Just as the artworks on display at the Getty Museum require loving care and attention by curators, conservators, and researchers, the 700 acres of grounds and gardens also require a team of experts whose job is to keep the Getty plants beautiful, and thriving. Enter Brian Houck, the manager of Getty’s grounds and gardens since 2015. A self-described “introverted plant geek,” Houck oversees Getty’s crew of gardeners and horticulturists and delights in any opportunity he gets to observe Getty’s landscape and brainstorm ways to help it flourish. Last month, he took a break from his groundskeeping duties (which have continued while Getty has been closed) to share a typical day in his life and a few secrets from the gardens—or, as Houck calls them, “slow art performances.”
How your passion for plants began: My dad was very interested in the outdoors—we lived in Orange County and he took us camping throughout Southern California. Being a natural introvert, like many plant people, I really enjoyed observing the natural world and thinking about it and trying to draw conclusions. I was the geek who used a flashlight to read under my covers, but I was reading plant books and my mom would yell at me to turn off the light.
My mom cultivated my interest in plants. She taught me about plants and took me to the store to get me a hydroponics set—that’s gardening without soil, big in the 1970s. For a quarter a week I also took on the responsibilities of my own family’s yard—I mowed the lawn and pruned shrubbery. I was introduced to bougainvillea at an early age, and we also had an amazing pineapple guava—you can eat the flowers, which is hilarious fun.
I continued to be singularly focused on plants as an adult, which made my career choices easy—I didn’t really have a choice. I knew this is what I was going to do.
Horticultural background: I was lucky enough to do an internship for almost a full year at a large public garden on the East Coast called Longwood Gardens, which cemented my career choice and passion to be in public horticulture. If you do a Google search for Longwood Gardens and look at the incredibly creative gardens they have, you’ll think, “Who are these people? They’re doing this?” It’s nuts. I thought to myself, “I have found my community.” I then worked at Cal State University, Northridge as the botanic garden manager for the biology department, which meant making sure the biology classes had a supply of flowering plants from all plant families at all times of the year. Then I went to Chicago, got my master’s degree in nonprofit management, and worked as the director of horticulture at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo.
The zoo is really fascinating. You have to know what’s acceptable for the animals to eat. I learned crazy facts, like zebras are particularly allergic to red maples, the best wood to put in a gorilla exhibit is Osage orange, and willow is particularly attractive to rhinoceroses.
From a zoo to the Getty? Joining Getty was a natural fit because I had already been involved with creating a department, introducing new processes, and taking the landscape to a place it hadn’t been before. I was one in the admiring crowds when the Center’s Central Garden was first unveiled, so it was a no-brainer, joining the Getty when the opportunity came up. I didn’t have a background in art, but I love public horticulture and I consider plants to be like a slow art performance.
A typical day: I go about running the grounds department and managing the crews for both the Center and Villa, which means I focus on being the cheerleader, supporter, communicator, and project manager to help everybody else put things in action. We have three supervisors, horticulturalist Jackie Flor, and a crew of head gardener, senior gardeners, and gardeners. It takes a lot of hands to properly manage each aspect of the landscape, and the entire grounds crew has been working so hard throughout the Getty closure to keep our plants healthy and beautiful.
For the Central Garden, designed by artist Robert Irwin, and all the landscapes around the buildings, designed by Laurie Olin, Dennis McGlade, and others at the OLIN firm, we look at those designers’ intention for the spaces. When the original plants used in the design struggle or die, we choose new plants that we think will match the original intention and work better in the environment.
Favorite spot on the grounds: It’s at the heart of the property which nobody can get to except for the grounds staff, on the way up to the weather station. There’s a grove of native oak trees which were here long before the Getty Center. There are probably a dozen trees in that one spot. When the oaks grow slowly on their own they take on twisted forms, because their growth is adjusted by things like seasonal rainfall, wind patterns, and any fire that went over them. They have a marvelous sense of character because the history of their life is recorded in their shape.
Part of the grounds people tend to miss: Dennis McGlade worked some truly sophisticated botanical messages into our landscape. For example, as you walk down the steps to the cactus garden, you will pass the euphorbias and aloes, “Old World” succulents from Africa. Then when you get to the cactus garden, you see agaves and the columnar cactus—“New World” plants from the Americas. So very intentionally, Dennis separated those two categories so you could have a taxonomic conversation. I don’t think most people know that.
Favorite flower: I don’t have a favorite flower of all time. But my favorite flowers this week are the dahlias in the Central Garden. They start blooming in June and July, and they have a lot of flower power. The flowers are ridiculously large and colorful, and there are a lot of them on each plant.
Fun flower fact: Angel’s trumpet, which you’ll also find in the Central Garden, is bat pollinated; that’s why it only smells in the evenings.
How Getty’s gardens stay weed and disease-free: We use historic horticulturists’ best practices—for example, mulching reduces water loss, prevents weeds from growing, and improves the soil as it slowly decomposes. Improving those conditions allows the plants to have more optimal growth, and a healthy plant naturally resists disease and pets. We combine those best practices with trendy water conservation techniques like drip systems or gravel mulches. We also take an Integrated Pest Management approach, which reduces risk to human health and the environment, and choose pest-resistant plants, particularly in areas where we have a strong aesthetic to maintain. But one of the best defenses is to observe the plants. We regularly inspect and monitor them, and then if we do have a concern, we can deal with it when the plant is young and small and save ourselves a lot of grief.
Tips for home gardeners: Just worry about managing three things first: Water, light, and fertilizer. The other thing I would I tell people is that my crew and I have killed more plants than you ever will. So find a way to not take it personally. Practice your observational skills and try again. Knock yourself out and go have some fun. Because gardening is cheaper than therapy.
Best way to enjoy the grounds: Come early. The grounds in my world are best seen when there are fewer people around.
What you love most about your job: I spend a lot of time at my desk dealing with Excel spreadsheets and on phone calls managing projects. The most fun part is getting out to the landscape, observing what’s going on, and talking with the crew. I’m always amazed that just doing that is officially part of my job. Wait, you’re paying me to go out and look at a landscape, evaluate it to make sure it’s doing what it should be doing, and figure out ways it could be better? It doesn’t feel like work to me. And, I get to be around people who use proper plant names all day long.