14 acres include 20 outdoor sculptures, artworks among themed garden spaces
By Priscilla Lister Special to the U-T 12:01 A.M.OCT. 13, 2013
Alta Vista Gardens
Thomas Bros. Map: Page 1088, A-5.
Before you go: Go to the gardens’ website to download a copy of its trail map, www.altavistagardens.org/html/trail_map.html. It’s a $2 donation per person who visits the garden, payable at its entry under an honor system. Hikers and dogs on leashes are welcome. The gardens are open Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., and on Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Trailhead: From state Route 78, exit at Vista Village Drive and head north. Vista Village Drive turns into East Vista Way. At Vale Terrace Drive, turn right. Continue past the main entrance to Brengle Terrace Park, and turn left at the second entrance to the park on the Jim Porter Parkway. The address is 1270 Vale Terrace Drive, Vista.
Distance/difficulty: I wandered about 1.5 miles along several trails; very easy.
Tucked on a hillside overlooking Vista’s Brengle Terrace Park is Alta Vista Gardens, a 14-acre botanical garden with a couple of miles of trails.
Years in the making, the public “living museum” intends to integrate nature, education and art. Today, it boasts the largest concentration of public art in Vista, with some 20 outdoor sculptures and artworks placed among the themed garden spaces.
Among the specimen trees, shrubs and flowering plants are several that are very rare and many that are simply beautiful.
I began to hike through the garden on a Saturday morning when Bryan Morse, president of the garden’s board and “chief visionary,” was tending to chores. He amiably offered me a guided tour, pointing out several of the garden’s special residents.
“A botanical garden was in the city’s plans in the ’60s,” he said. But it took several decades for this one to emerge.
After the Brengle family donated its 39 acres to Vista for park use in about 1968, the adjacent 14-acre parcel then owned by the Paul Smitgen family was eyed for future acquisition. The city of Vista bought the Smitgen property in about 1990, but it took nearly 10 more years for a botanical garden to come to fruition.
Morse, who is a landscape contractor with his own firm, Expanding Horizons, became involved with the garden in about 2003. “I’ve personally made every trail here with my tractor,” he said. The Boston native has lived in Vista about 30 years, having graduated from UC San Diego.
He has masterminded the shape of Alta Vista Gardens today and even has visions for how it might evolve over the next 50 years. Lots of plans are in the works. But with everything donated and done by volunteers, funds are needed to implement some projects.
About 20 themed garden spaces are in existence or being planned. One of the first I encountered near the entry is the Children’s Garden with its Jeffrey Stein Children’s Music Garden. Here are several musical instruments, including an amadinda (an African xylophone), a Piano Pebble Chime that makes lovely tones when small pebbles are placed in its holes, a whale drum and a chime wall.
Also in the Children’s Garden are a “tube tunnel,” made of several huge cement pipes placed in a meandering pattern, and several colorful sculptures, “Tail Spin” by Melissa Ralston, “Miro Kite” by Mindy Rodman and Paul White, and “The Constellation Tree” by Fritzie Urquhart.
One of the garden’s most recent creations is its Medicine Wheel in the Desert Garden. With help from Native American Craig Kessinger, Morse designed and placed the rocks and plants that define the Medicine Wheel. “The whole circle is 32 feet with 4-foot trails and four quadrants,” Morse said. “Sacred geometry makes a difference, and it respects the four elements: air, water, earth and fire.” In the center is a stacked rock monolith. Each quadrant features plants in a certain color: black, white, yellow and red.
“Craig uses dousing rods to find energy fields and says there is a vortex in the right quadrant,” Morse said.
Another special place is the garden’s Labyrinth. Built around the “Broken Link” granite sculpture by Tony Imatto, the Labyrinth consists of a single path that circles the center five times, with circuits planted from the inside to outside in succulents, Mexican feather grass, sweet pea bushes, lavender and rosemary.
Labyrinths, which date to Celtic times, are said to enhance right-brain activity. You simply walk in the circles to the center and then back out again. I’ve always thought they help to illuminate the joy of the journey as well as the destination.
Just below the Labyrinth is the Cycad Garden, with its Wollemi Pine, a purchase of this rare “living fossil” tree that has lived since dinosaurs roamed the planet. This pine tree was auctioned in 2005 in Australia and brought to Vista, where its dark green, bottlebrush foliage is a treasure of the garden. The neighboring cycads, including sago palms, also date back to the Jurassic era and can each live a very long life.
Work has begun on the Japanese Garden, which Morse envisions will one day include a traditional tea house and a large pond. Today, some conifers are planted that will sit outside the pond, along with several red cherry trees and several types of bamboo.
There are two ponds in the garden, including a large one in the Ceremonial Garden with a new lotus plant, centered by Lia Strell’s “Golden Torsion” sculpture; and the Lower Pond and Patio, filled with water lilies and overlooking a fine view down into the park and across to the horizon.
“On the clearest days in December, you can even see San Clemente and Catalina islands from here,” Morse said.
He has deliberately added plants to attract butterflies, including milkweed, the host plant of the Monarch; and passionflowers, which are favored by Fritillary butterflies.
Head to the gardens anytime to walk its peaceful trails and admire its colorful collections of specimen plants and outdoor sculptures.
Priscilla Lister is a freelance writer from San Diego.