A Year in the Garden…Filoli in June

Having recently completed two major events, the beloved Mother’s day weekend and the Filoli Flower Show, the garden was abuzz with staff and volunteers in the midst of changing out the many display areas in the formal parts of the grounds. Flats of Filoli greenhouse grown annuals were strategically stacks on carts awaiting planting. Beds were being turned and amended. The miles of low boxwood hedges were being trimmed. At every turn I came upon another cadre of (mostly) youthful gardeners.

One of the perks of being enrolled in my class is that I have access to the gardens in advance of the public opening time. The grounds are supremely peaceful at this time and  it is the best time of the day to take photographs. I usually only see a gardener or two working in the background and they quickly become invisible once the garden is open to the public. This day, the massive task of changing out the seasonal display beds has brought the gardeners into the spotlight and it helps to remind visitors of the hundreds, if not thousands, of hours it takes to keep Filoli looking beautiful year around.





Even the courtyard garden shop is wearing its summer colors with many summer blooming annuals for purchase in addition to Filoli’s signature plant material.


Given the choice to walk down the service road to my potting shed classroom or through the garden, I always choose the garden. The rose garden still looks wonderful! The very long perennial border which has been quite slow to bloom is now in its full glory.





The colonies of Veronica ‘Pink Damask’ were breathtaking and repeated throughout the border. The knot garden (below) was in full bloom.


On to class! Our morning topic was Water Management. Rather than focusing on getting to know unthirsty plant material or designing for low water usage, our goal today was to get an overview of common residential irrigation systems and most importantly get up close and personal with how an automatic clock or timer works. My household division of labor for 30 years has put the irrigation system in my husband’s purvue. He has installed and repaired systems in all our gardens and I have only gotten involved when MY plants interfere with HIS sprinklers or in telling him how long I would like each line to run. Instructor Mimi Clarke started with the very basics of low flow (micro spray, drip emitters or lines) and high low (fixed spray, rotor, impact bubbler) with examples of how each type is best used. We took a walk to the tool and equipment shed and got a look at the various components of each and some tips on how to organize your sprinkler parts and tools to be able to do regular system checks and repairs efficiently.

And now…on to the automatic clock! Mimi tells us she has never been to a client’s garden on a first visit where the sprinkler system is being used correctly and most homeowners have no idea how to program their clocks. So our first directive is to find the manual that came with the automatic timer or go online and print it off of the manufacturer’s website. Seems simple but we’ve lived in our home almost 9 years and I certainly do not have the instruction manual for my automatic sprinkler clock!

Using one of the 20 large timers in the Filoli formal gardens Mimi walks us through setting multiple programs and start times.



These clocks are quite old but still working well and although they lack the features of some of the newer and more high tech timers, they still work basically the same way. I was thrilled to learn that almost all modern day timers have remotes available for them. At our house it takes two people to work on the sprinklers: one to do the actual adjustments or repairs and the other (me) to run back and forth turning lines off and on! I also realized that we have been working too hard adjusting run times individually for various lines depending on season when we could be using the ‘%’ feature–on my clock it is called ‘water budget’. In a nutshell, you set the amount of time you want lines to run at the hottest point of your year and call that 100%. Then you simply adjust the percent downward during the times of year when much less water is called for–one adjustment covers all the lines. Pretty good reason right there to have read your instruction manual!

We also took a walk to the staff veggie gardens to look at a pretty low tech drip tape system that works using a timer attached to a hose bib. Just have to show you a small part of the garden even though the irrigation system is not very visible.


Moving still further down on the technology scale, we were introduced to the ‘Filoli Water Horse’–a unique handmade structure which allows you to direct the water from a hose with a spray nozzle in various directions and angles. The garden has 20 or more of these which are routinely used to water difficult areas outside of the automated irrigation system.


This was a very informative morning for me–feeling a little more empowered about actually managing my garden’s water more efficiently in the future. Dave and I have often felt that we spend an inordinate time adjusting/repairing parts of our sprinkler system but after hearing much anecdotal evidence from Mimi about the trials and tribulations of her clients and her own watering systems I now know that “misery loves company” is just about the right description of everyone’s experience.

We had a beautiful cool afternoon for our California Native Plant I.D. Walk. Filoli does not have a large collection of natives as the gardens are maintained in much the same style as they were originally designed. There is a small area behind the Visitor’s Center with both coast live oaks (Quercus agrifolia)and valley oaks (Quercus lobata). The native madrone (Arbutus unedo) is also represented there along with several species of Arctostaphylos, or manzanita. The surrounding hillsides outside the formal gardens are mixed forests where these three trees are also seen along with many non natives.

Here you see a coast live oak in its youth in contrast to a more mature specimen.

And below a young native madrone…


There were just a few blooms left on the Salvia spathacea, hummingbird sage, and they provided a colorful contrast to the mostly cool green environment of this shaded niche.


We went “off roading” on our return to the potting shed, tramping through the open fields outside the formal gardens–a whole new perspective of the 864 acre estate. As we rounded our last turn we paid a ceremonial visit to the “daffodil graveyard” where the hundreds of pots of daffodils are housed until their foliage totally dies back.


The pots will then be emptied, the soil knocked from the bulbs and the bulbs stored in net bags until it is time to pot them up again! We are really behind the scenes now. You can get a glimpse at a number of different species of ivy growing along the back chain link fence–an entire collection was given by a donor some years ago and the plantings are maintained by a single dedicated volunteer. There is amazing diversity in this genus as you can see in the few I’ve included below.


Bidding you farewell from Filoli for this month. I can’t wait to see how the newly planted display beds will look on my July visit. Kudos to all the dedicated staff and volunteers who make these beautiful gardens reality for all those who come to admire them.


4 thoughts on “A Year in the Garden…Filoli in June

  1. Getting into a garden before opening time is such a great benefit. I have taken quite a few photo workshops at the Ruth Bancroft Garden for that precise reason. I’m really overdue for a visit to Filoli , it’s been a few years, and what i wouldn’t give to photograph the knot garden in the early morning !


  2. I’ve never visited Filoli and I’m impressed that you are enthusiastic enough about what it has to offer to drive 3-4 hours to get there (each way?). I find it daunting to think of driving through Los Angeles to get to The Huntington Gardens! However, I’m flying to DC for the Garden Bloggers’ Fling. I saw you listed among the California contingent so I guess I’ll see you there!


    1. It will be great to meet you! I gardened in LA and Orange County from the mid 1980s til 1997 and still travel frequently to Southern CA to visit friends and attend garden events. Love Huntington Gardens!


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