It’s springtime at the Central Garden. Birds are singing, the azaleas are glowing, and burgundy tulips and blue irises line the paths. However, the crowds are gone—the Getty Center has closed temporarily to minimize the spread of coronavirus.
The quiet comes at a time of transition for the garden. Spring always brings change and renewal, but this year Getty’s new horticulturist, Jackie Flor, has been trying to channel the vision of the garden’s creator, artist Bob Irwin, as she brings the garden back to his original intent
Does the new Golden Celebration rose with its rich, sweet scent honor Irwin’s intentions for that spot? How about the trio of new Redbuds ready to pop? And how would he feel about her attempts to curtail the wildly proliferating Madeira Island Geranium? Yes, they were his favorite plant, but they have run rampant.
“I’m not heartless,” she said a few weeks ago about the robust plants with pink flowers. “But they need to be tucked back into their proper place.”
Flor’s job is to manage the Central Garden “with precision and foresight.” She has read all the literature about the garden, and every note that Bob Irwin wrote about his choices and vision. “I’m his biggest fan,” said Flor. “Bob did an amazing feat here. The bones of this garden are fantastic.”
But gardens keep growing—that’s the whole point. “Always changing, never twice the same,” reads an inscription on a stepping stone in the garden.
Over the years, small plants have grown big, impeding sightlines and shading smaller plants. Other plants, like the prolific geraniums, have propagated themselves all over the garden, popping up in less than ideal settings.
When Bob Irwin designed the Central Garden in the 1990s, he called it a “sculpture in the form of a garden aspiring to be art.” His plant choices were in service to his artistic vision, chosen for color, volume, texture, and shape. In the last several years he has moved away from active management of the Central Garden, leaving it to others to cultivate his legacy.
“Bob picked plants like paint colors,” said Flor. “We’re looking for things to satisfy his aesthetic that will also thrive.”
As spring takes hold, some of Flor’s early choices have started to emerge. She’s pleased with the Constellation and Black Knight petunias, and the Amante Sage, an exciting new cultivar. Most of the arbors have been replanted – they were overgrown, in many instances reducing the arch shape to more of a tunnel.
The Golden Celebration rose is new, along with a Goldflame honeysuckle clinging to the arches. The arbors are important to Flor. “That’s where people take pictures, that’s what they’ll remember,” she said.
As she edits the garden, she relies on her crew of three experienced gardeners. They have been here since the beginning, or close to it, and have worked with Irwin. “They are the holders of the oral history,” and they can be protective. For instance, they hate removing the Madeira Island geranium.
She also works with a steering committee of Museum officials and outside advisers who weigh in on bigger changes. This April the steering committee will consider some new pots to replace the ones currently in the garden, which were chosen after Irwin was no longer overseeing daily garden management.
For home gardeners who’d like to bring a touch of the Central Garden to their backyards, Jackie suggests some of the native plants, like the cheery yellow tidy tips. These annuals bloom in early spring “and you get a lot of cluck for your buck.”
When visitors return, the tulips and daffodils will have faded. But the birds will still be there, including the hummingbirds sucking greedily from a purple forest lily. “The birds always approve of what we do,” she said.
Jackie recently had an aha moment when she realized that visitors like to enter the bowl garden from the south, in the sunniest and most open area of the garden. Because the plants are heliotropic, meaning they orient themselves to the sun, they face you as you enter. “Did Bob know that?” she wondered.
No matter. “This garden is endlessly entertaining to me,” Flor said, “I think he got it right.”