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“What it is that we do at Disneyland is tell stories. And the horticulture is a work of art helping to tell the story.”
At Disneyland, elaborate, immaculate gardens spring to life literally overnight—four times a year. While plants might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about a theme park, these gardens are a crucial part of the Disneyland experience because they tell the story of place through plants. For instance, in the Star Wars-themed zone Galaxy’s Edge, exotic succulents and flowers create an otherworldly atmosphere. Adam Schwerner, Disneyland’s director of horticulture and resort enhancement, uses lessons learned from artists to create a wonder-filled, magical environment at the park.
In this episode, Schwerner and Getty grounds manager Luis Gómez, who previously worked at Disneyland, speak with guest host Brian Houck, Getty’s head of grounds and gardens, about how they came to work in horticulture, what it takes to design and maintain artful gardens, and what inspires them.
Brian Houck: Hello, I’m Brian Houck, head of Grounds and Gardens at the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas. I’m your host for a three-episode series with artful gardeners in southern California.
Adam Schwerner: What it is that we do at Disneyland is tell stories. And the horticulture is a work of art helping to tell the story.
Houck: In this episode, I speak with Adam Schwerner, director of horticulture and resort enhancement for Disneyland, and Luis Gómez, grounds manager at Getty.
When many people think about Disneyland, they think about Mickey Mouse or roller coasters. But many gardening enthusiasts know Disneyland as an incredible public garden. With thousands of plants that change four times a year to help tell stories across the park, the Disneyland gardens are an enormous undertaking.
Adam Schwerner oversees that task, with the help of a committed team of designers and gardeners. Luis Gómez, who now manages the grounds at Getty, was previously a horticulture manager working with Adam at Disney. I recently spoke with them both about the artistry and hard work behind Disneyland’s elaborate gardens.
Today we’re talking to Adam Schwerner and Luis Gomez. And we have a Disneyland connection here. So Adam, you are currently the Director of Horticulture at Disneyland.
Adam Schwerner: Yeah, so I’m the Director of Horticulture and Resort Enhancement at the Disneyland Resort. What I say when I talk about what I do, it’s the pretty stuff. So we do all the horticulture. We have about 17,000 trees; we have— plant hundreds of thousands of annuals a year; thousands of shrubs. We make things grow as well as anyone could grow anything.
But in addition to that, I also manage the team that does the resort enhancement work. So that’s the changing displays. So holidays. And we also manage all the non-fixed props in all the attractions. We do all the design for all the window displays in the stores. And then also, the buildings and façades team. So all of those trades that paint and do carpentry and— that really touches everything that makes the place beautiful.
Houck: Alright. I’m cracking up. This kinda sounds like a lot you have going on.
Schwerner: It is.
Houck: That’s a lot to manage. I do wanna talk about your horticulture background.
Houck: But let’s take a moment and introduce Luis Gómez. Luis, you have an interesting cross tie here between the Getty grounds department and Disneyland. Can you tell us about that?
Gómez: Yeah, so prior to working here at the Getty, I was employed at Disneyland for almost eight years. I started off as a gardener there and then moved my way up to a supervisor and designer, working alongside with Adam and making the place a magical, beautiful place to explore and for guests to come and enjoy the landscape.
And now I’m here working at the Getty with Brian Houck.
Schwerner: And what do you do?
Gómez: I see the day-to-day operations here at the Getty. I manage a team of roughly forty employees and plan the day-to-day operations.
Schwerner: So I was really excited for you to get this role, because like Disney, it is storytelling. I mean, the gardening, particularly the Irwin garden, is a remarkable work of art in and of itself, and it tells a story. And it’s a really nice progression for you in your career, don’t you think?
Gómez: Yes, it is. And one of the reasons I applied for this position was the joy this landscape brings to people, to its guests— You know, having your hands in a landscape where people from all over the world come, it’s just a wonderful experience, and wonderful for me to know that people are taking our work and displaying in photographs or in their memories, in other parts of the world.
Houck: Great. Glad you’re both here today. Adam, since the scope of your job is so complex…
Houck: …how did you get that job?
Schwerner: Well, so I think, you know, I have to start really [a] long time ago. Both my parents were artists. My mother was a performance artist. She was a tap dancer, a singer, a playwright, an actress. My father was a performance artist and a poet. And I think that surrounded by them and their friends and the way they interacted with the world, I think that was very permission-giving.
I think that they saw the rulebook and they threw the rulebook out, to some degree. I think that artists can sometimes provide a way through predictability into something that’s different. And I think my parents and their friends did that for me. And I was also exposed to museums a great deal. My mother took me to museums, when I was in New York visiting her, a good deal in my youth.
And so I, for some reason, knew that I wanted to do public horticulture at the age of twelve or fifteen, which is really weird. And I don’t know exactly where that comes from, but there you go. And went to Rutgers University. I have a degree in ornamental horticulture.
And after that, worked at the New York Botanical Garden for twelve years, where I managed the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. I was the foreman there for the last couple of years. And then moved to take on the role of Deputy Director of Conservatories in Chicago, where Brian, you and I met, many long years ago. And from there, ultimately became the Director of Cultural and Natural Resources for the Chicago Park District. And you know, that’s almost 10,000 acres of landscape, and almost 200,000 trees, and thirty-six miles of beach, and almost 600 individual parks, and I think most interesting and related to Disney, the equivalent of two football fields worth of floral gardens.
So imagine a football field filled with flowers, and double that, and that’s how many gardens we had across the city. And each of those gardens was different from every other garden, and different every year.
And so I think I learned a great deal there about plants and how you can use plants to make a feeling happen. And then after twenty years in Chicago, I was contacted by Disney; they found me on LinkedIn. And lo and behold, 2014, I’m Director of Horticulture and Resort Enhancement at the Disneyland Resort.
Houck: I didn’t realize, though, in your background, how much of what you’ve done, in with horticulture and your artwork, is like what we do at a museum, in terms of having an exhibition there.
Houck: And sort of running a show and doing that dance, if you will, for the public.
Schwerner: Right. And I think that has set me up well. So eight and a half years ago, I moved to California. It was a very cold February 14th, when my wife and my son and I and our dog left our house, with nine inches of snow on the ground, and got on the plane and never looked back. And so Disney’s been a great place to land, Disneyland.
And so it’s been there where I think the sort of marriage of horticulture and art has found its fullest expression. Because what it is that we do at Disneyland is tell stories. And the horticulture is a work of art helping to tell the story. So that’s a really nice culmination of my career’s long journey through horticulture and then art marking.
Houck: I think most people who have been to Disneyland and Anaheim understand how vital the landscape is to what is going on there. If you remember sort of early exhibits, you know, back when it was first open, I think it’s easy to say that Walt had a vision for the landscape to be part of what was going on in the park.
Schwerner: Absolutely. You know, I wanna give kudos to Luis here, because he mentions that he was sort of the design guy; but he kicked the design up a notch. So it is true that design and landscape design has always been a prominent, important part of our storytelling; but Luis helped us sort of finetune that.
And also, to be honest, we’re in a near desert. And we need to act that way. And so we sort of launched an effort, soon after I arrived in 2014, to reconsider how we can tell the same story, based on plants that are not water-hungry, that are water-savvy instead. And so Luis really did help us create designs and choose the right plants to create those landscapes that still tell the story, but are better for water usage.
Gómez: Similar to the Getty here, we partner up with our architect and we come up with designs and, you know, follow the theme of the area. Like in Disneyland, we will collaborate with Walt Disney Imagineering, we would come up with a plant palette suitable for the area, that told the same immersive story, and the story that guests would come and feel like they’re in Frontierland or feel like they’re in a fairy place somewhere in the world.
So that immersive story was told on a daily basis with our seasonal changeouts, and just continuously changing the landscape, improving it, you know, making it more sustainable, things like that.
Houck: Alright. So Luis, I know that horticulture is a more technical field than most people realize. But to be able to design with a large plant palette like that, you had to have a strong horticulture background. How did that happen?
Gómez: My horticulture background, ever since I was born, my parents own a wholesale nursery. So I was literally born and raised in a wholesale nursery environment, where I learned how to procure plants, I learned how to grow plants; I know how to propagate plants, how to take care of the plant material. From there, I met a landscape architect who was one of my clients, once I got older. And one day he came in with this beautiful plan, drawing, and he asked me for a list of plants.
And in all honesty, at the time, I had no idea that field existed. I didn’t know how to read a blueprint. He took it out, he showed me, you know, these symbols indicate what plant type it’s going, it’s spacing. So I fell in love with that. I started researching; I found out it was landscape architecture. After high school, I applied to Cal Poly Pomona, which I was accepted, and graduated as a landscape architect. Shortly after I graduated, I got hired at the Disneyland Resort, and here I am today.
Gómez: So Adam, I have a question for you. We know Disneyland horticulture is very special. How do you manage and curate your spaces?
Schwerner: You know, I’ve been in horticulture for quite a while, as I’ve said earlier. But I didn’t understand— I mean, I made pretty things happen in the landscape. Used interesting plants, taught people about how to use plants. But I don’t know that I understood until I started at Disney, the way in which plants can help tell a story, or they can be the story.
So I think that Walt Disney Imagineering, so they set the story; they set the tone. And it’s incumbent upon the horticulture team to then sort of find the right ways to tell the story by using the tools of plants. So the Disneyland Resort was sort of thought of as a film set, which is why we have a lot of film types of logic applied to the resort. So when we think about storytelling, when we think about plants, we sometimes also think about them as props—things that can be moved around, things that can be removed and exchanged for other things.
And we are always looking for distinguishing one place from another place. So in Fantasyland, we’re gonna use one type of plant. We’re not gonna use that same kind of plant, maybe even not the same kind of colors, for instance, in Frontierland, ’cause you’re in different places. The plants are very much part of helping tell that story. And also, helping to direct people towards a feeling of a place. If we’re gonna do a planting in Frontierland, it’s gonna be dry-looking, it’s gonna be succulent material, it’s gonna be poke-y, it’s gonna be small-leaved. It’s gonna be grays and silvers and greens.
But if you’re gonna go to Adventureland, if you’re gonna go to the Jungle Cruise area, it’s gonna be big, bold leaves, shade, moisture, sort of a cacophony of colors. So it’s a very different aesthetic. And so our curation is based on the storytelling that has been at place at Disneyland, in most of the attractions, for sixty-five years. And for the newer attractions, like Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, I mean, we’re trying to take people to an off-world place. So it’s weird plants.
Houck: This makes a lotta sense to me.
Houck: I mean, that unpacks how I feel when I’m at Disneyland, that I know I am moving from one section to the next. And I know that—I will just show my age and say—in the newer section of California Adventure…
Houck: …I saw different plant communities that represented California. And I knew when I saw these plants, like, “Oh, this is this plant community.” Like, “This might be Joshua Tree,” you know? Or some such thing like that. And that was very exciting to me. How do you translate those goals and that vision to your staff who’s doing the work in the landscape?
Schwerner: Well, I mean, I think that’s a really good question, because you can’t treat each land or its plants the same as you would another land and its plants. ’Cause if you treat Jungle Cruise like Frontierland, everything’s dead. And vice versa.
Listen, the team that I work with at Disneyland is the best group of horticulturalists I’ve ever worked with. So that’s my answer to your question. It’s about leaders like Luis and the other managers, and then the people who report in through them and work with them. Their knowledge base and their expertise is— That’s how we are able to create those in[?] different environments and have them thrive.
But I’ll also say that without irrigation, none of it’s alive, right?
Houck: Of course.
Schwerner: And so our irrigators and the irrigation leadership team are absolutely crucial. And so that’s a very much important relationship. And then of course, there are pests and diseases. California’s a great place to welcome pests from across the world. And so there’s a constant effort to help our trees and our shrubs overcome the impacts of those things. And so there’s a team that manages that.
And you know, we’re doing a lot of our work at nights. The team begins at two a.m. So why, you might ask. Well, think about the fact that we’re telling a story, and we don’t want the intricacies of the management of the park to be part of the story. What we want is for the story to be perfect. And so the work needs to happen when guests aren’t present.
We’ll have a fall installation one day; and the next day, it’ll be a holiday. And guests who are in the park for those two days, they intentionally come to see the switch in horticulture, because it is amazing to see, going from the décor of one holiday, or one type of experience, to a décor and horticulture layer that are of a different, wholly different experience. And that’s what we do make happen, because it is done at night. And you know, at night, the resort, there’s a lot going on. And that is where most of the work gets done.
Gómez: Waking up at one a.m. to be at your shift at two a.m. was pretty tough. Did it for almost eight years, and I don’t know how people do it for so long. I mean, here at Getty, we have employees that’ve been here twenty-plus years, and it’s the same at Disneyland. We had employees that were there for twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five years. How do you keep those employees motivated after so long?
Schwerner: I think Disneyland— So I’ve worked in lots of different places, as I said, and Disneyland is the place where I have found people to most want themselves and others to succeed. When you enter the space, it feels like you’re in a place where there’s just goodwill. There’s just a bucketful of goodwill.
And I think that does lead to— There’s a great deal of retention, as Luis points out. And we’re doing work, I think, that there is a real sense of pleasure from, because the product that we produce is a world-renown product and is a thing that people really want to participate in. And we do improve lives. You know, the experience of coming to the resort is one that is treasured.
I mean, I was around just after the Disneyland Resort opened, after being closed for over 400 days because of, you know, our pandemic. I was on Main Street when guests came in for those— that first day or, you know, that first week. And people were really, to be honest with you, overcome.
Schwerner: They were joyous, they were hugging one another, they were crying, because it is— You know, people grow up with Disney, from infancy through, you know, adulthood. And so this place represents a place of specialness and comfort and connection to family and friends and good times, right?
Schwerner: And so I think we all participate in making that experience happen, and so I think that is also something that drives the engagement and loyalty of team members.
Gómez: My experience working in both sites, I get the same feedback from our staff, as well. They come, they work every day. They work hard, they’re very humble. And the joy they take home is knowing that people from all over the world come to look at their landscape, come look at their work, they take photographs of their work. And they see it as a piece of art.
So every day, I get the same feedback from our crews, whether it was at Disneyland or here at the Getty. So it’s very impactful. And like for me, I have the same feelings. I have the same excitement, the same joy and pleasure of working in a site like the Getty or Disneyland, where people come, they congratulate you, they take photos, they just ask you hundreds of questions. “Oh, how do you take care of this?” Or, “This is beautiful. How did you come up with these fascinating designs, these seasonal displays?” So it’s just a great feeling to have.
Continuing to talk about seasonal displays, Adam. I know Disneyland’s very innovative, and we don’t wanna repeat the same design ever. So how do you continue to do that, after so many years?
Schwerner: Yeah, so in Chicago—and Brian knows this—I managed— We had essentially two football fields full of floral gardens across all the parks.
Houck: Oh, you’re going to talk about the presidents’ gardens?
Schwerner: And we had the presidents’ gardens in front of Lincoln Park Conservatory…
Houck: Oh, wow.
Schwerner: …which Brian—
Gómez: We talked about that this morning.
Schwerner: Which Brian was involved in. And so it was my goal, overseeing that contract over many years, to make sure that every garden was different from every other garden every year. And that’s ’cause I get bored really easily, and because I wanted to provide things that people were surprised by. I think that’s where sort of the background with my parents comes in. I wanted to do things that sometimes were even unpleasant and made people question the intelligence of those, like myself, making decisions in Chicago.
Even that was sometimes engaging, because it does cause people to change how they interact with the world. And I know this is a bit of a long response to your question, but I learned in Chicago that one could make decisions to have different plants in every planter every time you did a new planting. And just ’cause we do that four times a year at Disneyland doesn’t mean that we still can’t change things up all the time.
And so obviously, there are lots of plants that do really well in Southern California. We create plans for our floral gardens nine, ten months in advance. We then work with contractors to grow the stuff. It’s delivered in the middle of the night and we plant that next day or the day after. And so it’s a very fast turnaround.
And I think we collectively at Disneyland, once we decide that we’ve attracted— are attracted to a certain kinda plant, we keep using it over and over again; we sort of have to stop ourselves. ’Cause when you become dependent on something, then you stop being curious.
Houck: What I know about that kinda effort is the resources to put that together are tremendous.
Gómez: All the planning, scheduling, ensuring, you know, you’re able to get 10,000 of one single crop is just very complicated, and not a lot of vendors are willing to take that contract. And in just becomes problematic, in a sense, because if you have a crop failure and you’re expecting to have an installation, say, for the fall, and that material doesn’t show up, you have to be quick on your feet and be reactive and find an alternate source for that. So it takes a lot of planning, a lot of scheduling.
Houck: Or do a quick redesign to make it work?
Gómez: Or do a quick redesign.
Houck: Or do a quick redesign.
Schwerner: Yeah. To make it work. Yeah. We’ve had to do that on occasion.
Houck: Right. That may be something people don’t notice, maybe?
Schwerner: They don’t, because what we do is, we make perfection happen. No one is supposed to know that there wasn’t perfection. Because again, we’re in a place where there aren’t troubles.
Houck: Yeah. That makes sense. The next part I wanna talk about is you as an artist a little bit.
Houck: Adam, I’m aware that you have been and are an active artist.
Houck: And you currently have a show that’s out at Descanso Gardens. And I’ve seen some of your work in Chicago, but I don’t know how to encapsulate what kind of artist you are. So I’m gonna ask you to please self-describe yourself as an artist, if you can.
Schwerner: I think that that’s hard to do. I would say that if you wanted to categorize me in some place, it would be installation art. What I enjoy doing is taking things that have a history— So actually, Luis, again, another sort of connection’s— So this installations that are up at Descanso Gardens until January 8th, called Your (Un)natural Garden, actually, Luis helped me for six months, every Saturday from eight in the morning till three in the afternoon, create a whole bunch of elements that are part of the show.
And I would say that I like to take things that have a history. So in this case with Luis, we used about seventy-five chairs, a bunch’a tables and a bunch of other stuff, and deconstructed them and then put them back together. And the thing that I find interesting about old stuff is that it brings with it a patina and a history and a— You can sort of sense that they had a life.
So I mean, I just was happy to walk through the Cy Twombly exhibition here and noted, as I walked through the gallery, how influential his work has been to me. Not that I am anywhere near an artist like he is or was, but he uses things that he finds, and makes them into other things. And I think I learned from him how one can do that. And Rauschenberg and lots of other artists.
So I like to make things out of other things. I like to surprise people. I like to offend people, on occasion. I like to make them uncomfortable. ’Cause I think the McDonaldization of the world has had us find things that we know what they are, and then we pursue those things and we never get kicked out of our own place of comfort. And I think sometimes we need to get kicked out of our place of comfort.
So the exhibition at Descanso, for instance, there’s the Uncomfy Room, which is a room that looks like it’s comfortable; actually, once you get into it, it’s quite uncomfortable. There’s a soundtrack, and that is quite uncomfortable.
Houck: I’m laughing, because I have used the word provocative with your work before, that my understanding is that you get a real sense of enjoyment…
Schwerner: I do.
Houck: …out of provoking people into some other new thought. And it’s quite charming.
Schwerner: I do. And you know, I learned some of this from my parents, as I’ve said, because both of them did stuff that was quite provocative. I mean, being a teenager or preteen in their performances could be incredibly embarrassing. And I think I brought that desire to embarrass others, or have them— Let me not say embarrassed, but have them think differently, have them experience something in a slightly different way. So that’s what I’ve done, to some degree, at the Descanso Gardens installation, and did in Chicago.
I mean, that is not one of the things that I bring to Disney, ’cause Disney has storytelling. And the story is one that people, for sixty-five years— Or now a hundred years, if you think about the history of the company; we’ll be celebrating our hundredth birthday next year. We have storytelling, and so that’s great. But when I get to play out in an institute like Descanso, I’m gonna do things that are going to engage people in a slightly different way.
Houck: So Adam, you’ve talked about how you’ve been influenced by artists. How have artists in your life influenced your horticulture design?
Schwerner: So what I would say is that first, what artists can do sometimes is throw out the rulebook. And so I think spending time with artists and looking at what artists do, they often must throw out the rulebook in order to find their own way of seeing. And so I think as I’ve understood that, and understand that there is an idea that there are rules in horticulture and in horticulture design— Like, you do it this way. You go to the book, and they tell you to do it that way. I have often thrown out that book. And I think that there has been an influence of design thinking from the artists that I have studied, and that has given me permission to not pay attention to the rules.
And then there’s the inclusion of objects in gardens. So I think that is also a thing that many artists do. And so I have books on artists’ gardens. And they bring objects of their own design into the garden. And the interplay of the horticulture and the living and the manmade, the woman-made, the object, can tell a more thrilling [story] than either the object or the horticulture alone.
And I think that when you have those two things working together well, there’s a marriage that is better than one plus one equaling two. I think it equals five.
Houck: Thank you for unpacking that. And I wanna thank you both for participating in today’s podcast. It’s been a real pleasure to hear your voices, hear your stories of storytelling, and just have this time together.
Schwerner: Yeah. And can I just say that it’s wondrous to be here with the two of you, ’cause we have a long history. And I just love that you have both found your way to this incredible institution, one of my most favorite institutions in the world. And here you are every day, and how exciting that is for both of you and— It’s great.
Gómez: Thank you.
Houck: Thank you.
This episode was produced by Zoe Goldman, with audio production by Gideon Brower and mixing by Myke Dodge Weiskopf.
Our theme music comes from the “The Dharma at Big Sur” composed by John Adams, for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003 and is licensed with permission from Hendon Music.
For new episodes of Art and Ideas, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and other podcast platforms. For photos, transcripts, and other resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts and if you have a question, or an idea for an upcoming episode, write to us at email@example.com.
Thanks for listening.
Brian Houck: Hello, I’m Brian Houck, head of Grounds and Gardens at the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas. I’m your host for a three-episode series with artful gardeners in southern California.
Adam Schwerner: What it is that we do at Disneyland is tell stories. And the ho...
“The Dharma at Big Sur – Sri Moonshine and A New Day.” Music written by John Adams and licensed with permission from Hendon Music. (P) 2006 Nonesuch Records, Inc., Produced Under License From Nonesuch Records, Inc. ISRC: USNO10600825 & USNO10600824