summer months families are invited to enjoy some outdoor fun at Thursday Family Fun Nights. These events occur from 4:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. through Aug. 27 and feature live music. “By far our most popular event and annual gift to our community is Garden of Lights. This year the event will take place from Dec. 5 through 23 and Dec. 26 through 30 from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.,” said Duval. “In addition to the events put on by the Garden, many private special events take place on the grounds of the Garden. Areas of the Garden can be rented for events such as children’s birthday parties, holiday celebrations, and weddings. Our Gazebo Lawn, Walled Garden, and Waterfall Deck areas are very popular among brides and grooms.”

Fauna Among the Flora

urban_horseSpaces such as the Garden are also important natural habitats for native wildlife, including year-round, wintering, and migrating birds. “The Garden is considered a local birdwatching hotspot. In 2014 nine new bird species were sighted at the Garden. To date 136 different birds have been spotted including the varied thrush, yellow-breasted chat, purple finch, white pelican, black-and-white warbler, and the crested caracara,” stated Duval.

Children and adults alike also enjoy seeing the Garden’s namesake birds – the quail – that live on the property and have their own enclosure in Hamilton Children’s Garden. In the spring visitors will often see mama and papa quail wandering through the Garden with up to a dozen “cheepers” (babies) following close behind. Visitors can also see crows and red-tailed hawks circling overhead and, on most days, a pair of mallard ducks can be spotted on the property. In addition to birds, the Garden is home to many lizards, rabbits, squirrels, and frogs. Perhaps the most famous animal on the grounds is Sam, the Galapagos Tortoise. Sam, who has a special history with Duval that dates back nearly 50 years, is a therapy animal for special needs individuals.

Duval has many stories of how Sam has helped people over the years. One particularly heartwarming tale stands out among the others. “As Julian was sharing Sam with a group of autistic youngsters, his wife saw one nonverbal young man standing back, away from Sam. When she let this young man know that Sam is shy and also doesn’t talk, it made a connection with this autistic youngster that gave him the courage to approach Sam and become his friend,” related Lisa Reynolds, Public Relations and Marketing Manager at the Garden. Though Sam is not currently on display for the general public, he can be seen in his enclosure by visitors taking in the stunning ocean view from the Overlook Natural Area. It is hoped the Sam can be available for special events and engagements in the future.

Connecting with the Community

urban_kidsAs a part of the Garden’s overall mission to connect plants with people, employment and volunteer opportunities are offered through two organizations for local North County adults who are developmentally challenged. Through Advanced Options, volunteers help clean the signs that are located throughout the Garden and perform general clean-up work in Hamilton Children’s Garden each Wednesday afternoon. Through Community Interface Services, volunteers assist with general upkeep in several of the 29 garden areas every Wednesday.

Most recently, the Garden has contracted with Employment and Community Options. The contract with this organization will allow several high-functioning special needs individuals to serve food and beverages at a coffee cart adjacent to the gift shop.

“We are particularly pleased about our partnership with Employment and Community Options in providing a coffee snack service for SDBG. They have a proven track record with the Jitter Bean Coffee Cart they operate and we know they will provide a much appreciated service for the Garden’s guests. We also believe the work environment will be of benefit for those that staff the snack service for the Garden,” said Duval.

Duval also recognized the County of San Diego’s partnership and their most recent $20,000 Neighborhood Reinvestment Program grant, which is funding the new refreshment area.

“We are grateful to Supervisor Dave Roberts and our friends at the County for their generous support, which will enable us to add this much-needed amenity to the Garden, including tables, chairs, and signage, as part of the Live Well, San Diego initiative,” said Duval.

Making a Difference at the Garden

According to Duval, volunteers of all kinds are essential to the operation of the Garden. There are many different areas for individuals who are interested in volunteering to donate their time, energy, and special skills. “Volunteers can serve as ambassadors in our Welcome Center, work as sales representatives in our Garden Shop, or utilize their skills in any of our departments including membership, development, accounting, operations, marketing, or events,” said Duval. Opportunities are also available for local residents to become docents and lead tours for classes, visitors, and VIPs, or to become a trustee and help guide the vision of the Garden into the future. For more information on how to volunteer at the San Diego Botanic Garden visit

The Dickinson Family Education Conservatory

A New Community Hub for Learning and Growing Togetherurban_conservatory

The Dickinson Conservatory will:

  • Dramatically increase outreach to school-aged children, college students, adults, and seniors
  • Display exotic botanical wonders
  • Serve our educational mission to the fullest by:
    • Offering classes and experiences that connect visitors with the natural world
    • Teaching children where their food comes from to foster healthy eating habits
    • Developing experiential learning programs
    • Building community by fostering collaboration with the Encinitas Union School District
    • Provide a beautiful and practical setting for farm-to-table demonstrations, summer camps, wedding receptions, and more.

Martin and Carol Dickinson

“We are pleased to support the efforts of the San Diego Botanic Garden to create the conservatory. We expect that this project will enhance the mission of the Botanic Garden by educating the public on the importance of preserving our natural resources, and it will also provide a new venue for special events and other community uses. We hope that the Garden’s members and others in the community will join us to complete this vital project,” said Martin Dickinson, Chairman of The Donald C. & Elizabeth M. Dickinson Foundation.

To find out how you can help make the Dickinson Family Education Conservatory a reality contact:

Julian Duval
President & CEO
760-436-3036 x202

Tracie Barham
Director of Development
760-436-3036 x216

The San Diego Botanic Garden’s Upcoming Events

Thursday Family Fun Night
urban_familyEvery Thursday through Aug. 27 | 4:30 – 8 p.m.
Pack up the kids and enjoy some outdoor fun at Thursday Family Fun Night! San Diego’s own Hullabaloo will perform on Aug. 27. Free with paid admission or membership. Visit to find out more.

Summer Jazz Concert Featuring The Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame Orchestra
urban_concertAug. 9 | 5 – 8pm
Spend the evening listening to the sounds of the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame Orchestra perform the music of Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie, Artie Shaw, Stan Kenton, and many more. Admission is $15 for members and $25 for non-members. Tickets for children between the ages three and 12 are $5 for members and $10 for non-members. For more information visit

Gala in the Garden
urban_galaSept. 12 | 5 p.m. – 9:30 p.m.
As San Diego Botanic Garden’s largest annual fundraiser, the gala provides guests with the opportunity to explore garden trails, enjoy fine wine, craft beer, and great local dishes. Live entertainment and floral designs will also be provided amidst the backdrop. The honorees of the night are Tony and Sue Godfrey of Olive Hill Greenhouses, Inc. For tickets visit

Fall Plant Sale
urban_plantsaleOct. 17, 18
Plant donations from over 100 local growers, wholesalers, retail nurseries, and individuals make this one of the most interesting and diverse plant sales in San Diego County. Be sure to check out the huge selection of used books and homemade goodies such as specialty jellies. Enjoy an opportunity drawing and the popular sit-down Bakery Shoppe, which serves cakes, cookies, pies, and coffee. Cost is free with paid admission or membership. For more information visit