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For Earth Day, go play in the garden

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THIS weekend, you could celebrate Earth Day -- which is technically Tuesday -- among L.A.'s stalled freeways, its overbooked apartments and endless arid concrete sidewalks. Or, like the hundreds of thousands of us who trek through Southern California's public gardens each year, you could put spring to better use. Don't know a genus from a phylum? Not a problem.

"The No. 1 reason people come to gardens is to have a quality experience with someone else, be it a boyfriend, girlfriend, family member or friend," says L.A. County Arboretum chief executive Mark Wourms. "Here you have the ability to connect with other people in a way you don't have in a crowded coffee shop."

But you might have already noticed that. "In our visitors you see the face of L.A.," notes David Brown, executive director of La Cañada Flintridge's Descanso Gardens -- where nose-piercings are just as likely to be represented as flouncy wide-brimmed hats. "It's not a commercial activity," Brown says. "Moments like this are rare in contemporary life."

In real life, sure, but not at Descanso, where seven bucks buys 150 acres of Technicolor tulips, hump-backed bridges, glistening ponds, bamboo thickets, camellias and a rare SoCal lilac stand.

In fact, there's so much to not buy, you might want to keep window-shopping Mother Nature forever. In that case, follow our trail for further exploring. Shrouded in fussy grooming or laissez-faire ambience, stocked with rare botanicals, native specimens and horticultural globe-trotters, our public gardens possess distinct personalities. Shaped as much by aesthetics as geography, they serve as cultural narrators, telling tales about our philosophical preoccupations and even our collective past.

But maybe, like Kirby Galli and David Cline, you'd rather listen to your iPod. An Amoeba Records manager, Cline composes playlists for each outing. "We like to enjoy the garden in our own way," says Galli. Take a cue.

Garden of Flowing Fragrance, San Marino

On two occasions, Pasadena's venerable Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens flew over Chinese artisans to assist in the creation of its recently unveiled Liu Fang Yuan, or Garden of Flowing Fragrance. The first in the Golden State based on the classic Chinese tradition of scholar gardens, it's also the largest of its kind in the U.S.

With subtle but calculated artifice, these gardens seek to foster intellectual stimulation as well as nature appreciation by orchestrating effects, framing scenes and employing decorative touches such as poetry and calligraphy. "Our designer spent about a year walking the site, just planning," says communications coordinator Lisa Blackburn.

All that strolling translates into motifs such as the interplay between the man-made Lake of Reflected Fragrance and an overhanging California Native Oak, where ripples of the former throw coruscating light into branches of the latter; or the Terrace That Invites the Mountains, a teahouse perch angled to showcase the San Gabriels. The garden's tea shop, which serves dim sum daily, is intended to be a hub as much as an amenity. "Japanese gardens are much more serene, drawing on a different philosophy," Blackburn notes. "Gardens in China are bustling and lively, not Zen-like environments. They're about socializing."

The Japanese Garden, Van Nuys

San Francisco can claim the U.S.'s oldest Japanese garden, and St. Louis has North America's largest, but Van Nuys? It's home to the one attached to the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant. A testament to the plant's efficacy, which within 11 1/2 hours can transmute sludge into fresh H2O, this 6 1/2 -acre site adjacent to the Sepulveda Basin Recreation Center was established in 1984. Features include not just pastoral architecture, black pebble banks, weeping peach trees and a compulsive authenticity down to its snow-viewing lantern, but also a reclamation-plant viewing station with accompanying video. Come for the science lesson, or just to commune with the karensansui (Zen Buddhist-style dry garden).

Our Lady of the Angels, downtown L.A.

Downtown Los Angeles is scattered with leafy, if petite, refuges. (Think Disney Hall's garden patio, the Kyoto Hotel's rooftop half-acre, the courthouse courtyard with its exuberant fountain and piped-in soundtrack.) But on the grounds of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels sits a uniquely symbolic bouquet of refreshing way stations.

With old mission road El Camino Real (a.k.a. the 101 Freeway) running beneath the cathedral's northern edge, designers paired it with a line of the California Pepper trees favored by Franciscans. Though sprinkled with much biblical greenery (fig and olive trees, Stone Pines) and international specimens associated with global religions (such as the Ginkgo trees often grown near Chinese and Korean temples), many visitors have been gravitating toward a rather surprising inspiration: "A lot of people sit and watch the freeway," says archdiocese media relations director Tod Tamberg.

Not that anyone minds. Rearrange the benches, let your children scamper freely, sip a glass of wine from the adjoining cafe -- it's all fine. "We said from the very beginning it'll be neat to see what people do with it," Tamberg says. "We did our part in creating it; it's their part to make it a home."

Rancho Los Alamitos, Long Beach

Rancho Los Alamitos was once home to the Bixby family, who came to California for the Gold Rush and stayed for the oil. As such, several famous landscape architects had a hand in the Rancho, including a Rose Garden and Italianate Cypress patio by the Olmsted Brothers (sons of famed Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted), and various flowering walks and cactus groves by the likes of Huntington Estate designer William Hertrich, and Florence Yoch, a Pasadena landscape architect who laid the groundwork for "Gone With the Wind's" Tara.

In 1986, the Rancho Los Alamitos Foundation -- headed by former California Historical Society associate director Pamela Seager -- partnered with the city of Long Beach and began meticulously restoring each of the garden areas according to historical photographs, treating this terrain as an intersection between culture and environment. Rancho preservationists have trained their sights on the entire landscape, Seager says, as a document detailing layers of cultural accumulation.

Considered the birthplace of SoCal's Tongva people -- "It's our Bethlehem, our Mecca," says local tribe member Craig Torres -- it retains a "shell midden," or massive dump of crushed seashells testifying to the culinary habits of ancient Americans, on its eastern edge. Overwritten but not erased by the 1927 Olmsted-designed Jacaranda Walk, this midden joins relics from missionary padres and their medicinal plants, lawn-loving New England transplants, and quaint horticultural attempts to blot out encroaching urbanization.

"Here you can compare and contrast 1,500 years of history simultaneously," Seager says.

Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine, Pacific Palisades

The yogi himself, Indian-born Paramahansa Yogananda, conjured up this 10-acre Pacific Palisades confection in 1950 -- with a little help from world-class Californian horticulturist Luther Burbank. Looped around L.A.'s only spring-fed lake, a deep, glassy jade pool sporting ducks, koi, a pair of swans and a coterie of turtles, it offers devotees and day-trippers a winding wood-chip pathway abundantly shaded by high slopes.

A cellphone-free zone (can we get a hallelujah?), it's studded with percussive waterfalls, stone benches ensconced in cul-de-sacs, and international greenery symbolizing global harmony. Interfaith deities abound -- here lies a Gandhi shrine (in a 1,000-year-old Chinese sarcophagus, reportedly the only portion of his ashes resting outside India) and an eastern deity of the Jainian persuasion alongside a Madonna and child. All this well-priced serenity (free, but accepts donations) attracts an eclectic bunch -- straw cowboy hats, tattooed hypnotherapists, stroller-pushing parents, and many Eastern Europeans and Middle Easterners. "There's a fairly large Russian community in West Hollywood, and word just got around," says resident monk Brother Atmananda. "Same thing among the Iranian community."

Theatricum Botanicum, Topanga Canyon

The theatrical season doesn't officially start until June 1 at this open-air amphitheater squirreled away in Topanga Canyon. But the surrounding gardens -- a loose compilation of Egyptian papyrus, various sage varieties, loping bundles of rosemary, tufts of irises, centenarian oaks and a trickling creek -- always welcome picnickers and friends. The former digs of blacklisted actor/onetime botany major Will Geer (that's Grandpa Walton to you), the site went from vegetable garden and arts colony to professional repertory theater rather organically. In other words, don't come looking for some manicured design. Says house manager Ameena Maria Khawaja, "That would be too contrived for the area. . . . It needs to keep the 'Topanga feel.' "

L.A. County Arboretum, Arcadia

"I don't know how to categorize us," says Arboretum head Mark Wourms. "I think it's part of our charm. . . . We want to be a place for inspiring and opening people's eyes to new ideas. We're always looking for something unique. Or just whimsical," he adds. "Nothing wrong with that."

On its 127 rolling acres, 220 known species of birds (including its famous peacocks) have been sighted, 18,000 plants have been labeled, and 320,000 humans have passed through annually. "If you haven't been here for one to three years, it makes a huge difference," Wourms says. For instance, you haven't glimpsed the wacky cactuses in the newly minted Madagascar Spiny Forest, with its mousetrap tree and potbellied pacypodiums. You've not yet traipsed through "Catawampus," a cockeyed Patrick Dougherty sculpture of woven willow branches. And, Wourms says, even repeat visitors have a habit of missing the Mexican Thonning's Fig: a dense, Seuss-ian specimen that "walks" across the landscape by dropping aerial roots from its migrating branches.

"You'd be amazed how many artists and writers we get out here," Wourms says.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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