A Year in the Garden…Filoli in May

It was well past 80 degrees at 10:10 am when I pulled into the lot at the Filoli Visitor Center–an abrupt change in weather from previous class days. It was forecasted to be in the mid 90s at my home some 4 hours away so the 80s looked pretty good to me! California has had a very long, cool, wet spring this year but every gardener I know has been waiting for the other shoe to drop and I think they both hit the floor today!

We decided to flip flop our classroom/garden walk time today in an effort to stay cool but had to do a bit of prep work to get started on our outdoor topic today–Seed Collecting. Instructor Mimi Clarke had pulled together a few materials to walk us through some collecting basics before we headed to the garden. Filoli’s formal gardens have 2  displays of annual flowers each year. All the annuals grown at Filoli are grown from seed by staff gardeners in the greenhouse area and transplanted into the beds en masse. The baby blue eyes and forget-me-nots grown as companions for the spring daffodils and tulips are repeated throughout the garden to connect the various beds as thread connects the squares on a quilt. Additional annuals such as wallflowers, silene and aubretia are used as foreground fillers. All these spring annuals are sown in fall, thinned and potted up in cell paks and are all ready in the ground and blooming when the garden reopens in February each year. Just now the staff gardeners are watching their decline and will collect their seed at the optimal time, pull out the plants and replace the display areas with summer blooming annuals.

A refrigerator kept at 40 degrees in our potting shed classroom is the repository for the seed wealth of Filoli’s gardens. Envelopes of collected seed are labeled and stored in plastic bins. Any purchased seed is stored here also.

Mimi demonstrates an easy way to germinate seeds at home using styrofoam seed starter sets which wick up water. These styrofoam sets have been used at Filoli for decades and many garden catalogs have similar sets for sale.


We do a quick review of the two types of seed dispersal mechanisms we learned in Basic Botany–dehiscent and indehiscent. Dehiscent seeds are ones whose seed coating (called the testa) splits along the seam when the seeds are mature and shatters, releasing the seeds.  The testa on indehiscent seeds remains intact and the seed collector must physically separate the seeds from the chaff when dry. Knowing which type of seed dispersal is associated with the plant you want to propagate is crucial for timing seed collection. Once the dehiscent seed’s testa has split, the seeds may be lost. You must collect these BEFORE the split and then let them ripen in paper bags until the seeds are released. Armed with paper envelopes and bags, we are off!


Remember Viola cornuta ‘Jersey Jem’? Filoli’s signature viola is unavailable commercially. We comb through the leggy and declining plants filling our bags with seed heads. Mimi told us the staff gardeners will remove the entire plant within the next couple of weeks, bag them in large grocery sacks then store them in the potting shed’s dark closets until the herbaceous material has dried and the seed cases have popped, releasing the tiny seeds to the bottom of the bag.


We search for mature seed cases of the Nemophila menziesii, baby blue eyes. This annual was not quite ready yet–another week or two will result in many more mature seed heads.


The seed pods for Erysimum (the purple and yellow beneath the tree roses) are very long and slender much like the seed pods for California poppies. We were also able to collect from Aubretia deltoidea, forget-me-nots, and several  columbine and foxglove hybrids. Booty bagged and ready for ripening we headed back for lunch via the rose and cutting gardens.




Garden Design was our afternoon topic. Mimi’s approach was threefold. Good garden design results from order, unity and rhythm.

Order is the backbone or framework of your design and includes establishing a good balance of plants and hardscape/structure, determining the theme and staying true to elements which are consistent with it, and thoughtful choices regarding scale, texture and color.

Unity when achieved is a sense of interconnectedness of the different parts of the garden. Repetition of larger masses of a limited variety of plant material throughout the overall design leaves the viewer with a sense that each vignette relates to another.

Rhythm is also created with the repetition of color, shape or texture throughout a single bed which then relates to the overall design. Consistent, repeated elements allow your eye to move along the vista taking you from one end to the other.


This vista is along the path between the perennial garden and the knot garden above. You can see the repetition of the color of the copper beech tree’s leaves (background) in  the leaves of the nine bark shrub (middle left) and then again in the adjacent knot garden. The trees you see at the horizon are actually quite a distance away and are being used as a ‘borrowed view’ in conjunction with the more recent layered plantings. This vista has order, unity and rhythm!

We spent some time discussing the design process, looking at the factors which will influence the final garden design. I was interested the Mimi had place the architectural style of the house 5th on the list. I think I would have put it at #1 but as we reviewed the list I realized I have been putting the cart before the horse for many years! First up was BUDGET with the caveat to be realistic and not underestimate was is needed for major renovation or redesign and to be sure to allow for the behind the scenes necessities of hardscape, irrigation and lighting. In other words, don’t buy the sofa before you have the floors refinished.

Now determine the INTENDED USE OF THE GARDEN: plant collecting, children’s play, dining, quiet contemplation, etc. Children will have a hard time with a ball and bat in a formal rose garden delineated by boxwood hedges.

#3 INTENDED LEVEL OF INVOLVEMENT IN THE GARDEN: my M.O. has been to create a beautiful but high maintenance garden and then not understand why gardening has become WORK  all of a sudden. Ask yourself if you want to spend every weekend doing routine deadheading, etc. , hand watering in dry times or regular pest/weed management tasks. Asses your life priorities. Be brutal. Be realistic.

Plant choices are crucial in determining HOW LONG TIL THE GARDEN MATURES. Is this your forever house? Are you near retirement? Mimi asks the question, “Do you want to have a stunning garden in five years or a lower maintenance one in twenty years?”

Now we FINALLY get to the style of the home! The garden and home need to work together harmoniously. A desert landscape replete with cacti and bleached out skulls is not such a good fit for a columned colonial manse.

#6 TURF NO TURF? Check back in with the intended uses of your garden and think out of the box to turf alternatives.

Lastly, APPROPRIATE DENSITY: think about your garden’s mature look down the road and use appropriate spacing for plant material. Can you live with some open space now as plants grow into their mature forms in exchange for not having to pull out half of what you planted 10 years down the road?

We finished our discussion with a walk over to the house and had the opportunity of viewing some historical garden plan renderings. Filoli is over 100 years old and as gardens are not stagnant but living, breathing and ever changing there have been numerous plans put forward over its lifetime!

Mimi also introduced us to the Library with its extensive collection of horticulture, botany and landscaping references which are available to be check out by class participants–what a bonus for us.

I’ll close by letting you know I was able to identify the dogwood like tree/shrub included in the pics of the Santa Rita bonus garden in the Gamble Garden post earlier this week. GG17SRbonus8 As I was leaving the house after class I took a quick stroll through the plants available for sale at the gift shop and it was right there. It is Cornus capitata ‘Mountain Moon’, common name Himalayan strawberry tree or evergreen dogwood. Apparently only trees grown from cuttings bloom early in their lives. Seed grown trees  are 8-10 years to bloom. Reference material tells me they are not reliably evergreen but I would imagine there would be little leaf drop in Palo Alto’s temperate climate.

Next up I will be taking in the Garden Conservancy Open Day in Los Angeles and the Mary Lou Heard Memorial Garden Tour in Orange County–then I will sleep for a week at least!

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