Garden Visit: Filoli

My visit last week to one of the great American gardens, Filoli, in northern California, was a revelation in many ways.  I have wanted to visit since I first saw pictures of it years ago. The garden was designed in the early 20th century by its original homeowners with a team of architects, artists, and horticulturists. There is no known master plan yet it has survived largely in tact which is a rarity for American estate gardens of this size and scope.


Sometimes my travels are guided by my desire to experience specific places firsthand. My trip to Marrakesh and Majorelle was one of those. Standing in a place, in real time and feeling the human factor and scale is important. At Filoli it is very important.  As big as the garden is, it feels intimate.  There is a succession of garden rooms unified through the use of specific plants as well as how they are used.

Filoli Yews and Boxwood Hedges

Thinking about what a design might have looked like in plan view and then ‘feeling’ it out on the ground makes me think about the power of great design. For me, a photograph can never replace the human experience.  The intersection between the man made and the natural interests me as a landscape designer. Ultimately what I design are places for people. Filoli is definitely a garden for people.

Filoli Gardens

In landscape design terms, I want to see what the designer(s) intended from my own 5’7″ viewpoint. Being in a place and noting how the site was honored or not, how I am directed to move through it by plants and paths, how I experience hidden, surprise and obvious views, by noting the themes and repetitive motifs, by seeing how the elements all hang together allows me to grow and stretch as a designer.  These visits are my master classes, learning from others firsthand, yet through my own lens of experience.

Cherry trees at Filoli

Pansy parterre at Filoli

Of the many gardens I’ve visited, none use the axial views better than Filoli. They are strong and thoughtful, directing views and embracing the surrounding California landscape.  It is both very symmetrical and not at all.

Filoli Axial view through gateFiloli axial view through the gardenFiloli axial view with tulips and yewsFiloli Axial view with brick walk and stepsFiloli Axial view from bench

Filoli as a designed space is overwhelmingly about rectangles–on the ground plane as well as on the vertical plane. There are very few curves…an arch here, a round fountain there or a boxwood ball. Even the famous cylindrical yew towers read as rectangles.  Although traditional, it doesn’t feel dated or outmoded.

Filoli rectagular garden

Filoli pink and blue garden

The rectangles are softened with exuberant plantings in calculated and calibrated color palettes.  They are punctuated by clipped and trained plants. There are pollarded sycamores and espaliered fruit trees as well as a beech hedge and cascading varieties of wisteria. The hundreds of yews are the stars of the garden.  The plants are used design elements at Filoli.  They are equal players defining as well as decorating space.

Yews at Filoli

Filoli pollarded trees

Filoli view from hilltop

I was happy to spend a day in great company, walking and talking in this remarkable garden. It exceeded my expectations and I felt as if I cheated our late out of the gate spring in New Jersey with a few days of bloom and sunshine on the California coast.  Visit if you can.

13 thoughts on “Garden Visit: Filoli

  1. Susan, thank you for this wonderful view of Filoli in the spring. I visited on a hot sunny late August afternoon and I remember most the dahlias and a few roses. It is however the whole experience of the use of space, plants, water, and stone that stays with you.

  2. So true Thomas. I was lucky enough to be in the company of someone who had behind the scenes experience so I got quite a lot of its gardening secrets and history.

  3. Deborah-Each garden ‘room’ isn’t balanced by its mirror image on he opposite side of the dividing axis. The axis design is generally symmetrical but what flanks them is not. Some are larger, some smaller, and none have the same theme. Does that make sense?

  4. Susan, I’m glad you showed us Filoli. I visited it about 20 years ago, when it certainly wasn’t in tip top shape, but that was before the “garden phase” of my life. It appears to have been revived in an extraordinary way. Has the garden had a renaissance since the early to mid 1990s?

  5. James- I’m wondering if you were there at the peak of the 5 year cycle for maintenance. Those giant yews are cut way back every 5 years as part of their plan. I was with someone who had been an intern 30 years ago and she said not much had changed except the cafe and visitor center had been added. I thought the entire property was among the best maintained public gardens I have ever been to.

  6. Your comment “Filoli is definitely a garden for people” had me remembering that I felt exactly the opposite when we visited as part of the 2013 Garden Bloggers Fling. If someone placed a toe or a heel anywhere on that vast expanse of lawn a docent would appear out of nowhere and scold them. I was the target when I backed up to take a better photo and stepped, ever so slightly, off the path. Gardens for people should welcome them, not fill them with fear.

  7. As a former East Coast person (Delaware) now living in California – just down the coast from Filoli, near Monterey – I have often thought it a Crime Against Horticulture if you live here and don’t garden. The climate is so benign and the California floristic province is so rich in materials, that to deny yourself the pleasure of an almost year-round garden is to miss the point of living here. Of course, the rules are different and there are constraints. We plant in the late fall or early winter to catch the rain, and we could use a bit more water; but those are minor quibbles. Fioli is a vibrant example of what living in California can be.

    Ed Morrow
    Carmel Valley , CA

  8. Loree–I can understand both sides. I was there on a Thursday morning and there were about 100 people in the garden early! I can’t imagine how much traffic this place gets on the weekend. The lawns would be toast with that much foot traffic so I get their point. I also get yours. It wasn’t designed to be a public garden…it was designed as a private pleasure garden the transition isn’t easy and there are plenty (seriously) plenty of paths.

  9. Ed–
    Every time I visit California I’m tempted to move back. I lived there for a while in my misguided youth! I definitely have zonal/regional denial/envy while I’m there!

  10. I was fortunate enough to visit Filoli on a day when there wasn’t too much traffic, some years ago. I was particularly taken with the camellias in bloom. It is a beautiful place and a magnificent garden of its type which is formal and manicured. It is a bit daunting, but easy to admire.

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