Brian Houck / Portrait

Brian Houck, manager for grounds and gardens

Meet Brian. Since August 2015 he’s been the Getty’s manager of grounds and gardens—which means he’s responsible for 700+ acres of land, 100 of which are landscaped and meticulously maintained. Brian recently set aside an hour of his busy morning for a Q&A to answer your questions, which ranged from flowers and plant ID to gardening woes (Japanese beetles, arrgh!).

If you have more questions for Brian, leave them in the comments!

Maintaining the Gardens

What is the toughest plant to maintain in the Center and Villa, and why? —@norwegian68

We have almost 2,000 plants in our plant database, some of them are classified as “inactive” because they have been tough to grow. Typically, if a plant continues to be difficult we would find a replacement because we want to have a high quality show at all times. Right now we are evaluating some lawn spaces because we’d like to be more water conserving and still maintain the intended aesthetic.

How often do plants change in the garden? Is the design of the grounds and gardens influenced by the architecture or art collection of the Getty? —@loelhe312

In the Robert Irwin garden, three intensive planting efforts occur each year: spring, summer, and winter. These seasonal shows highlight the design intent in each season. The Robert Irwin garden is unique and whole unto itself, so not be influenced by the architecture or art collections of the Getty. Other landscapes around the Getty Center do reflect what’s occurring with Richard Meier’s modernist architecture and highlight the natural form of many plants.

An overhead view of the Central Garden at the Getty Center

An overhead view of the Central Garden at the Getty Center.

To what extent does Robert Irwin influence the ongoing selections of plantings in the Central Garden (currently and in the future)? What’s your favorite local source for drought tolerant plantings (non-trade)? —@bepod

He 100% influences the ongoing selections of plantings in the Central Garden, now and into the future. The garden is ever-changing and aligned with the original intent, which allows for transitions to new plants. Not everybody knows that the garden is in the Museum’s permanent collection as a sculpture, which means we will maintain it to Robert Irwin’s intent.

For drought-tolerant plants, they are widely available. If I was going to pick out one nursery for education and an unusual selection of drought-tolerant California native plants, I’d suggest the Theodore Payne Foundation. Check out their website!

How do you handle hungry wildlife? Gophers, squirrels, birds, snails, etc.? —@stellagardenfloral

We’re impacted by deer and snails the most, and a lot of our practices are about exclusion. So in the case of deer we’ve installed a number of fence lines to prevent them from getting to the plants in the first place. And last year we did a large effort of hand-picking snails in the Central Garden, which has been super helpful. At the Villa, in addition to a deer fence line we also shoo the deer away from the gardens almost daily.

The wisteria on the cafe terrace at Getty Center is gorgeous! Is it difficult to grow wisteria? What does it take to make it look that perfect?! —@patrickjspence

Wisteria is not difficult to grow, but there can be a bit of a learning curve about how to prune it. There’s a distinction between long shoots and short shoots, and the flowers are held on the short shoots only. Flowers are formed in the fall, and it’s an easy mistake to accidentally cut them off. The ones at the Getty have been pruned by a knowledgeable crew for about 20 years and that’s what’s necessary for great flower show in maturity.

Wisteria in full bloom outside the Getty Center Cafe

Wisteria in full bloom on the north side of the Getty Center Cafe

Are the Getty Villa plants from ancient times? Also, what’s your favorite plant-finding story? —@sleepywaldo

Absolutely, the Villa plants in the public areas are from Roman times. We don’t even use modern cultivars of the original species. On the slopes and in the behind-the-scenes areas we often use coastal sage scrub/chaparral plants, which are native.

Recently on a plant trip we discovered a species of freesia that would be allowed under our guidelines to be planted at the Getty Villa. We are thrilled! This is the plant that modern freesias were bred from and it has an intense, delightful fragrance. Give us a few years and you’ll see Freesia alba everywhere.

Any plans to add more California native plants to the landscaping? —@meowius

Yes, definitely. As a new employee, I look at the slopes as a great opportunity for adding more Santa Monica Mountains native plant material and increasing our biodiversity on the hillsides. I can imagine a future where our hills are equally exciting for tours as the gardens. I’d love to do that one day!

2017 update: We have numerous coast live oaks on the hillsides around the Getty, planted in a grid system. We are very pleased to say they have made it through the drought years successfully and are actively growing again—I’m very pleased with their new growth this spring and vigor. With any large mass planting one would expect some attrition, which I politely call the “vagaries of nature.” I predict a bumper crop of acorns this year, and we have plans to harvest some and invest in a natural process of re-establishing oaks in selected locations. Oaks, with their traditionally long tap lroots, are most successful when grown in situ as opposed to being started in a nursery.

Deer grass in the Getty gardens

Deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens), a California native, lines the pathway along the stream garden

What is your hiring process? How can I work on those gardens too? —@heyheyloretta

We post all our jobs on in the “opportunities” section. Applications all go through the website. 🙂 Another way to get involved in the Getty gardens is to check out docent and volunteer opportunities, as tours go through the Central Garden and campus daily.

Look for This on Your Next Visit

How old are the pollarded sycamores by the entrance? —@auj_in_la

They’ve been planted here at the Getty for 20 years and they were probably 5 to 10 years when they arrived. I’m quite proud of those trees because of the good work our tree crew has done over the years.

I want to know the kind of plant that covers the ground in the sculpture garden [by the Central Garden]. —@boouwhore

Dymondia. It’s a popular ground cover because it’s drought-tolerant, has a flower, can take a minimal amount of foot traffic, and is easy to grow! For us, it’s a stronger winter grower and has been blooming for the last several weeks.

Next week we are bringing two buses full of art lovers! What should I tell them that gives that garlic scent as we enter the floating garden? I can’t wait to be there! —@kathyccieslewicz

Welcome! Society garlic is the plant as you come around into the bowl garden. The scientific name is Tulbaghia violacea.

What time of year will I find the most color in the Getty garden? —@cherylgottselig

For the most riotous flowering, I suggest guests come in the early mornings of August and September. Although, to contradict myself, I suppose much depends on how one defines “color” in the garden. In the Robert Irwin garden, how color is used based on the leaf, stem, combinations with other plants, and other “painterly” aspects of garden color are all artistically considered integral to the presentation. For gardens that have seasonal change like ours, regular weekly visits will highlight the color changes too!

Do [the gardens] make any food items? —@mrjuliantyle

It’s not practical for us to use the garden for food purposes, because the needs of the restaurant are too great for what we could produce. But you can purchase an herb in the Getty Villa gift shop to take home with you!

An heirloom artichoke in the Getty Villa's Herb Garden

An heirloom artichoke in the Getty Villa’s Herb Garden

Water, Water, Water!

Do you have to use a lot of water to keep the grounds maintained? —@justinmreich112

Between the Getty Center and Getty Villa, there might be about 100 acres to maintain in garden landscapes, so our amount of water is large. I’m confident with our water-conservation practices that our water use is as low as possible.

How do you balance the drought restrictions with necessary upkeep? Have the grounds/garden changed as a result? —@Jazortega

We are very interested in water conservation. We water as little as possible. We’ve invested in a new irrigation system with a weather system that monitors the water that evaporates from the soil, measures rain, and helps us be very specific about how we add water to the gardens. We have and will continue to modify our landscapes to be more drought-tolerant. Right now we are trialing a small patch of buffalo grass as a lawn replacement. I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to use this in other locations as well.

How are the plants irrigated and how is the immense water supply for 700 acres provided? —@Msb514

We have a combination of irrigation systems: drip, subirrigation, sprinklers, rotary heads, and hand-watering for pots. Most of our hillsides, which is much of the 700 acres, is not irrigated and has been turned off for many years because it’s best practice for the plants and is good for water conservation. If you happen to see a sprinkler running on the hillside, it means we are testing the system, because we keep it around for fire remediation.

Echeveria in the Central Garden

Drought-tolerant echeveria (a succulent) in the Central Garden

How are the plants nourished and fed? Is it through the irrigation system? —@cindroid1

We don’t use the irrigation system in this manner. We do use organic and inorganic forms of fertilizer on a case by case basis, according to best practices and the need.

How do you keep all the beautiful gardens weed and disease free? Organic or herbicide/pesticide? Also, do you have any on-site composting to help with soil nutrient retention and green waste abatement? All the plants and flowers always look so healthy and happy! Looking for trade secrets/pearls you can share. —@Rlweav

Historic horticulturists’ best practices are aligned with trendy water conservation techniques, IPM pest control, and smart plant selection. We’ve always had a focus on best practices which considers the fundamentals of plant growth—water, light, and fertilizer. If you as a gardener can meet these needs the issues of pest control or disease are greatly minimized. For example, we are great believers in heavy mulching which reduces water loss, prevents weeds, improves the soil texture, looks better than bare soil, and is really cost effective.

Gardening Advice

What’s the best way to prune herbs so they don’t get too unruly and weedy-looking? —@Instafloracam

Assuming your plant is healthy and mature and growing in the proper sun, most herbs are herbaceous perennials, which means they can be cut back completely to the ground without any consequence. You will notice they will take some time to respond, so you need to accept they may look a little barren for a time. Sometimes gardeners will phase their pruning efforts, so not everything looks barren at the same time.

I visited the Getty in 2008 and loved everything. Your gardens are beyond amazing! When I saw big angel trumpet’s tree fully in bloom, I almost pas[sed] out! Mine is small and in winter time it has to be inside. My question is about Japanese beetles! They eat all my roses during summer (I live in Canada)…How I can find where their eggs are and get rid of them all before they hatch? —@Mimid_marobu

Angel’s trumpet (brugmansia) certainly can get much larger here than in your climate. They very much enjoy the heat and bright sunlight. Fun fact: Angel’s trumpet is bat pollinated, which is why you might have noticed that your plant only smells in the evenings.

Golden brugmansia flowers frame a foggy day in the Central Garden

Golden brugmansia flowers frame a foggy day in the Central Garden

Hand-picking Japanese beetles is often practical, but a laborious way to deal with it. Their eggs are everywhere in your neighborhood and elsewhere, so it becomes about managing your plant rather than finding the eggs.

Bougainvillea: I have one in a pot—it almost died [and] I brought it back to life…How should I continue on helping it bloom and stay alive/healthy? —@lollywood1980

Like a lot of drought-tolerant plants, bougainvillea acts a little different in a pot than in the soil. In a pot, bougainvillea will drop most of its leaves when it dries out, so I’m not surprised by what you describe. Often times a very large pot can help prevent a damaging cycle of wet and dry soil and promote steady growth and health.

What plants are good for bees and butterflies?—@kboehlert

Generally, plants that flower through many seasons are good for bees and butterflies. Try salvias or hyssops or many members of the daisy family. Also consider growing plants for the butterflies in the larval stage and be willing to accept some of the damage they cause by eating the leaves.


Have another question for Brian? Leave it in the comments below!