San Diego lawyer Joe Fisch has always loved Balboa Park, but it wasn’t until he retired about four years ago that he and his wife, Joyce Axelrod, began spending more time there. The Mission Hills resident moved to San Diego in 1959 and practiced law for 55 years. Earlier this year, a friend of Joyce’s invited them to breakfast with Balboa Park Conservancy CEO Tomás Herrera-Mishler.

“His knowledge and devotion were impressive,” said Joe of Tomás. “We talked about his list of projects around the park that need funding. I thought I would like to help.”

Joe’s keen interest in Balboa Park, and this breakfast with Tomás, would lead him and Joyce to becoming the Conservancy benefactors who helped kickstart renovation of the historic Cactus Garden. Joe said he was unfamiliar with the buildings in the Palisades area of the park and asked Tomás to give him a tour. As they drove behind the Balboa Park Club and came across the Old Cactus Garden, Joe saw that it was looking neglected.

Balboa Park Cactus Garden Before Recent Renovation Work

“To me it looked like a piece of the park I could devote some help to. It was a specific area; it didn’t go on and on,” Joe said. “I was impressed that it was an original garden developed by Kate Sessions. I wanted to help activate the area, make it more attractive for people to visit.”

Together with the City of San Diego Parks and Recreation staff, Urban Corps, and a team of experts, staff, and volunteers, the Conservancy put a plan into action. Walking through the Cactus Garden now, one can see the remarkable improvement.

“I was excited to make an impact,” Joe said. “Before I met Tomás, I was just a park visitor. But Tomás is so responsible and knowledgeable, he inspired me to action. He and his team get things done.”

“To make our partnership with the city a success, we look for projects that align with Parks and Rec’s priorities. Incremental change can make a major impact over time in a place as large and complex as Balboa Park. Sometimes the list of park needs can seem overwhelming, but when you break it into discrete projects, change accrues until every part of the park is the best it can be,” said Tomás Herrera-Mishler. “When a generous benefactor like Joe comes along and says, ‘Let’s make something happen,’ we rise to the occasion. Donors like Joe are critical to this equation.”

Landscape designer Nan Sterman, who led the Conservancy’s garden volunteers for this project, said the Cactus Garden renovation is exciting. “It’s a thrill beyond belief that the Balboa Park Conservancy felt this garden was important enough to rescue it. This project honors the heritage of horticulture of our city and provides a connection to the very beginnings of Balboa Park. There’s so much history in the park many people don’t know. Rescuing the Cactus Garden is a very big public step toward recognizing that history and bringing it into the spotlight.”

According to Jackie Higgins, the Conservancy’s Director of Planning, Design and Programs, this Cactus Garden renovation required external partners like Sterman, along with the Urban Corps, corporate donors, staff, and 30 volunteers providing more than 120 hours of labor combined—on top of the generous donation from Mr. Fisch and Ms. Axelrod.

Cupcakes with ‘Succulent’ Icing Decoration

Four weeks after the work began, the Conservancy threw a birthday party for Joe Fisch in the Cactus Garden. Joe declared himself delighted with the progress and also with the “very unusual cupcakes” featuring frosting succulents. “I hope the Cactus Garden will become an educational area to show people you don’t just have to have a lawn,” he said. “Dryscape can make a very nice garden as well.”

Support for the Balboa Park Conservancy helps every part of the park. If you are interested in helping, the Balboa Park Conservancy would love to hear from you. Contact us at (619) 331-1920,