For a lesson in water-wise transformation, check out this library.
Well-known for its historic portraits and priceless books, the Huntington ranks among California’s greatest public landscapes. Surrounded by multimillion-dollar homes in San Marino, it preserves 207 acres of mostly open space 20 minutes from downtown Los Angeles in an array of formal and themed gardens that date back a century.
This is the former home of railroad magnate Henry Huntington and his wife, art collector Arabella Huntington. They collected paintings and plants, as well as books, on a grand scale during America’s golden age, and in 1919 their estate became part of a nonprofit foundation for research and art preservation.
Garden curators at the Huntington, however, aren’t living in the past. Faced with the challenges of California’s epic drought, they’re working hard to make the Huntington an example of water conservation while retaining and even expanding the institution’s famed plant collections.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Gone are more than 9 acres of lawn, half the turf that surrounded the original visitors center and linked the galleries. Instead, seas of native grasses and other drought-tolerant plants greet the more than 600,000 guests who tour the Huntington each year.
The water-wise makeover changed the Huntington’s vibe from formal and familiar to intriguing and inspirational. The native grass growing seemed to soften the landmark’s staid image and made it feel reinvigorated, too.
Opened earlier this year, the new Steven S. Koblik Education and Visitor Center is surrounded by 6 1/2 acres of California native plants and grasses, the first major native plant installation at the Huntington.
Looking like a mini Roman aqueduct, a stone-lined water feature flows through a golden sea of maiden grass, leading down from the entrance to the Huntington’s spectacular Desert Garden.
Started in the early 1900s, that 10-acre collection of succulents and cactuses is considered among the largest and oldest displays of its kind. During the drought, it has become a draw for visitors interested in xeriscaping and the more than 2,000 varieties of drought-proof desert plants there.
What lawn that was retained serves a purpose. Scores of special events are held on this turf, a favorite spot for wedding parties and portraits. Although it hasn’t lost its photogenic lushness, this tough turf actually requires less water than comparable lawns. That’s because it’s Bermuda grass, probably the best choice for California lawns, say the Huntington’s garden experts. It needs only weekly irrigation and still stays bright green.
How those lawns are irrigated has also changed radically. The Huntington has methodically replaced its old sprinkler systems with state-of-the-art irrigation, which has helped the gardens reduce water use by more than 30 percent the past five years.
“We laid 4 miles of drip line just in the camellia collection and we have 10 more miles to go,” said David MacLaren, curator of the Huntington’s Asian gardens. “It’s a slow process; the property is so big. We start with an 18-inch pipe at the top of the property and work down to half-inch drip lines.”
One of the largest in America, the camellia collection features more than 1,600 bushes, many of them dating back to the 1940s and ’50s. But they represent just a fraction of the more than 15,000 plant varieties featured in the Huntington’s formal gardens.
New plants are constantly being added. For example, the Huntington is in the process of squeezing in scores of mature sago palms, a gift from a plant collector.
Much of the irrigation being replaced during the retrofit was originally installed in the 1920s and ’30s, adding more challenges, MacLaren noted. “We started five years ago and it will probably take another five to complete.”
In its efforts to cope with drought, the Huntington has certain advantages. Three wells and a reservoir provide the former ranch property with groundwater. (A remnant of the original 600-acre working ranch still grows food today, including what’s believed to be the state’s oldest commercial avocado trees.) Large ponds serve as catch basins.
During the transformation, permeable paving replaced solid hardscape so rainwater could seep into the soil instead of run off the property. Thick blankets of mulch now surround the Huntington’s groves of camellias, trees and famous rose garden.
Like other public gardens, the Huntington put a premium on saving its trees and established plantings. But it hasn’t escaped the drought unscathed. Limb drop is a real and expensive hazard. Recently, a large limb fell from an oak tree, smashing into an 18th-century marble garden sculpture.
With weakened trees comes the threat of pests and disease. “We lost a dozen Japanese maples due to a combination of drought and shot-hole borers,” MacLaren said. “We’ve lost more trees to oak root fungus and root rot. You can see a lot of things suffering.
“The azaleas, usually they’re no problem,” he added. “But you can see, some of them are suffering, too.”
Carved out of a natural canyon, the Japanese Garden ranks as the most famous of the Huntington’s dozen formal gardens. Celebrating its centennial in 2012, the garden got several drought-minded tweaks yet still looks lush in autumn after record heat.
Probably the most photographed garden in the Los Angeles area, the Japanese Garden was closed to the public for a year during its renovation. Besides replacing crumbling retaining walls, the work included retrofitting its irrigation. The moon bridge looks much like it has for a century, but the lawn that now surrounds its koi pond uses a lot less water. Thirsty turf was replaced with drought-tolerant alternatives.
“We’re trying our best to follow (the state’s drought) recommendations, but still keep the garden looking good,” MacLaren said.
The Huntington’s garden experts have had to deal with more natural disasters than drought. Three years ago, a windstorm uprooted more than 400 trees.
“Many of them were 20 to 25 feet; they were big,” MacLaren said. “We lost a lot of shade, and that changed the gardens, too.”
Tom Carruth, curator of the Huntington’s Rose Garden, made use of those downed trees.
“We have enough mulch to last a decade,” said Carruth, who has cut the Rose Garden’s water use by 40 percent. “We also have vistas that hadn’t been seen in decades before that storm; those trees were blocking the view.”
Since joining the Huntington in 2012, Carruth has reinvigorated its rose collection. Best known as a hybridizer for Weeks Roses, Carruth completely revamped the Rose Garden while retaining its original splendor. No pesticides are used in the Rose Garden, he said.
“We now have more than 1,400 rose varieties and more than 3,000 bushes,” he said. “After the next planting season (in winter), we’ll have another 1,500 plus. Then, I need space.”
Carruth used former lawn around the Rose Garden to expand with newer varieties. “We added 180 new varieties to the collection this year and we’ll add 220 next year,” he said.
Before Carruth took over, the Rose Garden had suffered from decades of benign neglect. Few new roses were being added.
“The soil in the old garden had become so compacted,” he explained. “We added gypsum to the soil, and the plants immediately responded. They started growing and blooming.”
“It’s been a really tough year, but we’re doing OK,” he said. “The older, more mature bushes with deeper roots are doing best.”
Carruth credited Sacramento’s T.J. David, founder of the state Capitol’s World Peace Rose Garden, with several drought-busting tips that helped the Huntington’s roses thrive during dry times.
“The best tip: foliar feeding,” Carruth said. “T.J. recommends a mix of kelp and other liquid fertilizers. You spray it right on the leaves. It helps us fight disease, and that helps the bushes get through drought, too.”