O.C. in Bloom: 10 Must-See Gardens in Orange County

Illustrations by Angela Martini
Sherman Library and Gardens. Photograph by Emily J. Davis

Orange County has a bounty of gorgeous botanical spaces and stunning wildflower hikes. Spring is a great time to hit the trails, take a leisurely walk through lush grounds, find your Zen, and embrace your inner green thumb. From touring a public garden to attending a cherry blossom festival, there are plenty of activities to keep you inspired this season. Here are 10 must-see gardens in O.C.

Sherman Library and Gardens
While exploring this tranquil haven in Corona del Mar, it’s hard to remember you’re just steps away from bustling Coast Highway. This is one of the more manicured gardens in the county, with brick pathways, tile fountains, and a display of succulents artfully arranged in a mosaic with colored glass. The lily pond near the Coast Highway entrance is flanked by statues that include a river otter nicknamed Shermie. At golden hour, this area is reminiscent of Monet’s Giverny. A visit to the greenhouse—modulated to mimic a warm, jungle climate—will transport you to the tropics. Not only will you find alluring plants you’ve never heard of, you’ll also happen upon koi fish and turtles in the pond. Throughout the year, the garden hosts seasonal exhibits with past themes including oversize summer furniture. Through April 30, you’ll find “Jungle Junk Critters,” a collection of sculptures made out of recycled materials, such as abandoned beach toys and bottle caps, by local architect Ron Yeo. Round out your visit with a meal at Cafe Jardin, open for lunch (11 a.m to 2 p.m. most days). The restaurant helmed by chef Pascal Olhats sources some produce from the on-site culinary garden.

Rare Species: Oncidium “Sharry Baby,” a chocolate-scented orchid

Acres: 2.2
Established: 1966
Admission: $5 for adults; $3 (ages 12 to 18)
Good to Know: From spring to fall, Cafe Jardin serves Sunday brunch.

Photograph by Emily J. Davis

Casa Romantica
As you walk through the keyhole entrance, you’ll notice the Spanish Colonial Revival influences: colored tile floors, white stucco, courtyards, and archways. The blufftop home and garden of Ole Hanson, the founder of San Clemente, boasts unobstructed views of San Clemente Pier and Catalina Island. On a sunny day, the pink bougainvillea, the city’s official flower, is particularly striking against the azure waters of the Pacific. Ten signature gardens are dedicated to species such as cacti, butterfly-attracting shrubs, plants used by native Achajamen, herbs, and forest plants. Be sure to take note of the row of towering Monterey cypress trees lining the woodland trail at the edge of the property.

Rare Species: Erythrina caffra or “coral tree,” a tropical, flowering tree

Acres: 2.5
Established: 1927
Admission: $5; free for children 12 and under
Good to Know: An on-site art gallery often showcases the work of local artists.

Photograph courtesy of Niguel Botanical Preserve

Niguel Botanical Preserve
Hidden in plain sight behind Crown Valley Park in Laguna Niguel, this sprawling oasis is home to native California plants as well as a variety of flora from Australia, Chile, South Africa, and the Mediterranean Basin. There are areas maintained by Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, a rose garden, and a children’s garden and play area. You can easily spend a few hours wandering the trails. Walkways such as Succulent Row, Pine Circle, and Protea Terrace allude to the plants you might spot nearby. Don’t miss The Labyrinth, an elevated lookout point boasting a panoramic view of the Santa Ana Mountains. Since the garden is meant to showcase plants that are drought tolerant and can grow in our climate, you’ll find many ideas for your own backyard.

Rare Species: Quercus suber or “cork oak,” an evergreen oak tree with bark used for wine corks

Acres: 18.2
Established: 1984
Admission: Free
Good to Know: Pets on leashes are welcome.


Photograph by Emily J. Davis

Mission San Juan Capistrano
Strolling through the mission’s aged adobe buildings and gardens is like stepping back in time. Enjoy the Spanish Colonial architecture and an array of California native and nonnative plants while learning about the center’s rich history. The central courtyard surrounded by exterior arcades is beautifully landscaped with flowering shrubs and trees such as Spanish lavender, camelias, and date palms. Find a moment of reflection by the gently bubbling fountain filled with koi fish and lily pads. While many of the grounds’ cultivated plants are ornamental, you’ll find a grape arbor and vegetable patch that pay homage to the mission’s history of growing crops for food and wine. Don’t miss the historic ruins of the Great Stone Church and the tucked away campanario (bell tower), the mission’s own secret garden.

Rare Species: Brugmansia or “angel’s trumpets,” whimsically shaped yet highly poisonous

Acres: 9.9
Established: 1776
Admission: $14 for adults; $9 for kids and students; $12 for seniors
Good to Know: On Wednesdays at 10 a.m. and 10:30 a.m., the mission’s “garden angels” conduct a tour.

Photograph by Emily J. Davis

Director Peter Bowler describes our local environment as a “biodiversity hot spot,” and the arboretum is representative of that. Walk along asphalt and gravel trails and discover a rustic collection of coastal plants from southern Oregon to Baja California, as well as South African natives. The botanical conservatory doubles as an outdoor classroom and research facility for UC Irvine students and faculty. In the distance, you’ll catch a glimpse of San Joaquin Marsh Reserve, a unique wetland awash in California bulrushes. An on-site herbarium, also available for tours, has a catalog of more than 30,000 plant specimens dating back to the 1870s. The collection seeks to be a permanent, digital repository of plants that occur in Orange County for future generations. Take a tour led by Bowler or collections manager Rebecca Crowe and leave with a deeper understanding of our ecosystem.

Rare Species: A fig tree with hanging aerial roots

Acres: 12.5
Established: 1970
Admission: Free

Photograph by Emily J. Davis

Noguchi Garden
Also known as the California Scenario, this sparse, minimalist garden in Costa Mesa is a welcome escape amid corporate office towers. Designed by Japanese American artist and landscape architect Isamu Noguchi, the space features elements meant to represent the Golden State’s diverse ecology, from a grove of California redwoods to a mound of desert plants. A narrow artificial stream flows from a 30-foot sandstone triangle to a granite wedge. Granite boulders throughout are reminiscent of rock formations you might find at Joshua Tree. A 12-foot sculpture by Noguchi is named “The Spirit of the Lima Bean,” which references the land’s history as a bean farm.

Rare Species: California redwood, an evergreen tree regarded as among the tallest and oldest living things

Acres: 1.6
Established: 1980
Admission: Free
Good to Know: Park at the Pacific Arts Plaza parking structure at Anton Boulevard and Avenue of the Arts in Costa Mesa.

Photograph courtesy of Farm + Food Lab

Farm + Food Lab
Nestled in the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, this charming retreat is filled with a vibrant cornucopia of plants including fruit trees, herbs, and vegetable patches. Described as an “outdoor classroom,” the lab is a project by O.C. native and former state agriculture secretary A.G. Kawamura to educate visitors about gardening at home. You’ll find informative signs on topics such as planters, fertilizer, seeds, and pollination. Highlights include themed raised garden beds such as the pizza and spaghetti garden teeming with plants typically found in Italian dishes: peppers, onions, eggplants, and tomatoes. Extend your visit by borrowing a book from The Little Library, the on-site bookstand. There are many places to sit and read throughout the lab.

Rare Species: Sakurajima daikon or “giant radish” is native to Japan and can grow up to 100 pounds.

Acres: 1.3
Established: 2009
Admission: Free
Good to Know: The nearest parking is at Cadence and Balloon Parkway.

Photograph courtesy of Fullerton Arboretum

Fullerton Arboretum TEMPORARILY CLOSED
The county was once the land of orange groves, so it’s no surprise we have plenty of institutions that reflect our agricultural roots. Cal State Fullerton’s expansive garden pays tribute to Orange County’s history with a grove of fruit trees that includes oranges and exotic produce such as lychee and star fruit. The largest botanical garden in the county offers a variety of walking routes, including a hilly 1.5-mile trail and one suited for strollers and wheelchairs. Kids will enjoy testing their senses with the garden of herbs and natural instruments. As you tour the area’s eclectic collection of more than 4,000 plant species, you’ll find opportunities to pause and reflect at the many shaded areas, quiet corners, and benches situated near the creek and pond. Stop by the OC Agricultural and Nikkei Heritage Museum for an exhibit on the arboretum’s first 40 years.

Rare Species: Ginkgo biloba or “maidenhair tree,” one of the oldest living tree species native to Xitianmu Mountain in China

Acres: 26
Established: 1979
Admission: Free

Photograph by Eluzion Photography

Coastkeeper Garden
At Santiago Canyon College in Orange, this exhibition garden features California natives as well as exotic plants well-suited to our climate. Find ideas for growing your own sustainable garden as you walk through trails of decomposed granite and permeable pavers. These surfaces help manage runoff and filter rainwater into the ground. You’ll likely be greeted by Nala, garden director Marianne Hugo’s black Labrador mix. The welcoming staff specializes in water-wise, low-care plants and can answer questions and provide expertise on drip irrigation and pest control. With an eye for landscape design, Hugo models an ideal yard using mulch instead of grass. Bring the family to enjoy the natural play area with picnic tables, an undulating path made of tree stumps, a hidden tunnel, and a wooden climbing wall.

Rare Species: Calliandra californica or “Baja fairy duster,” a shrub native to Baja California, Mexico, with pompom-like flowers

Acres: 2.5
Established: 2013
Admission: Free
Good to Know: Don’t miss the unpaved entrance on Santiago Canyon Road past the soccer fields and just before Jamboree Road.

Photograph by Emily J. Davis

Hortense Miller Garden
Nature meets architecture in this once-private Laguna Beach garden and midcentury modern home of artist, environmentalist, and feminist Hortense Miller. The Boat Canyon home, designed by Newport Beach architect Knowlton Fernald, boasts ocean and canyon vistas and was featured on the cover of Sunset magazine in 1969. It was donated to the city of Laguna Beach in 1973 and preserved to reflect Miller’s original layout and design, including her free-flowing artwork, furniture, and personal items. Floor-to-ceiling windows throughout create seamless harmony with the encircling garden. As you traverse the hilly terrain tended by an industrious Miller in her golden years, note the fences made of bamboo to keep out critters, steps made of tree-trunk rounds, and lively hand-painted murals.

Rare Species: Urginia maritima or “sea onion,” a Mediterranean plant with huge underground bulbs used to produce alcohol in Sicily

Acres: 2.5
Established: 1959
Admission: Free
Good to Know: Visit by booking a docent-led tour online or call 949-464-6645.

Look out for more from our O.C. in Bloom cover package here.

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