Garden Collage Goes To The Getty, Gets The Scoop on L.A.’s Drought
To quote Sarah Waldorf, writing for Getty Garden’s The Iris blog, Robert Irwin’s garden within Los Angeles’ iconic Getty Center is “a living, changing artwork”. Planted according to three seasons— spring, summer, and winter— the garden is consistently reinventing itself, and with each change of phase comes a renewed emphasis on the inimitable Southern California shrubs, succulents, and trees that consistently shape the look and feel of the Getty garden.
In the midst of California’s most concerning drought in history, iconic gardens like the Getty are taking measured steps towards conservation.
“We are very interested in water conservation; we water as little as possible,” Brian Houck, the Getty’s manager of grounds and gardens, said in a recent interview for The Iris. Houck, who is responsible for 700+ acres of land, 100 of which are landscaped and meticulously maintained, has held his position since 2015– a year when the California drought reached peak international visibility. “We’ve invested in a new irrigation system with a weather system that monitors the water that evaporates from the soil, measures rain, and helps us be very specific about how we add water to the gardens,” he wrote. “We have and will continue to modify our landscapes to be more drought-tolerant. Right now we are [testing] a small patch of buffalo grass as a lawn replacement. I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to use this in other locations as well.”
When asked about the role that water specifically plays in garden upkeep, Houck notes: “We have a combination of irrigation systems: drip, sub-irrigation, sprinklers, rotary heads, and hand-watering for pots. Most of our hillsides, which is much of the 700 acres, is not irrigated and has been turned off for many years because it’s best practice for the plants and is good for water conservation. If you happen to see a sprinkler running on the hillside, it means we are testing the system, because we keep it around for fire remediation.”
As far as the Getty archive goes, the garden is a unique entity unto itself, so as to not be influenced by the architecture or art collections of the Getty, which gives the gardening team flexibility amid the drought (this is not typical for historic gardens, whose aesthetic is often sanctioned by strict preservation protocol that doesn’t always take into account the nascent issue of Climate Change). Right now, the Getty is evaluating some lawn spaces that they’d like to make more water-efficient, without forsaking the garden’s intended aesthetic. (When asked where he’d direct visitors interested in learning more about drought-tolerant California native plants, Houck also suggested the Theodore Payne Foundation.)
“In the midst of California’s most concerning drought in history, iconic gardens like the Getty are taking measured steps towards conservation.”
On the day that GC visited the Getty garden, the fountain in the central villa was not running, presumably so as to preserve water. (The Central Garden has two main parts, the stream garden and the bowl garden. The stream garden is a celebration of leaves, while the bowl is a celebration of flowers. Robert Irwin’s vision was to have a low-growing, carpet-like effect in the upper part of the stream garden, which is why there are so many succulents and grasses there, which lucky for Angelinos, are also drought-tolerant plants.) Currently, the garden is looking to integrate more Santa Monica Mountains native plant material and to increase biodiversity on the surrounding hillsides. Recently, the team planted tidy tips, cream cups, baby blue eyes, and a mix of colorful poppies. Amongst these flowers, interesting silver and cool-toned foliage add surprises and contrast. This year, the team– who reportedly go out on “plant-finding missions a few times a year”– is particularly excited to add a silver-leaved lavender into the mix. Their goal is to integrate new plants that will work within the Central Garden’s aesthetic, in addition to being drought-tolerant.
When it comes to pest control, gardener Jim Duggan, who has worked on the Irwin garden for over 20 years, tells The Iris: “We’re impacted by deer and snails the most, and a lot of our practices are about exclusion. So, in the case of deer, we’ve installed a number of fence lines to prevent them from getting to the plants in the first place. And last year we did a large effort of hand-picking snails in the Central Garden, which has been super helpful. At the Villa, in addition to a deer fence line we also shoo the deer away from the gardens almost daily.”
Weeds have also become a factor indirectly impacting water conservation and the look of the Getty garden. The red-leaved, bespeckled Fallopia japonica is a weed in the Pacific Northwest, but stays tame, without spreading, in the Central Garden’s dry climate. A Ranunculus cultivar called ‘Brazen Hussy’, often considered a weed in wetter climes, has also been successfully introduced. Ultimately, it is this willingness to experiment that has made the garden an ever-changing artwork that, like a living sculpture, is shaped at the hands of the artisan (in this case, the gardening staff). The specifics of what is growing at any given moment is the result of a hodgepodge of factors and a roulette of colors and shapes that are constantly in flux. “We use almost any kind of plant as an annual—or really, for its moment,” Duggan tells The Iris. “Any plant can find its moment in the Central Garden.”