This is a visual snap shot of our field trip to see Filoli Garden in Woodside, California. Thank you to Kate Nowell, Horticulture Production Manager, for hosting us. Thank you to Jim Salyards, Director of Horticulture, for welcoming us, and also thank you to all the field horticulture staff who shared their knowledge of the gardens with us.

Filoli is a historic estate garden that is now a public garden managed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. There are many distinct gardens and styles within. If you were to classify it, you could call it something like European formal meets oak woodlands, weathered in the California-casual rancho grassland heat.

Geometry and symmetry are primary in a formal garden. You want to acknowledge that the universe is ordered and structured and as such, the garden and its shapes are a reflection of this.

An important element in this world built with squares, rectangles and crosses are the axis of view lines that stretch straight across the entire garden. You want to be in a high place, survey and see the distant edge of your territories. As if you were the sun that traversed the sky.

From one garden room to the next, there is the transition that is a portal to the next mystery. The gates, the arches, the vines and steps all serve to ornament and shroud the junction. The doorways and walls bridge distinct and disparate spaces into a whole.

The lines and colors are simple and minimal. Clean, not fuzzy. This is exemplified in flat expanses of mowed green lawn coupled with well-trimmed upright point-to-the-sky yew trees, framed with horizontal hedges laser cut in their perfection.

The borders are accentuated and patterned. The edges divide the walking path from the beds; the low fences separate the humans from the plants. Again, there is the emphasis on where different elements meet and come together.

Inside the boxwood frames, roses and annual colors are featured at Filoli. Their care and maintenance encompass ground preparation, planting, weeding, pruning, and pest control. Plus, there is the switching out of blooms for spring summer and fall as hyacinth leaves fade to yellow and tulip petals drop and start to form fruits.

The formal garden of intricately winding hedges comes to us from the elaborate and embellished worlds of sixteen seventeen eighteen century Italy France England and thereabouts. Its as if you are touring a manor or a castle or the palace grounds and all of a sudden you get woven into a renaissance tapestry.

At the center of a formal garden, there is often a water feature. This can be a pond or a fountain. Water is the source of life. No water – no garden, no people.

Age and antiquity are a part of this garden. Truth be told it is hard to find well cared for old plants in California gardens. Filoli has some wonderful old oaks, as well as thick and nicely pruned wisterias that have been trained up the brick walls. Patience, time and commitment is what makes a great garden.

There is a woodland garden that is a respite from the heat. Here you will find the understory plants of ferns and mosses, as well as the larger woody plants that were brought from China Japan and India to Scotland Wales and Ireland at the turn of the 19th century by explorers named George Forrest and Ernest Wilson. The plants are rhododendrons, camellias, maples, and azaleas.

As a nod and hark to the agricultural past, Filoli is not only about formal ornamentals. The staff also do cut flowers, and are working on a vegetable garden. In a sense, we have come full circle. For a while there, the attitude was – ‘Who wants to see a bunch of potatoes and cabbages? I just want a pretty display’. Now, the attitude is – ‘Lets showcase and appreciate all of it!’. This encompasses food crops, as well as lessor known native plants and sometimes forgotten pollinator plants.

A number of perennials are featured, providing plentiful nectar and pollen for the local bumble, solitary, and honey bee. They add diversity and charm to an already over the top garden scene.

A nice mediterranean crop is olives, for oil and for fruit. These trees are hard pruned; and in this process will slowly return to being a production orchard. Sun drenched and well cared for trees will make good fruit, not gangly trees that are shading each other out.

For space consideration, it is useful to make the most of whatever space you got. Hence espaliered fruit trees running along a fence or a wire. This is an old old idea that goes back to the time of pharaohs and Sumerian dynasties. The apples and pears were barely forming on the day of our visit, but that is another reason to come back again in the summer and fall!

Well, thats about all for a quick look. This ain’t nothing compared to actually seeing the garden in person. If you get the chance to visit, GO!!! Pay attention to the work involved, and all of the details in the designs.

Some stats: Sixteen acres of formal gardens, twelve horticulture staff. High maintenance. Most plant production is all done onsite – growing annuals from seeds, potting up and dividing, making floral arrangements, composting, etc. Theres opportunities for summer internships and jobs. Check their website! Get involved!

And in the fenced orchard on the side was this lil fellow, going into a hole. ( It is a gopher snake). Until the next trip!

Hanging out in the duff beneath a yew tree, doing push ups at the edge of the pasture. A garden is bliss.