In part one of a two-part interview for Arlington Garden’s 15th Anniversary, Mayita Dinos, the designer of Arlington Garden, discusses the design process, construction, and the early days of the garden. 

AG: The site that became Arlington Garden was purchased by Caltrans as a staging ground for the 710 freeway, but it sat empty for decades after community opposition halted construction. What did the lot look like when you started designing?

MD: It was a veritable weed lot that the City would mow down several times a year. There were a few mature trees that remained from the original Durand mansion: several palms, a jacaranda, a pepper tree, and a couple of oaks. In short, it was a wonderful blank canvas for me to play with.

AG: District 6 Councilmember Steve Madison approached Betty and Charles McKenney, along with other community leaders, for suggestions on how to develop the empty lot. Do you know how the garden was first conceived?

MD: Betty and Charles had decided to downsize upon retirement and move into a condominium adjacent to the three acre lot. The view from their windows was primarily weeds, except on New Year’s day when the lot would fill up with cars parked for the Rose Bowl Parade. One day Betty reached the pinnacle of frustration and remarked, “That should be a garden!

In 2003 Betty and Charles attended a talk by Jan Smithen, who had just written a book, Sun Drenched Gardens- The Mediterranean Style. They were inspired by Smithen, who spoke about the lessons derived from coexisting harmoniously with a mediterranean climate.

Betty and Charles contacted Cal Poly Pomona, and they partnered to obtain concept schematics by students in the Landscape Architecture department. Steve Madison, former City Manager Cynthia Kurtz, and the Pasadena City Council worked to lease the property from CalTrans. Finally, Jan was asked if she could recommend someone to design the Master Plan for the garden: that is when I entered the equation!

AG: How did you feel when you were approached to design the garden?

MD: How did I feel? ECSTATIC!! And lucky and excited that I could embark on something so special.

In addition to [studying] with Smithen for almost a decade, I brought a host of other experiences in sustainable design that made me a good fit for this project.

AG: Do you remember the design challenges the site presented?

MD: Soil is the first ecosystem every gardener needs to address. As I mentioned earlier, the lower portion was used as a yearly parking lot for the Rose Parade, resulting in a great deal of soil compaction –  no aeration equals death to the soil!

After decades of neglect and compaction we needed to awaken the soil so that it could provide the necessary environment for the garden to thrive. We did that by placing a thick layer of mulch, which the City of Pasadena provided free of charge. The mulch served to add biology to the soil, lower temperatures in the soil, which in turn prevents moisture loss, create air pockets from the movement of soil organisms, and finally, provide organic matter to the existing and newly added microorganisms.

AG: After the beneficial mulch layer, what was the first part of the garden you installed?

MD: First, we installed the Olive Allee, as the trees would provide shade and a place to have our gatherings. Next, we installed the Riparian Corridor, which led to a depression we carved out to capture water. As soon as the rains arrived, we noticed the depression was filled with water, and two ducks had moved in! Soon, hawks, woodpeckers, orb spiders, reptiles, and an eclectic invasion of funghi erupted from beneath the layer of mulch, all of it signaling life!!!

AG: Was there anything that happened during the construction of the garden that really surprised you?

MD: The most unusual and wondrous developments are usually of a serendipitous nature. And there were plenty of those at Arlington Garden! The Master Plan explained the big idea, but there was a lot of room for details to emerge in the various outdoor rooms. People with the special skills needed to fill in those blanks started to show up unexpectedly, out of the blue, as soon as we broke ground!

For instance, Thomas Juhasz, a plant expert in native land restoration, volunteered his expertise in the selection of plants for specific areas, such as the CA riparian corridor. He also introduced plants from Baja CA, explaining that, as our climate continues to warm up, the Los Angeles basin will be more like Baja.

Marco Barrantes, of La Loma Development, shared his expertise in the design and construction of the urbanite retaining wall that separates the two main sections of the garden; he also added swales along the eastern perimeter, and dry river beds in the parkways to slow down and absorb the storm water.

AG: What makes Arlington Garden different from other gardens?

MD: Aesthetically, it does not resemble any other urban public garden that I know of. Bob Perry was bringing his USC landscape architecture students to the Arlington so they could get a different perspective of what a public garden could look like. It has formal elements, and yet it hints of wild nature, a feeling that seems to extend to the huge proliferation of wildlife that have made the garden its home.

AG: What is your favorite part of the garden?

MD: My favorite part of the garden is the Olive Allee. I performed (I’m a vocalist) a jazz concert there. The stage was directly under a blooming wisteria trellis. It was absolutely magical. The olive allee was filled with music and audience members as the sun set and the olives became aglow with a soft light.

I plan to celebrate the release of my cd of those songs as soon as the crisis is over. It was supposed to be on May 10th, but alas …

AG: Your favorite plant?

MD: My favorite plant is the matilija poppy when it’s in bloom!

AG: What do you hope for the future of Arlington Garden?

MD: I hope for it to become financially sustainable, and for it to continue to be a magical place where children of all ages will come to learn about the wonders that abound in a garden…

[Executive Director] Michelle Matthews has a plan to procure funding to buy one of the Caltrans houses, where we can house a learning institute – the Urban Ecology, Art and Agriculture Center.

AG: Any final thoughts for gardeners and lovers of gardens?

MD: I end with this quote from Stanley Kunitz, US poet laureate and lifetime gardener, who explains the essential truth of why gardens are so important:

The garden isn’t at its best, designed for admiration or praise; it leads to an appreciation of the natural universe, and to a meditation on the connection between the self and the rest of the natural universe.

Kunitz, The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden

This interview has been edited for length. A complete, unedited version of the interview will be posted at a later date. 

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