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Development of San Diego Botanic Garden
from its opening in 1970 to 2016


By Dave Ehrlinger, Director of Horticulture, 2002 to 2013

Since its official opening in 1970 as a partnership between San Diego County and the Quail Gardens Foundation, Inc., the Garden has seen significant development and transformation from a small county park to a nationally recognized botanic garden. There were hundreds of steps along the way and countless inspiring people who made this transformation possible.

It began with some good news from Paul Ecke, Sr., one of the Foundation’s original Board members, who donated the 4.2-acre property south of the Garden to the County as an addition in 1971. The building on that property known as the Scout Hut became invaluable as the activity and administrative center of the Garden. In 1974 the building was remodeled and renamed the Ecke Family Building

In 1973, however, two of the most important leaders of the Garden passed away within a few months of each other. One of those was Julia von Preissig, the President of the Quail Gardens Foundation, Inc., and Chair of the Liaison Committee who had worked tirelessly for years with the County and numerous other organizations to ensure success for the Garden. Gerald Cullison remembered Julia von Preissig as “a strong lady, an organizer, who carried the ball.”

The second loss was Mildred Macpherson, the certified landscape architect who as previously mentioned owned the Williams-Macpherson Nursery in Encinitas where Ruth Larabee bought many unusual plants over the years. Macpherson was Chairman of the Foundation’s Landscape Committee during the formative years of the 1960s. She was also an educator, serving as a teacher, dean and principal of schools in Encinitas. She was on the San Diego County Board of Education for 24 years. A friend of Paul Ecke, Sr., Macpherson worked with County staff as the Foundation’s representative in planning garden restorations and future projects. When she died she left a bequest to install a dramatic waterfall (later named in her honor) at the head of the canyon that is now the Tropical Rain Forest.

After these losses in leadership, Florence Seibert, who had been the Foundation’s first President in 1964, stepped in and became the President pro temp for eighteen months. H. S. Sherman, Julia von Preissig’s brother, capably served as President for the next four years. Eventually a group of younger leaders with new energy and enthusiasm got involved in the Garden, including Archibald “Archie” Owen, Bill Gunther, and Richard Haubrich. In 1974 they were joined by Gil Voss, a knowledgeable botanist and zoologist who graduated from San Diego State University.

P. J. Miller was hired in 1962 to lead the San Diego County Parks and Recreation staff. He was a World War II veteran who was present at the front on D-Day. He supervised extensive garden restoration and coordinated with contractors who installed roads, restrooms, water lines, irrigation, and the parking lot for the County. Bill Nelson, owner of Pacific Tree Farms nursery remembered Miller as very energetic, saying, “If you wanted to talk to P.J. you had to talk on the run, as he went from one job to the next.” Miller and his wife, Chris, lived on the grounds in the Larabee House.

Clarence Heidemann joined the staff as a Gardener in 1964 and lived with his wife, Bernie, in the Lawn House. Heidemann was a World War II Marine veteran who served in the Pacific, including Midway, the islands, and Iwo Jima. Both Miller and Heidemann were dedicated and hardworking individuals. In 1974 they were joined by Gil Voss, a knowledgeable botanist and zoologist who graduated from San Diego State University.

Before long, large plant sales staffed by Foundation volunteers were held at the Garden to raise funds, with plants donated by local nurseries and many plant societies. Christmas holiday events also became popular.

East of the Ecke Family Building the original Southern maritime chaparral and its rare Del Mar manzanitas were preserved through the efforts of noted botanist Mitchel (“Mitch”) Beauchamp, President of the young San Diego Native Plant Society. In a letter to the County he noted the chaparral’s value to the quail and other wildlife. He also recommended installing paths in these areas along which plants could be labeled and identified for visitors.

The major project for the late 1970s was the installation of the Mildred Macpherson Waterfall. After extensive planning between the County and the Foundation the spectacular project was dedicated on March 11, 1979. Designed and built by Torzeski Studios, the complex installation required a crane to set huge boulders in place in a naturalistic fashion. Gardener Gil Voss acquired plants from a wide variety of nursery sources and was in charge of landscaping.

In 1978 P.J. Miller retired. Gil Voss was later appointed Horticulturist and he and his wife, Alison, moved into the Larabee House. Voss brought a more scientific and professional approach to botanical garden operations. He organized the Garden into geographic areas, an organizational pattern that was common at the time, especially in California botanical gardens. For years he went on regular collecting trips to Central Mexico, focusing on the ethnobotany of the Huichol Indians. Alison Voss organized the Docent Society in 1981 to train more volunteers to support the Garden by providing tours, and staffing the nursery, herbarium, library, and various events.

County Gardener Steve Brigham supervised the construction of new nursery facilities, improved nursery operations, and expanded plant collections.

The American Bamboo Society was started at the Garden in 1979. Among its founders were Gil Voss, Quail Gardens Foundation, Inc., Board member Richard Haubrich, and Bill Teague, later a Garden staff member. The Garden’s collection of bamboo, which began in the late 1970s, has long been the largest collection in any U.S. public gardens.

In 1982 landscape architect Paul Mahalik designed a landscape in memory of the founding Garden Board Member, nurseryman Horace Anderson. As an extension of Palm Canyon this garden simulated the tropical foothills of the Himalayas using fishtail palms, Caryota urens and other appropriate species. Mahalik later designed an addition to the Waterfall, which was built in 1986. This created a stream from the Waterfall pond that apparently ran under the walkway and

through the tropical forest down to a lower pond. Although appearing to be connected with the Waterfall, it is actually a separate water feature. This landscape addition was artfully crafted and remains very popular with visitors today.

In 1985 a land swap was made between the County and a local development company. Property along Saxony Road on the west side of the Garden was traded for land previously owned by Hans Hartman. This included three houses and what is now another parking lot. The Silverado Encinitas Memory Care Community facility was later built on the Saxony Road site.

In 1986 the Visitor Center and Gift Shop were built, expanding visitor services. In addition to plant sales the Garden hosted weddings, concerts, arts and crafts fairs, and flower and plant shows.

In 1988 the County appointed Steve Hendrix as Superintendent. He resided in the largest of the three Hartman houses north of the Subtropical Fruit Garden.

The Garden received a federal Institute of Museum Services (I.M.S.) grant in 1988 to inventory, tag, and map the Garden’s collections of bamboos, cycads, and palms. The plant records system was computerized, and the Garden was surveyed. Grid markers were installed to aid in mapping the Garden’s plant collection.

In the early 1990s students at Mira Costa College developed a special garden in the northeast corner of the Garden along Quail Gardens Drive to demonstrate the merits of California native plants.

The Overlook Tower opened in 1992. Its wooden boardwalk was built to protect the sensitive Southern maritime chaparral habitat in which it is located. A few weeks later the Gazebo in the Lawn Garden was dedicated and became an enormously popular garden feature, especially as a backdrop for weddings.

In the late 1980s San Diego County had serious financial problems and the Parks and Recreation Department was forced to make cutbacks. Ultimately, in 1993, San Diego County tax support for the Garden was terminated. The Quail Gardens Foundation, Inc., negotiated a lease with the County in which the Foundation would manage and operate the Garden for five years, from Oct. 28, 1993 to Oct. 27, 1998, while the County retained ownership. From this point on the Garden was financially supported by admissions, membership, gift shop and plant sales, donations, and a variety of fund-raising activities.

The Insect Fair began in the early 1990s. With its small, kid-sized creatures it has always been a popular and educational event for children and their families. Summer concerts were also held in the Garden.

Through the difficulties of this period, in view of the loss of County revenues, a core group of Board members, docents, volunteers, and supportive people from both local and extended communities were critical to the Garden’s support. Joyce Wilder was Board President from 1994 to 1996. In 1994 the Ecke Family Building was remodeled to improve its use as the Garden’s administrative and education center. A search was conducted to hire an executive director in 1994. In January 1995 Julian Duval began his long tenure. In the same year the Canary Islands

Garden was opened. The Garden of Lights began in 1996 as an evening event during the winter holiday season. Thousands of holiday lights are hung to create delightful nighttime charm.

Features include carolers, roasting marshmallows, crafts for kids, horse drawn wagon rides, and a visit with Santa.

A series of garden improvements took place in the late 1990s. The Bamboo Garden opened in 1996 with new plantings, pathways, irrigation, and signs. A pond was installed which was soon popular, with small fish, bullfrogs, turtles, and water lilies. A sculpture entitled “Asian Shadows,” by noted local sculptor and architects James Hubbell, was installed by the pond. In 1996 docent Nils Lunnerdal installed the “Landscape for Fire Safety” garden to protect the Ecke Family Building from wildfires as well as to demonstrate appropriate landscape design and fire- resistant plants.

In 1997 the Subtropical Fruit Garden was upgraded with new plantings, pathways, signs, and irrigation. Plant identification and larger interpretive signs were installed to inform visitors about cultivating fruits in home gardens and landscapes. The following year the Waterfall area was enhanced with new plantings and signs. It was renamed the “Rain Forest” to focus on this biologically diverse area and its conservation concerns.

In 2000 the first annual “Gala” evening fund-raising event was held. This features food and beverages served in attractive garden locations, followed by an auction with a guest honoree. Each year the funds raised from this event contribute to a specific project or much needed equipment.

The Native Plants and Native People display opened in 2000 in the chaparral outside the Ecke Family Building. Educational signs point out plants and describe the ethnobotany of the Kumeyaay indigenous people who once lived here. A Kumeyaay ewaa dwelling and a ramada were constructed, along with a recirculating pond and stream.

During this period the Foundation Board of Trustees was strengthened under its President, Jim Farley, with improved governance policies, organization, and operations.

In 2003 the Seeds of Wonder Children’s Garden opened as a trial garden for a larger future children’s garden. Later in 2003 the Garden signed a 55-year lease with the city of Encinitas for the 4.5-acre property to the north which was once owned by the Ecke family. The San Dieguito Heritage Museum was given 1.2 acres of the site to install facilities in their mission of preserving and interpreting local history. In 2003 Quail Gardens Drive was extended north to Leucadia Drive, greatly increasing traffic flow past the Garden’s entrance.

Most of the Garden got a fresh, new look from 2001 to 2009 when large areas were renovated with new plantings, landscaping, irrigation, and signs. During this time several new gardens were added, including the popular Undersea Succulent Garden, the Mexican Garden with its delightful topiaries, the South African Garden, and the Succulent Display Garden. With a new awareness of water conservation, both locally and statewide, most of these gardens feature succulents and other drought tolerant plants. Conservation and sustainability are ongoing themes in all the Garden’s operations.

In 2009 The Hamilton Children’s Garden opened, the largest project ever undertaken by the Garden. It was named after Board member Frances Hamilton White who pledged one million dollars for the construction. It greatly increased attendance and membership, appealing to the millennial generation and their young children as well as to Baby Boomers and their grandchildren. Its main feature is Toni’s Tree House, situated atop a 25 foot artificial tree which towers over a dozen themed gardens and features, from Incredible Edibles to the Mountain Stream and Quail Haven, a display of the Garden’s signature bird. Later in the year the name of the Garden was changed from “Quail Botanical Gardens” to the “San Diego Botanic Garden” a sign of its changing regional focus and significance.

In 2012 the Visitor Center and Gift Shop and its Plant Shop were enlarged and remodeled. The shops were renamed the Garden Shops. The Welcome Center was installed improving admissions operations and traffic flow. Sculpture in the Garden began, featuring works by regional artists displayed in natural, picturesque settings.

In 2013 the Garden joined the Center for Plant Conservation, a national organization dedicated to conserving rare North American plants through a network of botanical gardens and arboreta. The Garden also joined the American Public Garden Association’s Plant Collections Network with its bamboo collection.

As a measure of the Garden’s growth, from the early 1980s to the year 2000, the annual attendance had plateaued at about 100,000 visitors per year. After 2000, attendance steadily rose until in 2015 it was over 230,000 visitors per year, while membership increased even more.

As San Diego Botanic Garden looks to the future, the next major project is the development of the Dickinson Family Education Conservatory to be located north of the Hamilton Children’s Garden. It will feature a conservatory of tropical plants amidst spaces for educational classes and events.

Garden horticulture and facility staff offices and storage will move from the Larabee House and the Lawn House to a new building constructed by the County. The Larabee House and the Lawn House will then serve a variety of public functions. The former will serve as a center for the story of the Garden’s Larabee history, as well as a location for wedding personnel and meetings. Plans are in place to restore the front (east-facing) porch to more closely resemble its appearance when Ruth and Charles lived there. Some years after Ruth left, the porch was enclosed to create office space for the horticultural staff, and soon it will be returned to something similar to its original status.

Another plan for future growth arose as a result of the Leichtag Foundation’s purchase in 2012 of the Paul Ecke Ranch property to the north. It has been developed as an innovative model to connect people to their community, to demonstrate best practices for growing food, and the importance of the land and social justice based on historic Jewish practices

Thanks to the Leichtag Foundation, there are future plans to donate a number of acres of this property to San Diego Botanic Garden to expand the Garden with a new entry, parking, and visitor center and conservatory.

San Diego Botanic Garden will continue to be a vital part of the growth and development of San Diego’s North County community and greater San Diego in years to come. For example, the Garden has partnered with the local school district, the Leichtag Foundation, and other neighboring institutions, including the Magdalena Ecke YMCA, the San Dieguito Heritage Museum, and Seacrest Village Retirement Communities, to form the “Encinitas Environmental Education (E3) Cluster.”

This project began in 2015 when the Encinitas Union School District opened an Agro-Ecology Learning Center across from SDBG on Quail Gardens Drive, which also features a local community garden. Growth of the E3 Cluster is based on a cooperative agreement made between all of the organizations, “…to develop educational, experiential learning and multigenerational programs around the nexus of agriculture, horticulture, science, sustainability, community building, and the local history and agricultural traditions of Encinitas.”

Note: This report was originally written for the book entitled Sowing Seeds of Wonder, by Sally Sandler, Docent and Historian, 2016.

Hamilton Children’s Garden landscape was designed by Deneen, Powell Atelier (DPA). 

Banner Photo: Rachel Cobb