Old World beauty at Filoli: San Francisco Garden Bloggers Fling


Our 3rd stop on the 2nd day of the San Francisco Garden Bloggers Fling was the old estate garden of Filoli. According to its website, Filoli is a “654–acre property, including the 36,000 square foot Georgian country house and spectacular 16–acre English Renaissance garden.”

Despite the Texas-level heat on this late June day, I was eager to explore the garden. But first I wanted to know one thing: how to pronounce the garden’s name? “Filoli,” I learned, is a combination of the first two letters of three verbs in the original owner’s credo: “Fight for a just cause; Love your fellow man; Live a good life.” OK then: Fie-low-lee?


Hidden behind a series of tall, brick walls, with bright views inviting you through arched doorways, Filoli is explored the way you’d unwrap a beautiful gift.


You pass through a wall, take in the formal vista of clipped hedges, masses of colorful annuals, and focal points like a pond, conservatory, or row of columns, and then you reach another wall with an open door. You can’t help pressing on to see what’s revealed ahead.


On this bright, sunny — and did I mention very warm? — day, I didn’t have much luck recording those secret transitions, those doorways between shade and sun that so enticed me. But my camera and I did fine with open vistas like this. That’s the cupola and clock above Filoli’s lovely gift shop, and just to the left is the arched doorway I came through.

Peach-colored flowers pick up the terracotta hue of old bricks and rounded pots, contrasting so nicely with the emerald lawn and perfectly clipped hedges.


Looking to the right you see a brick conservatory with arched windows framed by clipped shrubs overlooking the formal pond.


A closer look at this romantic, vine-swathed structure


Approaching from the left I admired the old brick and tall tree arching protectively over the roof.


A quick peek inside reveals an elegant place to sit and enjoy the view.


Another of those enticing doorways — from shade into sun and a blaze of pink begonias.


Feeling rather sweaty at this point, I decided to park myself under a shade tree and guzzle a bottle of water. I found a group of blogging friends doing just that and joined them. Here’s the lovely Layanee staying cool with fan and hat.


After a while we moved on, exploring all the way up a slight slope to the top of the garden, where a dramatic, semicircular colonnade of stone pillars and vertical trees marked the end of the garden.


While the others headed to the main house for a tour and cool respite, I decided to poke around the rest of the garden, not wanting to miss anything.


I admired a perfect line of trees marching along a vine-covered wall.


I stopped to read a plaque honoring Lurline B. Roth, the second owner of Filoli and the one who secured its preservation.


At the far end of the garden I found a woodland garden extending up a hillside. None of my photos of it came out. However, I enjoyed not just the shade but the prehistoric-looking tree ferns growing there. A tall wall enclosed one side of the woodland garden, and when I climbed the stair I discovered a rooftop patio with dozens of tables and chairs. No cafe, sadly. All was quiet, waiting for the next garden banquet fundraiser, I expect.


I had this part of the garden, distant from the house, all to myself. It was serene and shady.


Shallow trays of bonsai had been placed on windowsills, to charming effect.


A last glimpse of the estate house, which I did not tour, having run short on time exploring the gardens. While formal estates with clipped hedges and bedding annuals are not my favorite type of garden, there’s still much to enjoy, like old walls with arched doorways and precisely framed focal points. I’d love to see Filoli again, in another season — glorious spring, perhaps — and unwrap this present again.

Up next: The welcoming and uniquely personal garden of designer, author, and blogger Rebecca Sweet. For a look back at the sun-drenched display gardens of Sunset Publishing Corp.’s headquarters, click here.

All material © 2006-2013 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

13 Responses

  1. Claire Jones says:

    Pam
    I loved your post on Filoli! I must have missed so many things there. Mu pictures are completely different!

    I’ll have to go look for your post, Claire. I love seeing different perspectives than mine! —Pam

  2. Layanee says:

    Hi there…followed a link and found your beautiful Filoli pictures. So nice to be included! It was such a hot day but your pictures look quite refreshing.

    You look quite cool in your hat and with your purple fan, Layanee. I’m just glad you weren’t shooting a photo of sweaty, red-faced me. —Pam

  3. ricki says:

    Such an evocative image: unwrapping a beautiful gift.

    I considered a layered-onion analogy, Ricki, but, well, it kind of stank. :-) —Pam

  4. Alison says:

    I love your photo of the staircase. I wish I had found that, and the shady woodland garden far from the house! I never made it into the house either, but I hear it was much cooler in there. I’d love to go back too, when it’s cooler.

    Gardens always win out over houses for me — and for you, it seems. Even when it’s hot, right? —Pam

  5. peter schaar says:

    Beautiful evocation of a garden I have long wanted to experience. You might like such formal gardens better if they were planted in the xeric plants, including spiky woody lilies, that you and I like so much. After all, formality does not depend on a particular plant palette, and formal gardens can be restful and exude a zen simplicity like no other. In fact, you might take it as a challenge to find a client who wants such a garden!

    Hi, Peter. Actually, I like many formal elements, including clipped shrubbery and symmetry, which I find work well in many types of gardens — even (or especially) blowsy cottage and native gardens. Formal elements I’m not so fond of are masses of neon-hued bedding annuals and huge, putting-green lawns — these are especially common in estate gardens. By all means, skipping the pink begonias in favor of masses of agaves or yuccas would be fab (and more like Chanticleer, which I adore). —Pam

  6. Peter says:

    This was such a special place and, having long heard about it, I was eager to visit. It was even more grand than I’d pictured it. I found myself walking quickly to see every part of the garden on the map and also race through the house (self guided tour – much faster.) I like your analogy of unwrapping a beautiful gift – on this day, I wish the gift had been an air conditioner! Thank goodness for the bus! You’re right about the tennis court area with tables and chairs. They no longer allow any food in the house so the tennis court area is now utilized for dining along with the café in the information center.

    You’re speedy, Peter, to have made it through all the gardens and the house before our time was up. Or maybe I just spent too much time buying water at the gift shop! —Pam

  7. Laura says:

    Now I know why I don’t remember much of my Filoli visit years ago. It was magnificent but its manicured looks don’t fit my style of gardening so I didn’t pay too much attention to the plants, too bad from my part.

    I like a little bit of chaos in gardens, or rather, less geometry.

    I am glad you got to visit this special place.

    I am too, Laura. It’s a lovely garden, well worth a visit, even under a blazing hot sun. Ha! —Pam

  8. Very grand ….suits the house and property. Must have been so amazing to see such a huge space so well designed!

    Yes, indeed. I really need another visit though. This one was too short to see everything. :-) —Pam

  9. Betsy Krantz says:

    Filoli is amazing in the spring time. I encourage you to make a return trip. The Wisteria, Magnolias and bulbs combine make Filoli seem like a little bit of heaven. It is also much cooler.

    I would love to see Filoli in the spring, Betsy! Of course I also want to see Chanticleer in the spring, on the other end of the country. I can see I’m going to need a bigger vacation budget! —Pam

  10. Jimmie Bennett says:

    Saw FILOLI in April for the first time and greatly admired their color palette gardens and room like settings. The house was a pleasure to explore with garden arrangements to thrill. Super lunch room and art gallery. I plan on making it a San Francisco area repeat. If you get a chance to see it in spring, the wisteria cover home is outstanding.

    I’d love to, Jimmie. I’m envious of your springtime visit. —Pam

  11. Michelle D says:

    You did Filoli justice in your photography and writing Pam.
    As a former employee/ gardener of Filoli It was a pleasure to walk the gardens again and see it through your eyes.

    Hi, Michelle. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, especially considering your intimate history with the place. —Pam

  12. Adara Osborn says:

    Love all the pictures have only been there Once but it was o delightful hope to return some day such a lovely serene place thanks for sharing

    It was my pleasure, Adara. —Pam

  13. It was certainly hot, and bright, hard to photograph well, but you captured it well. You saw spots I missed. Love the plaque.

Follow