The First Seven Years

A Brief History of Arlington Garden in Pasadena

It's spring, and Blue Lupin are up and swaying. Blooming Western redbud, Texas white redbud, purple lilac verbena, various blue ceanothus, red and purple sages, yellow California sunflowers and tidy tips, white irises surrounded by Snow in Summer, lavenders, penstemon, fremontia, nevins barberry, goldenrod, California fuschia, kangaroo paw, wisteria and climbing roses, floating on a two acre sea of California Poppies. A fragrant grove of Washington Navel oranges in the east end and a bank of sages, lavender and rosemary, blue-green, yellow, orange, and black succulents, overseen by a statue of St. Francis at the west end bookend the Garden's plants, furniture, paths and benches.

Where are you? Lancaster? Up the coast of California? A private preserve? …

Good guesses, but it is none of these. You are in Arlington Garden in Pasadena. Yes, at the corner of Arlington Drive and Pasadena Avenue, on the Caltrans site that stood vacant for 40 years awaiting construction of the 710 freeway, a garden has come forth and shows people how attractive and effective a low water using Mediterranean climate garden can be.

Arlington Garden is Pasadena's only dedicated public garden;--a three acre botanical garden that changes with the seasons. During the hot summer many plants are resting, but it holds some color. In the fall, leaves from the pomegranate, sycamore, crape myrtle, Chinese Pistache and cottonwood turn bright red or yellow. It is at its barest during the winter, but  some color remains, and with early rains comes promise for new life just around the corner, when the Garden comes alive again in a riot of spring color.

In 2003, the City and Caltrans began talks about the use of the three acre site that had been a vacant lot, home only to two mature oaks, a jacaranda, a California Pepper, and five different variety of palms. Councilmember Steve Madison asked the community what, if any, public development it would like to see on the three acre site. The consensus was that it should be passive, with no playing fields, parking lots or restrooms. However, there was no idea about what form the development should take.

Betty McKenney suggested that we develop a waterwise Mediterranean climate garden. The idea took hold, but, like many such good ideas, people looked to others to get it started. Betty and Kicker took their idea and ran with it.

As they "shopped" the idea, more people thought it might work. Cal Poly Pomona students made some conceptual drawings, people began to visualize a garden, and the City, Pasadena Water and Power and the McKenneys came together in collaboration and moved forward. Pasadena Beautiful Foundation and the Mediterranean Garden Society gave valuable support, and neighbors began to donate funds, plants, and garden furniture to get it going, though it was only a dream in most eyes.

The McKenneys incorporated Arlington Garden in Pasadena as a 501c3 organization, and retained Mayita Dinos to develop a complete garden site plan with distinct "rooms" of different plants and garden features.

With Councilmember Steve Madison's championing the cause and with the support of Mayor Bill Bogaard and Councilmember Sid Tyler, and in partnership with the City of Pasadena and Pasadena Water and Power, the project moved forward. The lot was covered with mulch; a rudimentary irrigation system was installed, and some sections were graded to create level areas to gather in. And in July, 2005, with representatives from the City and Pasadena Water & Power and neighbors in attendance, the first trees and plants were planted in Arlington Garden.

Since that beginning the McKenneys have planted nearly 400 trees and a wide variety of plants that do well in our cool, wet winters, temperate springs and falls, and hot, dry summers, injecting benches, tables and chairs with umbrellas, pots, and paths and a labyrinth between them, so that one can learn about drought tolerant gardening and find peace of mind and serenity in our increasingly urban community.

The McKenneys have moved forward step by step, as money and manpower permitt, so that today Arlington Garden has been recognized as a major public garden in numerous articles in the Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star News, The Quarterly and Arroyo magazines. The Garden was featured in the recently published books Hometown Pasadena and At Home Pasadena. Arlington Garden has been visited by the Garden Conservancy during its annual Open Days garden tour, Pasadena Heritage, Mediterranean Garden Society, Pasadena Garden Club, The Diggers, the LA County Arboretum, the Washington DC headquartered American Public Garden Association, and Pacific Horticulture. The City has thrice recognized Arlington Garden, and the West Pasadena Residents' Association donated a solar powered fountain and recognized Betty and Kicker with their inaugural Community Service Award, and in 2008 the Pasadena Museum of History named them Contemporary History Makers.

The Garden has had great support from the neighbors and community. The McKenneys have received benches and a birdbath from friends and neighbors, furniture from local stores and from Ken Colburn, who helped build the fence around the garden and built the herb beds and comfortable Adirondack chairs. A donated bench, set under a trellis supporting a Don Juan Rose, faces Mr. Baldy, which is spectacularly visible on clear days. Marco Barrantes and La Loma Development have created functional and artistic urbanite walls and amphitheater, and Rob Miller has donated a sculptured cap that will soon be covered with shade giving vines and is graced by a 36" wide stained glass window the color and shape of a pomegranate donated by Tico Tech of Altadena.

Sequoyah School, Pasadena High School Interact Club, Mayfield Senior School, and Westridge School have performed community service at Arlington Garden. Three Eagle Scout projects have retained water on site with berms and a swale in the Arlington Drive parkway strip, and South Pasadena Girls Scouts picked 200 lbs of oranges from which we made 1300 jars of Arlington Garden Sweet Orange Marmalade. Pasadena Girl Scouts harvested wildflower seeds, which we gave to friends and donors and sowed them in the Garden's meadow. In 2010 Mayfield Senior School sophomores helped build a classical seven circuit labyrinth, which has become a special place for people to find peace and quiet in our urban community. Westridge uses the garden as part of its regular curriculum and its summer program for students from the Pasadena Unified School District.

"Gardens help sustain us physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually," says Betty. "They differ from parks in that plants and trees provide the focal point in a garden. You won't find play structures or merry go rounds here. You don't need to run to see what's here. It will wait for you to discover it. Of all the positive comments we have heard, one by a PUSD middle school student following a summer class at Westridge captures it perfectly. When asked by the teacher what she liked about Arlington Garden, the student wrote that she likes the Garden 'because I can hear my thoughts here.'"

Arlington Garden has retained memories from the days of Pasadena's Millionaires Row. It is on the site of the fabled Durand House, a 17,000 square foot, 50-room mansion built in 1904 and which was the largest home in Southern California at the time. The McKenneys have planted 48 Washington Navel oranges and a hedge of Cherokee Roses along the perimeter, reminiscent of what graced the ten acre Durand Estate through most of the 20th Century. In digging to create the garden's original irrigation system, the McKenneys unearthed a multitude of tiles, fixtures, and large Arizona sandstone bricks that provided much of the facing of the Durand House. The sandstone has been incorporated into the Garden's amphitheater.

Thousands drive by Arlington Garden each day on busy Pasadena Avenue and see a pleasant landscape. And those who stop, take a brief "timeout," and walk into the Garden see much more. But those who stay a little longer and sit a while, discover "the surprises around every corner," smell the flowers, and see the butterflies and bees and listen to the birds, can truly appreciate what Arlington Garden provides for them and our city.

As we move toward 2011, the McKenneys have high hopes for completing development of the Garden according to the plan created by designer Mayita Dinos. A California plaza near the orange grove and pepper trees will include a quadrant with a water element and an arbor big enough to sit under and walk through, perhaps supporting a green roof and some sitting walls made of hay or straw/adobe construction around the Craftsman Commons.

Visitors are welcome any time, sunrise to sunset, seven days a week.