First, a confession: formal gardens aren’t really my personal favorites. I enjoy including tightly clipped evergreens in a mixed border, to provide contrast to plants with looser habits, but it’s rare that I design gardens ruled by axial symmetry and carefully shaped trees and shrubs.
Having said that, I must admit I enjoyed visiting Filoli Center on my third “winter road trip” in February. I was in the area for a visit with my son and had spent some time at a small but lovely community garden in Palo Alto, the Elizabeth Gamble Garden, when I decided to head for Filoli the next day.
Filoli, which is in the care of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, was created as a grand country house and garden for the Bourn family in Woodside, CA beginning in 1915. Eventually it passed into the hands of the Roth family, which gave it to the Trust in 1975.
After paying my entry fee, I didn’t even bother to visit the grand house (cretin that I am) but headed straight for the gardens, which range from natural-looking meadow areas to yew allees and trees that have been pruned into formal shapes like nothing I have ever seen.
The biggest splashes of color in the garden, in mid-February, came from hundreds of pots of forced bulbs, primarily daffodils, scattered through almost every area of the garden.
Within the Walled Garden, I saw volunteers working in an area called the Chartres Garden, where low-growing annuals in yellow and blue hues surrounded hybrid tea roses that had been pruned back, awaiting spring. In the background, geometric yew cones and cylinders and meticulously pruned hedges provided an eye-catching contrast to the rounded boxwoods in the rose beds.
Camellias in bloom provided the other primary source of color in the early spring of northern California at Filoli.
Behind the pool area in the Sunken Garden, an enormous Camperdown elm (Ulmus glabra ‘Camperdownii’) dominated a large seating area, surrounded by pots of daffodils. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from its sweeping, arching branches, many of which were covered in moss. I can only imagine how beautiful it must be during the growing season.
The Sunken Garden area itself is dominated by a large cylindrically-pruned silver-barked tree unfamiliar to my East Coast eyes, possibly an olive tree pruned “in a formal goblet style” (see Filoli’s website for an extensive and detailed discussion of the garden’s design and influences). Setting it off is a grouping of enormous upright yews.
Adjacent to the sunken area, moving toward the house, again you see pots of daffodils everywhere, marking the transition to a terraced area from which there are vistas down into wilder, meadow-like areas.
According to information on Filoli’s website, as the planning for the gardens and house began, a wheeled tower was constructed to identify the best vantage points for the garden for capturing views of the surrounding mountains and lake. What a great idea! As I’ve noted before, views are critical in designing a garden. The Bourns understood this, even without the help of any formally-trained landscape designers or architects to help them.
And the name “Filoli” – where did it come from? From the first two letters of “FIght – LIve – LOve.” “To fight for a just cause; to love your fellow man; to live a good life” was a credo that Bourn believed in. Not bad for a life, or to inspire the birth of a remarkable garden.
Filoli Center is open to the public Tuesdays through Sundays from February to the end of October. For more information on its history, admission, and special programs, visit its website.