Evening photo shoot at The Huntington Gardens: GWA Pasadena

The Huntington gardens near Los Angeles have, for years, been on my wish list of botanical gardens to visit. So I was thrilled to see an afternoon visit and after-hours photoshoot offered on the itinerary of the Garden Writers Association symposium on September 20.

Unfortunately, it was surface-of-the-sun hot that day, 103 F (39.4 C). By my mid-afternoon arrival, I realized, to my dismay, that I was completely uninterested in touring the much-anticipated Huntington under the glare of an unforgiving Death Star. Chagrined, I hid out in the gift shop for an hour. Lest you think this a travesty, I assure you that the Huntington’s is the most incredible garden gift shop I’ve ever been in. How I wish I’d taken photos to show you. But I simply browsed in A/C-contented bliss.

As the sun dipped toward the horizon, however, I realized that I needed to suck it up and get out there. I mean, this was the Huntington! And so as the early-bird GWAers were straggling back, sweat-stained and flushed, to the gift shop and an after-hours bar (courtesy of the good folks at the Huntington), I finally ventured forth, prepared to melt for the beauty of the gardens.

And beautiful they are. As described by GWA, the Huntington was “[o]riginally the private estate of railroad magnate Henry Huntington (1850-1927), with a grand Beaux Arts mansion as its centerpiece….[T]he research and cultural institution houses world-class collections, including Gainsborough’s famous portrait of The Blue Boy, a Gutenberg Bible, and a 15th-century illuminated manuscript of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Surrounding the estate are 120 acres of breathtaking grounds that showcase more than 15,000 different kinds of plants in a dozen specialized gardens.”

I did not see any of the indoor masterpieces. The garden was my sole focus. As it closed to regular visitors at 4:30 pm, those of us with GWA badges were allowed to stay on until 7 pm, giving the photographers among us a chance to shoot the garden in the kinder light of late afternoon and early evening.

Palm and Desert Gardens

I headed straight for the famous Desert Garden, figuring the afternoon light would be good filtering through spiny plants, and passing through the dramatic Palm Garden along the way.

The sun was still intense when I reached the Desert Garden, but as I’d hoped, it was incandescing the cactus.

As with the Lotusland cactus garden, it was like visiting a strange planet. At 10 acres and with 2,000 species of succulents and cactus, the Desert Garden is worthy of hours of poking around (pun intended). But amid the rocky beds and asphalt paving, the heat was like standing next to an open oven, and I ended up spending only about 45 minutes here.

Still, I saw many beautiful plants, like these blue echeverias creeping among black lava rock.

And aeoniums so black they looked scorched by the heat.

Otherworldly tree aloe

And barrel cactus in brilliant flower

High in this floss silk tree’s branches, a flock of green parrots chattered amiably.

Nearby, golden barrel cactus clustered in extravagant masses.

I’d never seen so many barrels, not even at Desert Botanical Garden.

I didn’t even know they grew this way, clustered one upon another in great, spiny mounds.

They littered the path edges like beach balls after a pool party, and each wore a golden halo in the afternoon light.

Lily Ponds

Seeking shade, I happened next upon the Lily Ponds garden. I could hardly imagine a more different experience from the radiating heat and dynamic plant arrangements in the Desert Garden.

Here, the mood was serene, green, and cool, thanks to a tranquil pond and stands of rustling bamboo.

I rested there a while before heading into the sun again, crossing a large lawn with a temple-like folly. What a mood shift, from one garden to the next!

Subtropical and Australian Gardens

Glancing at the map I decided to see the Australian Garden next, and I passed the Subtropical Garden along a path facing directly into the ferocious setting sun. This made for great lighting effects on plants like white-flowering sea squill (Drimia maritima) growing under live oaks…

…and bottlebrush, as I neared the Australian Garden.

But by the time I got there, I was cooked, and the garden didn’t look particularly shady, so I just kept trudging toward a towering wall of bamboo that promised coolness and relief.

Japanese Garden

Ahh, a leafy green wall tall enough to block the sun! The narrow entry from this direction might be easy to miss, were it not for the foo dogs (stone lions) guarding the path.


I entered the Japanese Garden through a mysterious bamboo forest of swaying culms and rustling leaves.

Climbing steadily uphill, I came to a paved courtyard with a collection of bonsai displayed on wooden stands.

Montezuma cypress in miniature

And olive

Next I strolled through a meditative Zen courtyard, with raked white gravel, boulder islands, and cloud-pruned trees.

A grand stair, zigzagging along one side, exits the Zen garden, and from here I entered the main garden.

Completed in 1912, the tranquil Japanese Garden includes a tall, arching moon bridge and reflecting pond. It was growing lovelier by the minute as the hateful sun sank behind the trees.

Intimate vignettes, like this tsukubai fountain…

…and carved figure near a tumbling stream, made for delightful discoveries along the winding hillside path.

Chinese Garden

As the terrain leveled out, I came upon the Chinese Garden, enclosed along one side by an undulating, tile-roofed white wall.

Known as Liu Fang Yuan, the Garden of Flowing Fragrance, the Chinese Garden opened to the public in 2008 — a century after the Japanese Garden.

Having twice visited the Lan Su Chinese Garden in Portland, I knew to expect covered walkways leading to a series of paved courtyards with intricate details.

What I didn’t anticipate was being completely alone with the garden. It was all mine.

The light was soft as dusk came on.

A beautiful detail

Pebble mosaic courtyard — and banana trees by the moon gate?

The teahouse was closed for the day, but I admired the woodwork…

…and rested on its terrace, which overlooks a picturesque lake. The building that resembles a boat, at center, is part of a phase two addition to the garden, currently under construction.

Along the opposite side of the lake, a pavilion known as Terrace of the Jade Mirror shelters amid weeping willows.

Moon gates invite you through it.

Another pebble mosaic path and a carved stone bridge lead on. Note the limestone rocks arrayed along the edges — similar to the holey limestone we have here in central Texas.

Pavilion of the Three Friends comes into view here, with a fine view of the San Gabriel Mountains in the distance.

And the three friends? According to Chinese tradition, bamboo, pine, and plum are considered the three friends of winter for the pine and bamboo’s evergreen foliage and the plum’s early spring flowers. Together, explains the Huntington’s website, they symbolize fortitude, integrity, and resilience.

One last look. The Chinese Garden surprised me by turning out to be my favorite part of the Huntington gardens, in part, no doubt, due to the perfect golden hour during which I visited.

North Vista and Camellia Garden

The light was still sweet as I made my way through the Camellia Garden via the North Vista, a vast lawn anchored at one end by this baroque fountain adorned with carved fish and shells. The website explains, “The Italian fountain had been brought to England in the early 18th century and remained there until it was purchased by Henry Huntington in 1915. It was shipped from New York in 48 boxes that filled an entire railway car. Oddly enough, the fountain arrived without assembly instructions and with a few extra pieces. It eventually was installed five years after the completion of the main house (ca. 1916).”

The lawn is lined with 18th-century sculpted figures, camellias, and palms, and at the opposite end sits the former home of Henry and Arabella Huntington, which today houses part of their art collection.

I’m sure this garden sees most of its traffic in winter, when the camellias bloom, but it’s lovely in its summer greens too — although that lawn no doubt requires a lot of water to remain so green. The tall, skinny palms lend a distinctly California vibe to all the classicism.

California and Celebration Gardens

As the sun set and the staff prepared to close up, I straggled back, blissed out, toward the entrance, passing through the Mediterranean-style Celebration Garden, which is part of the water-wise California Garden. A shallow rill descends along a series of terraces formally planted with lavender, grasses, kangaroo paws, and other dry-adapted plants.

Red kangaroo paws looks especially pretty against cool-blue yuccas.

I would imitate this in a heartbeat if kangaroo paws tolerated Austin’s humid summer climate.

The grasses looked great too.

I love this combo, although I recognize only the yellow-flowering yarrow. Anyone know what the purple flowers are (update: looks like Scaevola aemula; thanks, Lara!), and is that a euphorbia at lower right?

Closer to the entrance, the garden loses its formality with casually inviting seating areas tucked amid billowing grasses.

The Huntington truly is an amazing collection of plants beautifully designed. I’m so glad I had a chance to explore it after-hours, and I hope you’ve enjoyed this very long recap.

Gift Shop

Part of my hideout time in the gift shop was spent autographing copies of my book Lawn Gone!, which I spotted prominently displayed as soon as I walked in the door.

How exciting! My thanks to the Huntington for carrying it and for treating us at GWA to a very special after-hours visit.

That wraps up my series of Los Angeles-area garden tours. Click through for a look back at the beautiful Volk Garden, which has a borrowed view of the Huntington. You’ll find links back to my other L.A. garden posts at the end of each post you follow.

All material © 2006-2015 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Gardening books I’m reading right now

I’m going to need a bigger bedside table.

Here’s what I’m reading right now, and just look at this awesome selection of design-oriented gardening books (and one magazine). I expect to review some of these in coming months, after the garden-tour craziness is behind me. But in case you’re starting to make your holiday wish list, I thought I’d go ahead and share these with you. All but two I bought for myself; Hummelo was sent for review, and my DH gave me Planting in a Post-Wild World for my birthday. I mention this just so you know I’ve put my money where my mouth is on these publications.

Garden Design magazine. One issue of this quarterly, ad-free, “bookazine” will keep you in great garden reading for weeks. The current issue includes in-depth articles about designing for drought, Piet Oudolf’s immersive planting style, plant explorer Dan Hinkley’s garden, and more. Variety, depth, and gorgeous eye candy. What more do you need from a gardening magazine?

Hummelo: A Journey Through a Plantsman’s Life by Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury. This is the story of Piet Oudolf’s evolution from beginning designer to renowned plantsman and founder of the New Perennials movement. I’ve gotten a bit bogged down in the extensive detail about Oudolf’s early years establishing his nursery and design business, but even so, I’m intrigued by the impact of community in shaping the designer he is today. This is a book I’ll come back to soon.

Sunset Western Garden Book of Easy-Care Plantings: The Ultimate Guide to Low-Water Beds, Borders, and Containers. Sunset’s focus on the West excludes central Texas, but it still has relevance to the gardening we do here. Drought, heat, sustainable gardening, and an emphasis on outdoor living are covered, and plenty of gorgeous garden photos illustrate various elements of design. I eagerly read through this one already and will go back and do a slower perusal this fall.

The Art of Gardening: Design Inspiration and Innovative Planting Techniques from Chanticleer by R. William Thomas. Chanticleer stole my heart when I visited several years ago, and so I eagerly snapped up this book, written by head gardener Bill Thomas and photographed by the talented Rob Cardillo, when it came out. I’m learning so much about how Chanticleer’s creative gardens are imagined, planted, and maintained. I’m engrossed and carrying this book with me everywhere right now.

Outstanding American Gardens: A Celebration: 25 Years of the Garden Conservancy. Showcasing “eight gardens the conservancy has helped preserve and 43 of the more than 3,000 private gardens across the country that have been opened to the public through its Open Days Program,” including the Austin garden of James David, this book looks like an eye candy extravaganza with photos by Marion Brenner. I look forward to reading it and hope there’ll be plenty of commentary about the gardens as well.

Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West. This book is getting a lot of buzz in the design community, and it’s next on my reading list, after I finish the Chanticleer book. I’ve followed co-author and landscape architect Thomas Rainer’s insightful blog, Grounded Design, for years and am sure his book will be as intelligently written.

Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart. Although this isn’t a gardening title, I include it because it’s written by Amy Stewart, better known as the author of Wicked Plants and The Drunken Botanist, and because this fun story recently kept me entertained on a long plane ride home from L.A. Unlikely heroine Constance Kopp is a no-nonsense, battle-ready recluse who gets sucked into a cat-and-mouse drama with a nasty gangster. Set in 1914 and based on a true story, Girl is Amy’s first venture into historical fiction. Her talent for story-telling turns a dusty historical news clipping into a lively detective novel.

Are you reading any of these? If not, add them to your list! And why not tell me what gardening titles you’re reading?


Austin-area gardening friends, come to the Inside Austin Gardens Tour this Saturday! My garden will be on tour, along with 6 others. Tour tickets may be purchased at each garden for $5 each or $20 for all. I’ll also have autographed copies of my book Lawn Gone! for sale ($20), if you’re looking for fall reading or an early holiday gift.

Inside Austin Gardens Tour
Saturday, October 17, 2015
9:00 am to 4:00 pm

All material © 2006-2015 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Hillside oasis: the magical garden of Joy and Roland Feuer

While in Los Angeles recently for Garden Writers Association, I spent a day off-conference touring private gardens that Annette Gutierrez of Potted arranged for a small group of us. One of these was the garden of Joy and Roland Feuer, a welcoming and artistic couple who constructed their magical garden themselves by terracing a steep, eroded hillside and turning it into a series of livable garden rooms. Their A-frame ranch sits on a mesa-like hilltop amid a rugged landscape of ridges and canyons, anchored by a massive fir planted by the original owners, a long-ago Christmas tree that lives on.

Joy and Roland wisely didn’t over-fuss the level terrace area surrounding their home. Keeping it simple, in sync with their home, whose front wall of glass doors opens up to the outdoors, they spread wood mulch for a cushioning, water-absorbing floor and furnished it with overscaled wooden tables and benches.

An ivy-covered wall runs along one side of the terrace, providing shelter and privacy. The space is casually welcoming, and Joy and Roland set out platters of fruit, crackers, and cheese for us, along with bottles of wine — welcome refreshment on an unusually hot September afternoon.

Joy is the founder of ART from the Ashes and is an artist herself. Art fills her home, like this striking, painted-book sculpture by Mike Stilkey in the living room.

Wowed by this piece, I asked Joy if I could share it with you, and she readily agreed. Mike customized it for their home, running it over the doorway and under a ceiling beam. A surrealist trio plays for a woman in whose head seem to float cave-art horses. How unique — I love it!

Some of the couple’s art has a carnivalesque theme, like this print in their wine cellar.

A playful sense of magic and mystery pervades much of their garden, which I ascribe to Roland’s influence. Roland, you see, builds amusement park rides. When I asked him what that meant — does he make roller coasters? — he explained that his company, R&S Production Services Inc, creates the whole ride experience, from the mechanical to the surrounding sets to the shows that take place. Cool, right? How did he get into such a career, I asked? “I grew up at Disney,” he replied. His father worked there, and so Roland spent much of his childhood at the “most magical place on earth.”

Roland and Joy’s garden felt like the most magical place on earth on the afternoon we visited. Views are savored from numerous seating areas tucked into the hillside garden.

The garden appears to get a lot of use after dark, judging from the number of lanterns and chandeliers along paths and hanging over tables. This one is suspended from an arching steel arm.

This Asian-style wooden lantern lights the path near the house.

The path drops beyond the house down a steep hillside, past terraces filled with drought-tolerant plants, like this Agave gypsophila

…and this pretty potted succulent.

Roland and Joy did all the terracing themselves, and I think they said they built this wine cellar themselves too. It sits under one of the higher terraces, tucked into the hillside. I was unprepared for the elegance within.

A carved wooden door — distressed to look old, Roland told me — sits within an arched recess.

To the right of the door, a niche holds a few meaningful objects.

And then you open the door and see this: a smooth, domed ceiling bathed in the light of a glass lantern, which hangs over a rustic wooden table with seats for sitting and tasting wine. Roland told us that two air conditioners keep the cellar chilled to the right temperature for wine storage. I’m sure being underground helps too.

The bar sink

And a dartboard for fun. Notice the wine-cork surround.

Opposite the entrance, old wooden doors from Mexico open to reveal a hallway, beautifully lit and lined with racks of wine.

At the end of the hall hangs more carnival-theme art.

Back outside, I stopped to admire an Esther pot. That’s Roland sipping from his glass of wine in the background.

Below the wine cellar, the terraced garden continues down the hill, with succulents favored for good looks, drought tolerance, and low maintenance.

To the left, an arched doorway beckons. And are those Circle Pots from Potted?

Why, yes, they are! And there’s designer Susan Morrison (and my first mentor as an author) as well.

I really love the inventive way Joy and Roland have hung their Circle Pots, with connecting wires keeping them in a grid formation. The colorful circles echo…

…the colored glass circles on the steel-and-glass door.

A stucco wall with filigree iron windows…

…curves around a hot tub constructed to look like a natural pool, complete with pillowy boulders.

A hot tub with a view

Here are Roland and Joy, the architects of this wonderful garden, along with designer Dustin Gimbel, whose garden we visited earlier in the day.

Continuing down the hillside, more terraced patios amid the trees…

…and looking up, more hanging lanterns…

…which glowed with jewel-like color in the afternoon light.

In the lowest part of the garden, mischievous creatures…

…and spooky inhabitants appear.

Gargoyles overlook the lower garden…

…and so does Domino, Joy and Roland’s adorable dog.

Heading back up the other side of the garden, I admired this green-clad terrace.

Fig ivy covers the retaining wall, and lime-green, flower-like aeoniums lean over the top. Above, Agave attenuata adds its starry form.

A garden spirit

Almost back up to the top, with Domino leading the way

A pretty pot, and nice stonework too

These colored glass lanterns, suffused with afternoon light, need no electricity to illuminate the garden.

At the top, a small greenhouse is tucked under the lantern tree.

Back at the house, Domino gets comfy on her blanket.

My thanks to Joy and Roland for their hospitality and for sharing their delightful garden. What a marvelous place they’ve created in one of the most challenging sites I’ve seen. Hillside gardeners, here’s your inspiration!

Up next: The Folly Bowl, the personal garden of Susanna Dadd and James Griffith, which contains a back-yard amphitheater where public concerts are held. For a look back at Dustin Gimbel’s creative Long Beach garden, click here.

All material © 2006-2015 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.