Santa Barbara Botanic Garden | Credit: Courtesy

Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is a diverse, natural wonderland in Mission Canyon blooming with colorful wildflowers, redwood and manzanita trees, and other native flora that make up its 11 distinct ecosystems. But the nearly century-old garden’s work supporting native habitats goes beyond the beloved local scenery the Santa Barbara community is so fond of.

A hub for research, education, and design in sustainable horticulture, the Botanic Garden was the recipient of a 2023 Great American Gardeners Award for Garden Stewardship from the American Horticultural Society (AHS) this month. The Garden Stewardship award was first given in 2021 and recognizes public gardens that embrace and exemplify a commitment to sustainability. 

Steve Windhager | Credit: Andrea Russell Photography

“We are honored,” said Steve Windhager, the garden’s executive director. “We hope that our garden, as well as the practices we employ, serve as a model for how native plants and thoughtful horticultural practice can preserve biodiversity, improve human well-being, and mitigate the impacts of climate change.”

For the country’s plant-lovers, it’s a big deal to be recognized by AHS, one of the nation’s oldest and most respected gardening organizations. And the Botanic Garden seems more than deserving of their green thumbs-up — it’s the first of its kind in the United States to focus exclusively on native plants and has flourished from the 13 acres purchased by philanthropist Anna Dorinda Blaksley in 1926 to today’s 78 acres of walking trails, an herbarium, a seed bank, research labs, a library, and a native plant nursery. 

Leah Makler, a graduate student in the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at UC Santa Barbara, is one of the many lifelong Santa Barbara residents who has been a frequenter of the garden since childhood. She has volunteered and worked for the conservation and education departments of the Botanic Garden since she was a student at Santa Barbara High School. 

“It’s wonderful to see the garden getting recognized for the impressive sustainability and conservation work that they do,” Makler said. “I highly recommend visitors to check out the portion of the garden on the east side of tunnel road, with the Island View Garden, Pollinator Garden, and the Horticulture Unit. It’s definitely an unappreciated part of the garden.” 

Holly Shimizu, the former executive director of the U.S. Botanic Garden and a current AHS boardmember, called the garden a “vanguard of the sustainability movement.”

Suzanne Laporte | Credit: American Horticultural Society

The garden boasts a water-wise irrigation system that captures thousands of gallons of rainwater every year, solar panels that provide power to their conservation center, and hands-on educational programs for residents to start their own native gardens at home — features that earned the garden a place among the six individuals and organizations presented with a Great American Gardeners Award this year.  

“They introduced over 30 California native plants cultivars and selections to the horticultural trade. In addition, their research on habitat restoration and pollinator networks has positioned the garden as a regional leader in applied ecology,” Shimizu said.

AHS President and CEO Suzanne Laporte said that the Great American Gardeners Awards “honor the best of the best” in gardening across the nation. “We are thrilled to include the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden in our family of award winners and are thankful for its inspiring work,” Laporte said. 


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