Look how you’ve grown! La Jolla Secret Garden tour celebrates 16 years

By Ashley Mackin

The upcoming Secret Garden Tour of La Jolla, a fundraiser for the La Jolla Historical Society, has come a long way from its first venture in 1999. Event co-founder Linda Marrone said, over time, the committee came up with ways to change and improve the tour, creating the “successful” event it is today.

On the self-guided tour, participants visit each location — only revealed to them the day of the event via a map — in any order. They stay for as long as they like. An artist will be stationed at each garden, painting the scenery before them. In some cases, there are musicians playing as well. Tickets for the self-guided tours, which run all day and start at 10 a.m. on Saturday May 17, are $50 and available for pickup at La Jolla Historical Society, 780 Prospect St.

“The La Jolla Historical Society wanted to raise funds back when Pat Dahlberg was president and my co-founder, Susan Vandendriesse, had heard about a similar secret garden tour in Cape Cod that benefitted an art museum in the area. So she wanted to try it,” Marrone said.

The first year, the committee that organizes the event had five people, Marrone added, but has since grown to more than 50 participants. Additionally, there are volunteers who help the event run smoothly, a tradition that started the first year and continues today. Volunteers keep an eye on tour guests to make sure they don’t trip or fall, and give homeowners a sense of security.

The second year, the committee implemented the Platinum Tour, in which participants are shuttled between gardens with docent guides and have access to one exclusive garden that is open just for them. They’re also treated to lunch. The first year 50 tickets were sold, now organizers sell 100. Tickets for the Platinum Tour are $150 and can also be picked up at the Historical Society.

The location of the gardens has also changed over the years, Marrone said. The first year, gardens across La Jolla were featured. The second year, the committee decided they would focus on one neighborhood per year, starting with the Country Club area.

The third year (2001), gardens within the Beach-Barber Tract were featured. Marrone volunteered her garden for the tour — partially because her home had been designated historic (the committee tries to include at least one historically designated garden) and also because, having been involved since the tour’s inception but never as host, it was time.

Soon after, the committee decided to go back to the multi-neighborhood tour because residents became frustrated with the sudden onset of people when the gardens were all in one neighborhood.

With the diverse communities featured, committee members sought out diverse gardens, and expanded the criteria to include non-traditional gardens. “One year we had a house on the oceanfront on the tour, which didn’t really have a garden, but it had the La Jolla seascape,” Marrone said. Another year, a home owned by the late actor Cliff Robertson was featured because “it isn’t a flower garden, but it’s an acre and half of rolling green lawns and trees,” she said.

Having found success with the actual garden part of the tour, committee members sought other ways to improve the experience.

Two years ago, the pickup system for the maps and wristbands required for attendance was made more convenient. Attendees now have the option of picking up their maps and wristbands the day before the event or the day of, minimizing wait times.

Last year, the committee introduced the Garden Boutique, for which the front of Wisteria Cottage becomes a mini mart with garden decor and accents, as well as jewelry and antiques. Participants do not have to be on the tour to visit the boutique, which is open 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

The Secret Garden Tour is a primary fundraiser for the La Jolla Historical Society along with the La Jolla Concours d’Elegance, which executive director Heath Fox said is “fundamentally important to our business model.”

Fox added, “These sources of funding support year-round exhibitions in the Wisteria Cottage Galleries with free admission to the public, and help us present no/low cost education programming for both adults and youth. Both the Secret Garden Tour and the La Jolla Concours d’Elegance are important and beneficial community events, providing rewarding experiences to attendees, bringing visitors from elsewhere to the Village, and providing economic benefit to La Jolla merchants during a period off-season of the summer tourist trade.”

If you go

■ What: 16th annual Secret Garden Tour of La Jolla

■ When: Saturday, May 17. Tours open at 10 a.m.

■ Where: Pick up maps and wristbands at La Jolla Historical Society’s Wisteria Cottage, 780 Prospect St.

■ Tickets: Start at $50

■ Contact: (858) 459-5335

■ Website: