Head Gardener at the Huntington
Historic Californian Garden with Nato Sound Experience
The Huntington, 1151 Oxford Rd, San Marino, CA 91108
The Huntington is a library, art gallery and botanical garden in Pasadena, Los Angeles; the library has over seven million manuscripts and 420,000 rare books. The collection ranges from seven drafts of Davis Henry Thoreau’s American classic Walden to first editions by Charles Bukowski and Jack London. There is also a substantial art gallery, which includes classics from the 1700s such as Blue Boy by Thomas Gainsborough right up to modern installations by Los Angeles artist Alex Israel. Henry Huntington played a major role in the development of Los Angeles, he left the estate and his extensive art collection to open to the public when he died in 1927.
We spoke to one of the head gardeners, Seth Baker, who has worked at the Huntington for eleven years. The garden is home to over 15,000 plant varieties over 120 acres; Seth looks after the education visitor centre and the entrance complex at the Huntington Library. We chatted about everything from how to combat ground erosion (plant grasses, as their roots are really long, he recommends bunch grasses) to Peter Sellers’ character Chauncey Gardiner in the 1970s classic Being There.
R What sparked off your interest in gardens?
S At home, growing up in Bishop, California. I grew up with a relatively large garden, the interest developed from there. As I expressed more and more interest, my parents started gardening more themselves.
R What is your work like at Huntington, day to day?
S I work here on the Brody California garden, the stroll garden, the front of the conservatory, the library and the parking lot. The parking lot is a collection of mostly plants from the Western US, the Brody California garden is a combination of plants from different Mediterranean regions, and it’s supposed to be a demonstration garden of climatically appropriate plant material. So the Mediterranean, South Africa, Chile, California and Australia. It’s a six-acre garden. The front of the library is mainly hedges; Myrtus Compacta, Dwarf Myrtle, it has a peppery scent, it hedges really nicely. The front of the conservatory is botanically an extension of our Asian gardens, we just redid that and it’s predominantly grasses.
R What sort of garden style do you prefer?
S I would say something naturalistic, romantic garden, as opposed to something overly structured. Golden Gate Park and Central Park are great examples; I would say those are pretty close to the ultimate expression. Doing something contrived that doesn’t look contrived is probably the most difficult thing. I love things that at maybe first glance are ugly, maybe your first reaction is to retch and then you go wait a minute this is amazing.
Gardener's onsite transport
R What are the highs and lows of working here?
S I think like anything, bureaucracy, power struggles are the lows; highs are being outside, it’s always amazing, observing nature, being a part of that process. If nothing else, you’re able to see the bigger picture; the cyclical nature of things.
One of my favourite places at Huntington is the Stoll Garden, which is predominantly Australian plants. Blue Bush Acacia is brilliant, it has really interesting foliage, it grows really quickly and it’s low water, so really appropriate here. It’s a spectacular colour, bright blue.
R What was your first job here at the Huntington?
S I was responsible for the lily pond, I think it’s actually one of the nicest places on the property.
R Do you notice interesting birds in the gardens?
S The favourite, I rarely see them here, is the Western Blue Bird, they are the most magical shade of blue, their bellies, they are a little bit smaller than a robin. You’ve never seen a colour quite like it. We have these crazy American parrots here, that just showed up in these giant flocks. I found out recently that they are protected; they’re endangered in South America. They’re horrible! They are so loud. We get a lot of vultures on the property, there was an amazing red tail hawk hanging out in the botanical centre. He was sitting in a tree and just had lots of gore in his claws, dripping onto the sidewalk; it looked like it was either a squirrel or a gopher. I hope it was a gopher; they are a rat with long teeth! They’re hideous trust me and they mess with gardens.
Outside of the Orbit Pavilion
Inside of the Orbit Pavilion
R What advice do you have for home gardeners and what’s your garden at home like?
S Stick with it would be my advice and probably the biggest mistake people make is not paying attention to the tags on plants. When it says full sun, regular water you have to give it full sun and regular water. Understandably that eludes a lot of people! Oh well, it gets three hours, that’s full sun, right? Don’t be afraid to experiment either, it’s going to die eventually, have some fun with it.
My home garden is a case of the cobbler’s children have no shoes. It’s a sad, steep slope of Algerian Ivy.
R Do you have a favourite garden?
S I really like Parc de la Villette in Paris, in Eastern Paris, Bernard Tschumi designed it. I’ve only been once, but it’s a great postmodern garden.
Lotus Land in Montecito, it’s kind of like the Huntington in that it’s broken up into different sections, just south of Santa Barbara, it’s just a phenomenal garden.
I would love to go to Versailles, Olafur Eliasson has an installation at the moment, just a waterfall, without anything around it in the reflecting pool. It’s just a pipe going up, but you don’t see the pipe, you just see a waterfall, it’s like magic!
R Do you have a plant that means something to you?
S Daffodils, I love them. In Bishop, it was the first thing to always pop up in the yard, all of a sudden you would just get that yellow, crazy yellow.
R What does good garden design mean to you?
S Always being conscious of the site, working with or enhancing what you already have, adding rather than subtracting. There is always something to take inspiration from on any site. Always considering who a garden is for and what it’s purpose is. The biggest thing is making room for interpretation, someone is always inheriting a garden. Making sure that it remains flexible, uses change.
R What do you like to do when you have a day off?
S I love going on hikes in the mountains. I love gin always! Saint George gin, three different types, the gin is from San Francesco. I have it with freshly squeezed grapefruit, maybe a little grapefruit bitters and soda if I’m feeling fancy. Refreshing, always delicious.
Seth walked us over to the Orbit Pavilion which opened in October this year and is in the garden until February 2017.
S Orbit Pavilion is tracking 17 satellites as they move through the sky, using sound to map their locations. It’s a great project because it synthesises with a lot of the material in the library.
The Orbit Pavilion contrasts with the predominantly 18th Century French statutory which Seth says The Huntington acquired after World War One when the European elites needed money and Huntington had plenty being a railroad baron.
The Huntington is slightly off the beaten track, but a completely welcome change of pace in any one's cultural tour of Los Angeles. The mix of classical European style with modern American technology and art makes it a must for the discerning traveller.
Ombre walls by Alex Isreal