The Dry Garden: A 3-acre, low-water labor of love called Arlington


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As beautiful as private landscapes can be, and they can be stunning, none can match the poetry, joy and solace of a public garden done right. As proof, look no further than Arlington Garden in Pasadena. Here, since breaking ground on the 3-acre site five years ago, neighbor Betty McKenney has seen just about every kind of human interaction.

‘We have people who meditate and pray,’ said McKenney, left. ‘We have counselors and young people from a local clinic, some of whom are pretty troubled. Certainly there are schools and Scout programs. People bring their computers, or they read. They walk dogs. We see engaged couples getting photographed. Other photographers work on catalogs with their models. Last time it was a little bit risque. Some of those girls had really long legs. We see couples -- 70, 80 years old -- holding hands walking through the garden. I saw a mom one afternoon sitting with her little boy. He was eating a pomegranate and they were talking about birds. Then teenagers come in at night. We have it all.’


And that’s even before arriving at the plants, a mix of carefully selected, drought-tolerant California natives and Mediterranean climate zone imports, assembled in a public space that is first-class wildlife habitat and model of water conservation.

The people who did the most to make Arlington Garden are McKenney and her husband, Charles. After retiring from a computing job at Caltech (Betty) and practicing law (Charles), and quickly rethinking a brief move to Santa Barbara, these Pasadenans bought a condominium on Arlington Drive. Next door were 3 acres of mown weeds interspersed by a gaggle of palms and a few trees. This was the last remnant of Durand Mansion, a baronial monstrosity razed in the 1960s.

Caltrans bought the land during the construction of the 710 Freeway but never used it. By 2003, the city of Pasadena was holding public hearings to discuss alternative uses. ‘Everyone said no this, no that,’ Charles said. ‘No playing field. No parking lot. Nobody said what they did want.’

Betty and Charles, himself a former Pasadena councilman, were tasked by the city to form a committee and canvass for ideas. ‘I thought maybe we should plant a few trees out here,’ Charles said. ‘Betty kind of patted me on the head.’

The city parks department was supportive but bowed out of the design phase because its metier was playgrounds. After local colleges were enlisted to kick-start collective dreaming, Cal Poly Pomona drawings helped to visualize a public garden. By the time Betty had the idea to make it a Mediterranean climate demonstration garden, the project had backing from their councilman, parks department, Caltrans and Pasadena Water and Power.

Betty credits her inspiration to a class by Jan Smithen at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden. At the time, Smithen’s 2002 book, ‘Sun-Drenched Gardens: The Mediterranean Style,’ was a growing sensation. Record drought on the Colorado River concentrated attention of local water managers on promoting lawn alternatives.


If their garden was to be a credible water-wise model, it had to be done right. Betty collared Smithen at a Vroman’s book signing to ask for help. Smithen recommended Culver City landscape designer Mayita Dinos. Soon a fresh round of meetings with the community began. ‘Neighbors wanted places where they could meet with other people and to walk with their dogs or get a little exercise,’ the designer said. ‘They didn’t want people playing ball. There was also the feeling that it might be the place where you could go and pick a few herbs to take home.’

For Dinos, another challenge was picking up the historical context of the site, so a grove of navel oranges was planned along Pasadena Avenue. In 2005, local schoolchildren planted the trees, which now bear fruit that goes into marmalade sold to cover some garden costs.

For the first two years after breaking ground, the McKenneys watered the 3 acres by hand. This saved water but wore them out. After raising money (‘in the low five figures’) to put in a Netafim drip system, comparisons showed that they were using only 17% of the water required by a similarly sized park nearby.

Another part of water wisdom is catching and using local rainfall, so adjacent to the grove in a natural sink on the site, Arlington Garden has a riparian area with sycamores and reedy grasses. ‘Where are my tidy tips?’ Betty asked during a recent inspection.

The most important aspect in a water conservation garden is plant choice. Rising along the Arlington Drive perimeter is a desert garden studded with succulents and palo verde trees. Paths winding up a slope lead through a succession of increasingly formal seating areas to a Mediterranean allee, where drought-tolerant olives surround a sweep of equally hardy lavender.

Good gardens have surprises, and one of Arlington’s is its amphitheater. Local landscaper Marco Barrantes built it using donated pillars, and an artist then topped this with a metal-work cap. A stained-glass piece with a pomegranate motif will cap a project that is swiftly becoming Pasadena’s answer to Watts Towers.


Almost everything here has been donated or sold to the garden at a discount. White- and pink-flowering crape myrtles studded throughout the garden, right, come from Yoko Ono’s Wish Trees for Pasadena exhibit.

Benches, pottery, fencing and fountains are gifts of local residents.

Betty reels off other contributions: Pasadena Beautiful did this, the Boy Scouts that, the Girl Scouts, local craftsmen -- you need a spreadsheet to compile them all.

The most touching sight is the volunteers at work. Foothill arborist Rebecca Latta, pictured above with McKenney, is on contract but works even when the pay runs out. Biologist Thomas Juhasz, who teaches plant identification at USC, volunteered to develop the desert garden. Neighbors such as Dan Delucie pitch in. He has been busy this winter.

‘The rain sets the weeds off,’ said Delucie, right, taking a break from work in the herb garden.

Charles McKenney isn’t sure how much it cost to turn 3 acres of Caltrans scrub into a meandering public garden. Somewhere in the neighborhood of a quarter of a million dollars? Much of that was donated. Yet he’s quick to add that in the five years since ground was broken, the garden has also received thousands of hours of volunteer labor. Raising money for maintenance and a planned craft area is an ongoing challenge.

Designer Dinos knows of no other place quite like Arlington Garden and credits the McKenneys’ drive.


‘When you want something so badly, like if it’s food, you can taste it,’ she said. ‘I think that’s how they felt.’

The remarkable thing about what they wanted so badly is that it was for everyone, which is what makes Arlington Garden so beautiful.

-- Emily Green

Green’s column on sustainable gardening appears here every Friday. Bookmark our blog or follow the scene via our Facebook page dedicated to gardening in the West.

Remnants from the Durand Mansion on site were used to build the amphitheater.

Detail from the Mediterranean allee, also pictured at the top of post.

Stone labyrinth.

Designer Mayita Dinos’ early schematic for the garden-in-progress.

Clarification: An earlier version of this post may have left some readers thinking that an amphitheater was not part of Dinos’ original plan. It was.


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