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Filoli staff, volunteers ready gardens for opening day

 

It's a Monday, just two weeks before Filoli reopens to the public on Feb. 10, and in the 16 acres of gardens, the staff of 14 is busy pruning, grooming beds, checking the irrigation systems for leaks and malfunctions, mowing and trimming.

The 30 to 40 volunteers who show up each Monday (more come on Thursdays) have done their morning shift of weeding and tidying the beds and the grounds are immaculate.

The normally serene grounds, located off Canada Road a few miles north of Woodside and a whole world away from the normal suburban sprawl of the Peninsula, are noisy, however. Tree work is being done with chainsaws, and, because Filoli is normally closed to the public on Mondays, Monday is the day for noisy work such as mowing.

Bedding plants have been placed in their beds, neatly spaced, and in the greenhouses and cold frames, more plants -- violets, pansies, columbine, foxgloves and forget-me-not, among them -- are growing as they wait for their stint in the spotlight.

Bulbs have been planted in the 3,000 pots that will cycle through the garden. Jim Salyards, Filoli's head of horticulture, hopes that the daffodil variety, called "Fortune," which had begun to bloom for last year's opening day, will do so again this year.

Mr. Salyards says the pots will be swapped three times, so visitors will always have fresh blooms to marvel at. The earliest pots usually bear daffodils and the later pots, tulips. Unless, that is, the pots are in a part of the garden accessible to the dozens of deer who live on the 654-acre estate. Those pots won't have tulips, because deer eat tulips. They do not, usually, eat daffodils.

Bulbs take up three-quarters of the annual plant budget, Mr. Salyards says, and for 2015 Filoli purchased 70,000 bulbs. Many of the other garden plants are either grown from seed or propagated, and some plants, such as new roses (the gardeners look for disease-resistant, fragrant varieties), are donated by their growers. Much of the seed is also donated and some is saved from previous seasons.

This year the garden will have 48,000 tulip bulbs of 57 varieties; with 31,000 of them going into pots. In the sunken garden around the large lily pool, alone, there are 3,500 bulbs of one variety, "Menton." There also will be 20,000 new daffodil, or narcissus, bulbs of 18 varieties. Other bulbs are left in the ground to come back up year after year, such as in the meadow behind the house where 74,000 "Golden Dawn" narcissus have been planted along with California poppies and Arroyo lupine.

In 2010 gardeners planted 15,000 English bluebells near the row of pear trees next to the rose garden, where they come back up each year. Many of the narcissus that were in pots in previous years are massed in open areas of the garden and many of the bulbs in the ground naturalize and come back annually in even larger numbers.

If it is relatively calm in the garden just weeks before the public will arrive in droves (last year 120,000 visitors came during the nine months Filoli was open, often 1,000 people per day), it is because work has not slowed in the three months the garden has been closed to the public.

In addition to 130 garden volunteers, who each commit to working at least two half-day shifts each month, and the 14 employees, the garden hosts up to five interns or apprentices at a time. Interns, who are usually college students or recent graduates, work for 10 weeks and apprentices stay for six months, Mr. Salyards says. Filoli often hires former interns, with eight of the current 14 garden employees starting as interns, he says.

Some of the volunteers have been at Filoli for decades. Adrienne Bennett, 79, of Menlo Park, has been working in Filoli's gardens for 28 years, since 1987. She says that she started soon after she and her late husband, Hamish Bennett, downsized from an acre in Atherton to a townhouse in Menlo Park. "I suddenly realized I was going to need a garden fix," she says.

Ms. Bennett says that her job as a volunteer is not the most glamorous. "We're just doing weeding and raking up camellia blossoms, and weeding," she says. But the pleasure of making the property look immaculate for visitors is worth all that weeding. "It really give us a lot of pleasure to think we're enhancing the property," she says.

In the winter, the garden's fruit trees, many of them rare heritage varieties, and its many hedges, perennials and shrubs, all must be pruned and cleaned up. In the greenhouses, some of which date back to the original garden, plants are started from seeds or cuttings, and tender plants that will be moved into the house for display are coddled.

The gardeners regularly grow new plants from the heritage plants in the garden, selling many of them in Filoli's garden and gift shop. Others are kept at the ready to replace plants that die or become diseased.

Displays are plotted out, seeds ordered and plans made. Mr. Salyards says he looks through garden catalogs for inspiration.

What visitors will see when the gates open on Feb. 10 is remarkably similar to the garden that was established by William Bowers Bourn II and Agnes Moody Bourn. The Bourns built their country home between 1915 and 1917 and established the garden between 1917 and 1929.

When Mr. and Mrs. Bourn both died in 1936, the property was sold to William P. and Lurline Matson Roth, who except for adding a swimming pool, kept the gardens much as they had been.

The house and formal gardens at Filoli were donated to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the remaining acreage to the Filoli Center, by the Roth family in 1975, and opened to the public in 1976. The Filoli Center operates the property.

Some changes have been made to the gardens, mostly with the idea of adding more interest for visitors, such as the knot gardens and some perennial borders, Mr. Salyards said.

Mr. Salyards, who is in his 20th year at Filoli, took over running the garden when the longtime head of horticulture, Lucy Tolmach retired in 2012 after 35 years at Filoli. For the first 18 months, Mr. Salyards shared management of the garden with Alex Fernandez, who was recently promoted to director of operations for all of Filoli.

Ms. Tolmach and her husband Jonathan, who also worked at Filoli, have moved to a family property outside Ojai, where they have a large fruit and vegetable garden as well as a family winery.

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