THE EVOLVING PUBLIC GARDEN: THREE MEMBERS OF THE HORT TEAM @ FILOLI HISTORIC HOUSE & GARDEN
Settling into November now, this week on Cultivating Place we’re conversation with three members of the horticultural team at Filoli, a historic house and 16 acre cultivated garden in Woodside, California, where they are striving toward environmental and cultural practices to generously pay their long history of privilege forward. Just in time for the generous season in front of us.
Filoli is an Historic House & garden in Woodside, California, situated on the unceded ancestral lands of the Ramaytush Ohlone, the estate includes 654 acres of wildland along California’s coastal range and 16 acres of cultivated gardens open to the public. Originally built as a private residence in 1917, Filoli was opened to the public in 1975 as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
At Filoli, gardeners are striving to meet the social and environmental moment in the best ways possible—ever adapting and evolving to experiment, include, reinterpret, and contribute more and more positively. They think not only about what to plant when, but about why these spaces matter and what they have to teach us.
Jim Salyards is the Director of Horticulture at Filoli, Kate Nowell is the Production Gardens Manager, and Haley O’Connor is Filoli’s Formal Gardens Manager. They are all with us this week to speak and share more on just these topics.
Jim was born in Montana, to an air force family. His parents were both from outside of Boston, and they moved to Sunnyvale, CA early in his life, wher and his parents always made an effort to get he and his younger brother outside into the natural and cultivated environments of then-quite-rural Sunnyvale pre-tech-boom. He remembers pear orchards, dairy farms, and fields of mustard in bloom full of butterflies. When he was a little older, the family moved to the forests of the Santa Cruz mountains. There he was introduced to the idea of botany in high school and he learned the the botanical specifics of the trees around for a school project. He went on to U.C. Davis, and in his second year he had an introduction to biology with an outstanding professor, Dr. Robert Thornton. It was after an Introduction to Botany course with Dr. Thornton, that Jim knew he wanted to work with plants. While at Davis, Jim had an internship at the U.C. Davis Arboretum, where he fell in love with public gardens. After some generous but unknown soul will put a flyer in Jim's school mailbox about an open position at filoli, Jim went straight from his undergraduate and masters work in horticulture at Davis to joining the Filoli horticulture team, starting as a gardener in the Sunken Garden 27 years ago.
Kate was born in New Jersey, to parents to gardened a little on a small suburban lot. She spent a lot of time outdoors, and she’s remembers her back yard, which felt large to her as a girl: pine trees whose needles carpeted the ground, magical rhododendrons, oaks, hemlocks. At Boston College studying biology, she hiked a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail with a friend, and the experience rekindled her love of plants and the outdoors- and kindled a love of the West. After college she knew she wanted to follow plants and started out working as a fine gardener, before applying for the position at Filoli 10 years ago. She notes with no small amount of amazement that despite being in one garden, she has not been bored even one of those days! Haley was born in southern Colorado to outdoorsy biologist parents; her father loved sourcing plants for his woodland and rock gardens from the wild, and in their earliest garden in her childhood there was a beautiful stand of Aspen her father had nurtured. When her parents divorced, her mother and her garden/ loving stepfather moved to San Francisco, and then to Eugene, Oregon, and going back-and-forth between parents impressed on her that there were different kinds of plants and plant communities in different places, even though she did not consider herself a "plant person" until her mid 20s. In her late teens, Haley moved to Providence, Rhode Island as an artist. She remembers photographing at renowned eastern gardens like the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and Wave Hill, but at the time seeing gardens as places "where art was created not the art themselves." In 2011, along with fiber-artist friend Brittany Mroczek, Haley created a small community garden and park known as Aurora Borealis on an abandoned urban lot: described as "A garden reflecting the structure of a labyrinth, leading one into pockets of intention. This garden will house flowers and medicinal herb." It was this experience that brought art and gardening and community together for her. She went on to work as a landscape gardener, she found her way to several estate gardens including at The Chimneys in Manchester-By-The Sea, Massachusetts, an Italianate, Olmsted-designed garden, and in time to gardens back on the West Coast, where she also served as a horticultural consultant for the federally-supported Bay-area Presidio Trust. Haley came to love working in and "the stillness" of seeing one garden developed over time, sometimes over many decades, with care and continuity. And with planning for their next hundred years as part of the scope of work. She joined the Filoli horticulture team in 2020.
Beyond the Horticultural staff, Filoli also employs trusted, contract experts for turf care and for ongoing tree care, ensuring the longevity and health of some of the oldest specimen trees such as the beloved Camperdown elms and magestic oaks. The plants that this team would not garden without include all of the oaks (native canyon live oak, valley oak, scrub oak, and non-native holly oak and red oak; the manzanitas, roses, salvias; and of course the famed Filoli Camperdown elms, who along with the oaks hold time and history in their arms and in their cells.
Ever adapting with age and grace.
Follow Filoli online: filoli.org/ and on Instagram: @_filoli/
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JOIN US again next week, when we continue in a similar thread in conversation with Harvard University’s William Friedman, Arnold Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, and Director of the Arnold Arboretum This year celebrating its sesquicentennial. Trust me – it will be organismic. Join us!
Speaking of plants... and place:
Speaking of plants and place and this garden moment: an ode to Zinnias…
because in front of the blessed rain and cold weather in our forecast, this past weekend I harvested and cut back the generous bed of zinnias I seeded in trays early last spring, and which we (mostly John) have tended, and both of us have enjoyed watching them grow over 6 feet tall (although most sources say they grow to 4 feet, ours were definitely closing in on 6 feet), and the colorful profusion of blooms all summer.
As I picked the last of them to make way for winter crops and to save seed before the dampness, buckeye butterflies, pipevine butterflies, a California sister butterfly, honey bees, hover flies, and others nectared at the blooms. And I did keep apologizing to them for the harvest, but knew there were other fall blooms for them to forage at too.
Zinnias, according to Purdue University’s Eric Grissell, author of The History of Zinnia, Flower for the Ages, there are about two dozen recognized named species, but a relative few that have become garden standards. "All species of the genus Zinnia have a natural center of diversity in Mexico, spreading a bit farther to the north in the western United States and to the south as far as northern and western South America. They naturally originated in these regions of the New World regardless of where they now occur. About half the known zinnia species are hardy perennials appearing as small shrubs in some cases." As Grissell notes, these forms "remain poorly known among gardeners, even keen gardeners." It is the annual sorts that are generally referred to as garden zinnias and annual garden zinnias "have been popular since the early 1800s in North America and earlier in Europe, but the historical origin of the flower purports to date back much earlier to the time of the Aztecs. According to legend, species of zinnia have been known and grown from the time of the Moctezumas, from the early 1500s to the present. It is generally assumed—possibly correctly—that the typical zinnia grown in those times is what we today call a garden zinnia, but it would have originated in a much different form. This zinnia is given the Latin scientific name Zinnia elegans." The elegant zinnia.
My paternal grandfather loved his easy annual summer flowers, including zinnias. And they are gratifyingly easy to grow from seed. The slight seeds themselves remind me of elegantly drawn eyelashes. This past spring, in early March, I seeded a large selection sourced from Renee’s, Nichols, and Floret—some tall and large flowered, some small and multiflowered, some simply-petaled, some wildly double, ALL colorful. State Fair, California Giants Mix, California Giants Violet Queen, Persian Carpet, Oklahoma Mix, Benaries Giant Series Mix, and most likely a few more.
Zinnias take between 3 and 14 days to germinate, and while some sources indicate they are sensitive to transplanting, my 50 or more plants did fine. I potted seedlings onto 4 inch pots when their roots were poking out of the seed tray bottoms, and then we planted them out in the garden once daytime temps were steadily warm.
IN the garden, zinnias like full sun—yes, even here in Northern California, as well as rich soil with good drainage. Described as drought tolerant once established, they required a medium amount of water (daily for us in the height of summer heat).
For me the whole point of planting them was to cut them, and that kept them blooming all summer longer as well, until I let some of them go to seed. Once gone to seed, the seed – kept dry and cool - is also easy to save for next season.
My favorite was a large flowered nuanced orange-burnishing to pink in the center. I will be dreaming of this cheerful summer color at seeding time again next spring.
Thinking out loud this week:
In this season of gratitude, I wanted to reiterate my gratitude to and for you: listeners, donors call me at interviewees, participants in this experiment in civil gardening conversations growing together across all that might divide us. As a locally based program out of a small public radio station, it is very literally true that I could not do this work without you. No matter how you support call mom in what form, in what amount, and what frequency, cultivating place – my work, my livelihood, my love - is made possible by your support.
From Time, talent, technology, taxes and tithing, you make this work possible. From research, to writing, to reviewing, to reveling in this beautiful facet of our communal world, you make this work possible. I know the value of every dollar, I know the fears around finances, and I know the onslaught of requests and demands on every single one of our budgets. It is never without some level of internal conflict that any of us asks for money, and I have a long followed the respected public radio model of simply requesting for listener support from those who are able and find value in that listening.
So again, from the bottom of my heart and the seemingly endless garden love, thank you for your support.
In other news - I had a really interesting conversation, a respectful dialogue back-and-forth, with a wonderful listener last week. Of Asian-descent, this listener was very uncomfortable with what she felt was cultural appropriation on the part of my guest last week. It was not an easy dialogue for either of us no doubt, but I was extremely grateful this listener trusted me with their concerns and their communication. both of which I understood to the best of my ability as a non-Asian person.
This ongoing conversation and learning curve of cultural appropriation, of navigating personal-ownership of reparation, respect, re-imagining, especially as felt and discerned by those whose cultures so often feel appropriated, is so important and will be an ongoing process in our lifetimes—for generations to come. There are some clear lines, but there are also some very murky lines, which often come down to personal delineation. For me, one of these lines between clear cultural appropriation and less clear, as I shared with this listener, has to do with crediting our sources and our inspiration, with respectfully and joyfully uplifting and especially tithing to those sources and inspiration, while never diminishing or degrading those sources or inspiration, even in indirect (sometimes unseen?), ways. For this listener, a person's biological ancestry, any lenses that furthered fetization, and monetary gain were all delineators for her.
When non-native peoples took/take the spiritual use of sacred white sage, without credit or compensation (monetary or otherwise) to the culture for whom this plant is family and religion, which led not only to the commodification of this very regionally and culturally sacred specific plant, but also the over-harvesting and endangering of it, that is a very clear line of unacceptable appropriation.
How artists and students of other culture’s other ways of seeing and being, trained in many cases by teachers of these cultures, go on to incorporate some of that learning into their own ways and artistry, with full credit, sits on a much murkier, and age-old, line. In many ways, of course, we are all appropriators of one thing or another: the land we live on here in Northern California, if we are not of native-descent, is stolen—and appropriated.
It is up to us to respond to that reality in what ways we can and will.
If you have thoughts, impressions, lessons, to constructively share on this topic of interest to us all – you know how to reach me: firstname.lastname@example.org or follow, tag and DM me on Instagram!
Keep growing friends – growing pains and all! Happy November.
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