If you feel like you're suffering from what author Richard Louv calls "nature deficit disorder," this is the perfect time to set your GPS for one of San Diego County's artfully designed green gardens. Here are three that offer total immersion in nature and art for folks of all ages: Alta Vista Botanical Gardens in Vista, San Diego Botanic Garden in Encinitas, and Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park, San Diego.
1) Alta Vista Botanical Gardens
Founded in 1999, this charming 14-acre Vista community garden is the least-known of the three, but its rolling hills are full of native and non-native plants, and its trails offer scenic views and many art-meets-nature discoveries. The mission of this all-volunteer-run oasis is: "Bringing together people, nature and art." Picnics and dogs on leash are allowed here, and if you really love the place, think about joining their "Adopt A Garden" program.
• Getting there: 1270 Vale Terrace Drive, Vista (at the top of the hill inside Brengle Terrace Park). Hours: 10 a.m. to sunset, daily. Admission: Adults $5. (760) 945-3954. altavistabotanicalgardens.org
• Walk the Plant Labyrinth
• Let your shadow tell the time on the Human Sundial in the Children's Garden
• Play the Piano Pebble Chime in the Music Garden
• Admire artist Ricardo Breceda's welded-steel dinosaurs and dragons — you don't need to go all the way out to Anza Borrego to see them! And look for the Dragon Fruit plant near the Dragon
• Enjoy the west-facing view from the gazebo by the pond in the Wedding Meadow
• Watch for roadrunners!
• Special Events:
• Meading at the Garden: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. April 7, Mead, Beer, Wine & Music Festival, Ages 21+ only. Proceeds donated to the gardens.
• Earth Day Festival: 10 a.m. to 3 pm. April 21, free for all ages, includes live music, kids' activities, food and crafts vendors, drum circle, and plant and pottery sale
• Opening soon: The Ivy Bodin Rose Garden, named for a generous donor. Check website for more events, including "Farmer Jones" workshops for kids. altavistabotanicalgardens.org
2) San Diego Botanic Garden
The garden formerly known as Quail started out in 1957 as a 22-acre gift to the County of San Diego by Ruth Baird Larrabee as a park to preserve the resident California quails. Quail Gardens officially opened in 1970, the Waterfall was installed in 1979, and gardens featuring plants from around the world were added over the years. In 2009, it became San Diego Botanic Garden, and now contains over 37 acres, four miles of trails, more than 4,000 plant species and 26 different gardens, including the largest children's garden on the West Coast. It was recently named one of the "Top 10 North American Gardens Worth Traveling For" by the American and Canadian public garden associations.
"My whole life has been animals and plants," said Julian Duval, SDBG's president/CEO. "And I've always been blessed with having my dream job." Starting out as a school-age summer naturalist, he became the youngest keeper at Chicago's Brookfield Zoo at 18, and for the past 24 years, he's been top man at the garden, assisted by a dedicated team of 30 staff members and 350 volunteers.
• Getting there: 230 Quail Gardens Drive, Encinitas. Open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: $8-$14, plus $2 parking. (760) 436-3036. sdbgarden.org
• Bamboo Garden and Pond
• Tropical Rainforest and Waterfall
• The Children's Garden and Seeds of Wonder, the original children's garden. ("People loved it too much to abandon it, so we kept it too," Duval said.)
• Ask about children's story-times, Family Fun Nights, and spring classes.
• Special Events:
• ArtFest 2018: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. April 7 and 8, free with admission. 20 some local and regional artists will show their work and give demonstrations, with quick-draw artists creating complete artworks Saturday morning. There will also be Ikebana and bonsai displays and live music.
• Sculpture in the Garden: This annual exhibition, curated by Naomi Nussbaum, is now in its 10th year. The 2017-18 exhibit is on view through April 8, with the new one to be installed by mid-May.
• Opening soon-ish: The new Education Conservatory, a dramatic glass greenhouse/auditorium partly designed by Duval that will be a "palace for plants" with tropical "plant chandeliers" hanging from the ceiling.
3) Japanese Friendship Garden
The 12-acre Japanese Friendship Garden inside Balboa Park, first opened in 1991, expresses the relationship between San Diego and its sister city, Yokohama, and offers visitors a chance to follow its winding trails and experience the Japanese ideals of serenity and harmony between humans and nature. The lovely Lower Gardens were added in 2015.
• Getting there: 2215 Pan American Road East in Balboa Park, San Diego. Open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily; exhibits open 10:45 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Admission: $8-10, special exhibits $3 extra. (619) 232-2721. niwa.org
• Walk the 3,000-foot-long trail down to the Lower Gardens (ADA accessible). Take time to enjoy the views along the way.
• Visit the Koi Ponds, Upper and Lower.
• See the cherry blossoms in the Cherry Grove. Over 12,000 visitors came to this year's annual Cherry Blossom Festival (March 9-11), despite the intermittent showers. Because of the rain, blooming may be even better now.
• Ask about Docent Tours, usually 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. daily.
• Stop for tea or a snack at the Tea Pavilion outside the Garden.
• Special Events:
• Tea Demonstrations: 11:30 a.m. first Saturdays, second Tuesdays
• Embracing Impermanence: Exhibit of mixed-media paintings by Dana Mano-Flank that incorporate natural materials and illustrate the traditional Japanese aesthetic of Wabi-Sabi, an appreciation of beauty that is "imperfect, impermanent and incomplete," through April 29 at Exhibition Hall.
• Floral Art of Japan: Masterpieces from the Garden's private collection reveal the hidden meaning of flora in Japanese culture, through May 6 at Inamori Pavilion, special exhibit fee $3
• Opening Night, San Diego Guitar Festival: Japanese classical guitarist Shin-Ichi Fukuda will also play Bach and Beatles, 6 p.m. April 20 at Inamori Pavilion.