Essential Gardening | Revisiting the Spring of COVID-19

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In this excerpt from Essential Gardening: Public Gardens in the Spring of COVID-19, from the Arnoldia, a publication of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, director of horticulture Jim Salyards, and former plant collections fellow Terry Huang reflect on the spring of 2020. While Filoli was closed from March 16 – May 11 due to the county-wide shelter in place, Jim, Terry and our other essential staff continued to work in reduced amounts onsite. During these difficult times, they were kind enough to document the spring displays. We hope you will enjoy a slice of the spring that you missed, and look forward to seeing you soon! The Gardens and Estate Trail are open every day.

West Point tulips fill the Sunken Garden beds.

In the early days of the pandemic, the pervasive singing of birds at Filoli was uncanny. The garden is nestled in the mountains between the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific, halfway between San Francisco and San Jose. While the gardens are formal—part of a sprawling estate that was established on gold-mining profits more than a century ago—wildlife is always abundant. Birdsongs provide a sense of vibrancy during the day, and large animals (like cougars, coyotes, foxes, and raccoons) leave evidence of nighttime visits. On March 25, I was in the Sunken Garden, snapping a social media photo of yellow ‘West Point’ tulips that were blooming within the low, clipped hedges of the parterres. The calls of sparrows, towhees, crows, and finches were inescapable, but they were now an eerie reminder of the lack of human voices in the garden. Filoli had closed the week before, on March 17, and although the horticulture team would continue to care for the landscape, the garden had to lay off some of our frontline staff at the beginning of our closure. Wildlife was becoming more brazen in their activities, but it was very bittersweet when all who would normally be enjoying the garden, along with the birds, were missing.

Tulips and Grape Hyacinth say hello from the bell beds.

Filoli has blooms 365 days a year because of the moderate climate along the coast of northern California. Camellias and daphne begin blooming in January. In summer, the formal parterres showcase a bounty of colorful designs. But spring continues to be our biggest draw. Locals and visitors from around the globe are captivated by the spring experience of seeing daffodils and tulips in our meadows and formal beds. Wisteria clambers on the side of the mansion, and peonies are showstopping. But this year, our spring peak of mid-March to mid-April was completely missed. All the planting and tending on the part of the staff, all the expectant calls and emails that started at the beginning of the year asking the best time to visit were for naught.

I did my best to share photos and videos through our social media outlets, but it’s just not the same. A few thumbs-up or heart emojis are a poor substitution for the “oohs” and “aahs” and the thank-yous we receive from guests each day—the guests who call out compliments while we are weeding and pruning or who pass along the praise to our colleagues in visitor services and interpretation. Public gardens like Filoli are champions of environmental education and conservation, yes, but we also provide substance for people’s souls. Hopefully, in the near future, the garden will once again become a space of healing, just when the world needs us most.

Jim Salyards, Director of Horticulture

Every spring the Garden House is filled with sweet-smelling hyacinth, potted tulips, and other spring containers.

The headhouse sits at the southern end of Filoli, among the greenhouses, nursery, and a few oaks. Inside, the air was cool and faint with the soft scent of aged cement and redwood. Working in the dim light, I slowly organized my desk. My fellowship had ended early due to the pandemic, and this was my final day. I sorted through the years of accumulation drawer by drawer, encountering fragments of the many lives that had passed through here: a handwritten reminder, a hair tie, a playing card, a dead spider. My mind drifted as I worked. I had been working off-site for a month and a half, and my last memory of the garden was in early spring. The hellebores and magnolias had just given way to a few blousy spring camellias, but most of the garden still slumbered. While my life took a pause, the strengthening sun and late spring rains had coaxed the garden out of its winter dormancy. Now, the fresh green growth of redwoods, coastal oaks, and arbutus enrobed the Santa Cruz Mountains. Irises and tree peonies stretched their satiny crepe petals in the spring sunlight. Masses of tulips swayed cheerfully in the gentle breeze as voles darted between their beds. With so many flowers in bloom and no one to admire them, the garden was rejoicing, blooming for itself without judgment. A little space to breathe, a moment to grow.

Early spring light warms the Walled Garden.

After labeling the stacks of important documents and wiping down all surfaces, I headed out to the staff vegetable garden. Tucked away behind the headhouse, the garden is protected by a tall cherry laurel hedge and brick wall. The winter crops had finished. I saw evidence of recent activity, but not a single soul was there. Future plots were weeded, tilled, and enriched. Rows were marked and irrigation laid waiting. Soon rows of tomatoes would glisten in the sun, their leaves releasing a resinous fragrance. Swollen squash would hide under their giant prickly leaves. Multicolored carrots and potatoes would be unearthed like crystals and geodes, while sun-warmed strawberries and bright lemon verbena perfumed the air. The abundance would provide more than enough for human, beast, and microbe. For me, this was a place of refuge that had sustained me for a year, a place where I cultivated community with the earth and between people. I will miss the way the soil crumbled in my hands and how laughter floated over the garden hedge. Walking down the gravel path one last time, I took in the peace before heading out through the garden gate.

Terry Huang, now Assistant Director of Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden at UCLA

Another view of the Bell Beds with early weeping cherry blossoms in the background.
Spring tulip containers showing vibrant color.
The Garden House perfectly framed by tulips flowing along the Dining Room Terrace.
Asian plum in the daffodil field.
Filoli’s famous River of Tulips.
The Chinese Fringe Tree in bloom.
Potted tulips pour down the back stairs behind the house.
Wisteria curtains the chauffer’s cottage in the Service Courtyard.
Bright red azalea and camellias lead the way to the Wedding Place.
The meadow bloomed beautifully, full of California native poppies.
Wisteria and bluebells along the terrace.
The numbered beds filled with crimson tulips.
Weeping cherry blossom in the Service Courtyard.