The Secret Gardens of Old Monterey

“It was the sweetest most mysterious-looking place anyone could imagine.” The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett (1910)

The Shahs of Persia, the Medicis of Renaissance Florence, and ten-year old Mistress Mary Lennox of Yorkshire, England shared a common fascination with the solitude and mystery of intimate walled gardens. And while the Secret Gardens of Old Monterey can’t compare with the splendors of their ancient counterparts or promise the life-transforming experience of the hidden garden of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1910 classic children’s novel they do offer peaceful oases amid the bustling streets of this popular California tourist destination.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Monterey Old Town Historic District embraces one of the largest and best preserved collections of Spanish, Mexican, and Early American buildings in the West. Beginning at the Monterey State Historic Park Visitor Center, a two mile “Walking Path of History” marked by round yellow tiles set in the sidewalk passes more than fifty places that record the transition of a Rumsien Indian village through the succession of colonial rulers to U.S. statehood. Sites that include California’s first cathedral, first theatre, dozens of restored adobe brick homes, the lodging place of Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson while he wooed his married lover and the jail cell of John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat paisanos offer something of interest to every taste.

As walking on city streets can be tiring, nine gardens that the park website calls the “Secret Gardens of Old Monterey” provide welcome respite along the way. Enclosed by high stone walls and mellow adobe buildings six of them offer Californian renditions of that “sweetest, most mysterious-looking place” discovered by young Mary beyond the locked gate at Misselthwaite Manor.

Surrounded by white stucco walls behind a long adobe museum, the Pacific House Memory Garden (20 Custom House Plaza) once held the community’s bull and bear fighting pit. Iconic landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jnr. redesigned the space as a courtyard garden for more tranquil pursuits in 1926. Shaded by venerable southern magnolia trees set around an octagonal raised pool and fountain, the garden is a popular venue for local celebrations, including the annual Merienda fiesta marking the June 1770 founding of Alta California’s Spanish capital at the pueblo of Monterey. A heavy wooden door half-hidden by wisteria vines dangling from a pergola against the western wall, opens onto a brick-paved plaza where colorful hanging baskets, bougainvillea vines, and roses, cluster around a tiered Mexican fountain. The trail continues past the Casa del Oro adobe that stored the booty of miners returning from the gold fields. Renamed the Boston Store, today it is managed by the Historic Garden League to raise money for garden maintenance. An aromatic herb bed flanks the property.

Wisteria trails over stone walls and the wide overhanging veranda of the Old Whaling Station (391 Decatur St.). Artifacts, including an iron cauldron and a sidewalk of whale vertebrae cut into diamond-shaped tiles, recall its early role as an oil rendering station. Shaded by gnarled pepper trees, a brick patio and rose garden at the rear merges into a thicket of foliage around the twisted trunk of one of the largest of Monterey’s many recumbent Australian Tea trees,

Named for its role as a playhouse, the spelling of California’s First Theatre (Pacific and Scott) celebrates the builder an English sailor who jumped ship in 1843. Terraced paths meander through borders of shade loving perennials remaining from the years when giant Monterey cypress trees, evident in historic photographs, towered over the garden. One bed is devoted to winter blooming Hellebores, those simple rose-like flowers that frustrate gardeners by their habit of opening face down.

A heavy wooden gate set in an archway through a tile-capped stone wall opens to the Larkin House Garden (464 Calle Principal), Monterey’s closest counterpart to young Mary’s secret retreat. Thomas Larkin, the first, and only, U.S. Consul to Mexican California built his two-story, white-washed adobe home in 1835. Local building materials combined with New England details supplied the model for the popular early-20th century Monterey-Colonial style of architecture. Larkin’s granddaughter developed the English-cottage style garden from the 1920s through the ’50s. Raised terrace beds packed with perennials border a rose-covered arbor that leads to a shallow well-like water storage cistern and a one-room, stone veneer adobe cottage that served as the quarters for Lt. William T. Sherman, later Civil War General, during his service in California.

Operated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the two-acre Cooper-Molera (525 Polk St.) complex of adobe house, wooden farm buildings, and gardens depict life in California in the mid-1800s. English sailor John Cooper married into an important local Spanish family and built his adobe home in the 1820s. Historian Frances Grate created the current garden design in the 1980s based on plantings appropriate to Cooper’s time that had to survive without pesticides or piped water. Essential culinary, domestic, and medicinal herbs crowd a vegetable plot near the barn. Fig and apple trees, including and Bellflower, Gravenstein, Red Astrachan, and Winter Pearmain, thrive in the orchard. A Chromatella climbing rose against the warm, south-facing wall, honors the legend of Sherman’s rose. The young lieutenant is said to have presented its yellow blooms to the beautiful senorita Dona Bonifacio and promised to wed her. And although the first cuttings of what was then known as a Cloth-of Gold rose did not arrive in Monterey for 25 years after he left, never to return, the fable fueled a boom in yellow roses and quaint tea rooms that thrived for decades.

Scottish author of Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson, arrived unknown and in ill health at the Stevenson House (530 Houston St.), then the French Hotel, in 1879. He remained for several months roaming the wilds of the Monterey Peninsula while pursuing his future wife Fanny Osbourne. Several rooms are devoted to displays of Stevensonia. A barren dry patch in his time, the 1940-era garden was laid out in romantic-cottage style with winding paths and densely planted beds of cineraria, fox gloves, and poppies. A Dawn redwood, a deciduous relative of the familiar Sequoia sempervirens that was known from the fossil record but believed to be extinct until discovered in a remote corner of China in 1941, shades the center bed.

As the gardens are owned by a state department that has been under-funded for years, visitors should not expect the exotic horticultural displays that once attracted princes and presidents to Monterey’s Hotel del Monte. They can, however, enjoy a leisurely stroll through the birthplace of modern California enhanced by scenes and settings that appear to have been freshly plucked from The Secret Garden of Edwardian England.

This article was previously published in Travel Features and Photos, a publication of the San Francisco Bay Area Travel Writers in 2015.



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David A. Laws

David A. Laws


I photograph and write about Gardens, Nature, Travel, and the history of Silicon Valley from my home on the Monterey Peninsula in California.