Filoli Center Turns Back the Clock

Here's a job most any landscape contractor would enjoy. Maintaining one of California's most prestigious display gardens. Located 30 miles south of San Francisco, Filoli Center beckons back to the early 1900s when wealthy residents built some of the most luxurious country homes of the century. This one, built by William Bower Bourn II between 1915 and 1917, is still in its original setting.

walker-talk-volume-06-10_11.jpgLocated on the eastern slope of the Coast Range mountains, Filoli is comprised of 654 acres and includes a magnificent 43-room mansion and 16 acres of display gardens. The estate was purchased by Mr. and Mrs. William P. Roth in 1936 and it remained in their possession until 1975, when Mrs. Roth deeded it to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Today, Filoli Center is open to the public by reservation and by self guided tours. Visitors can take tours of the house and garden or hike the nature trails. The beauty of the environs is nearly untouched by time. The original architecture of the Georgian Revival house remains in full bloom as do the gardens, the original design and color schemes of which are maintained to the fullest.

It's the latter that occupies the time of 13 full-time gardeners and more than 100 volunteers who devote their energies to keeping the estate looking its early 1900s best.

Maintenance Challenges

Formal display gardens such as the one at Filoli offer maintenance personnel a set of new challenges, not the least of which, of course, is balancing modern maintenance practices with a tranquil setting. Weed trimmers, leaf blowers and riding mowers, for example, were not part of the estate's original list of tools. And nothing will more quickly awaken a visitor from a 1920s dream state than a Walker mower doing pirouettes around an Irish Yew. A pretty sight, to be sure, but one appreciated more by the operator than a visitor.

walker-talk-volume-06-10_12.jpgTo keep noise and maintenance activity to a minimum, Filoli assistant garden superintendent Alex Fernandez schedules heavy maintenance such as mowing and string line trimming to be done on Mondays, when the estate is closed to the public. Small groups might walk through but generally speaking the crews have the grounds to themselves.

Of the 16 acres of gardens, there are approximately four acres of lawn to mow, tells Alex, a recent graduate of Michigan State University with a master's degree in horticulture. Operators employ a combination of Honda rotary mowers, Trimmer reel mowers, a Locke reel mower and a Walker to keep the grounds manicured. Barring bad weather, the task is usually completed by 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon - not bad considering early morning fog and heavy dews sometimes keep mowing crew on hold until 10 a.m.

Lawns are mowed once a week from April to the end of November, and spot mowed the rest of the year.

Mulching, although necessary in many parts of the country, is not practical at Filoli and clippings from the Walker and the small reels with catchers are deposited in the estate's compost pile, the product of which is used to amend garden soil. Clippings from the Locke reel are minimal and left on the turf. There are plenty of places to put the compost to work. On average, 20,000 plants are planted annually.

Filoli's Walker was purchased three years ago to give grounds maintenance personnel more speed and maneuverability, tells John Mynott, whose job it is to keep the Walker and approximately 80 other pieces of equipment up and running. "At the time we were looking for a compact rider that would go through small gateways, climb the hills and still be very maneuverable and easy to handle," he recalls. "Then we noticed the sweeper attachments and we were sold."

walker-talk-volume-06-12_1.jpgThe sweeper I used only three times a year to remove algae buildup from the brick walkways after the first major rainfall, before major events begin in the winter and before tours start in February. But when it runs it saves countless hours. John adds. Before the attachment, Filoli workers would put down sand and water and literally scrub the walls by hand with a brush. With the sweeper attachment, someone applies the sand and water and the sweeper does the rest. "The attachment does a better job, loo," says John.

The garden is divided into a number of separate areas, each with microclimates that allow for a wide range of plantings. Weather patterns in the San Francisco area also contribute to variety, allowing for a mixture of eastern and western plant life. It's not unusual for the valley around Filoli to receive 30 freezes in a year. And the winter months bring somewhere between 30 to 40 inches of rain. The total rainfall is not much different than Alex's home state of Michigan, except that Californians receive it in half the time. During the rest of the year, the gardens rely on an extensive irrigation system for moisture.

The biggest challenge for the turf area is people, not disease, explains Alex. Foot traffic, the result of better than 60,000 visitors annually, is a major concern. Yet traffic is well marked and controlled. In fact, the turf looks letter perfect, despite people and minimal use of chemicals. Location of the Crystal Springs reservoir nearby precludes large scale chemical application.

What the lawn area receives, however, is annual rejuvenation through plug aeration and overseeding. And the old saying applies at Filoli as well as almost any other property. The best defense against disease is a healthy turf.

Perfect to a Fault

walker-talk-volume-06-10_1.jpgCountry estates around San Francisco became popular after the devastating earthquake of 1906. The country seemed to be a safe place to build. And it was, and most cases it still is. Even though Filoli sits just to the east of the San Andreas fault, bedrock keeps the ground stable. The recent major quake in San Francisco, for example, caused little damage at the estate. Still, a seismic upgrade, including installing a steel frame between the interior walls of the mansion and the brick exterior, will provide additional protection.

There's new construction, too, at the estate. A lecture hall/visitor center is scheduled for completion next year, which is part of a bigger plan to make Filoli even more accessible to the general public

Filoli Center has received worldwide recognition for its architecture and gardens. And students from around the world come to work in the gardens. A gardening internship program takes in three to five interns four time a year. Interests vary from landscape architecture to lawn maintenance. Students are taught how to safely operate equipment and routine maintenance procedures.

Operating capital for the estate is generated equally by endowments, revenue from tourists and fund-raising events. To help keep the 16 acres of gardens in tip-top shape, volunteers are requisites, as well. Upwards of 1,000 people (most of whom are retired) have their names on Filoli's volunteer list working in all aspects of the center's operation, from leading tours to manning the tea shop. Alex himself devotes approximately 75 percent of his time to actual hands-on maintenance; the rest is divvied up among administrative chores, holding workshops and interacting with other training events.

Working at Filoli may not be every contractor's dream. After all, there is a big difference between working for yourself and working for someone else. But short of owning your own business, working at Filoli has other rewards. "It's probably a little more relaxing than working for yourself," notes Alex. "Hours are steady, too." The one similarity, however, is a big one, indeed. Customers come to expect nothing but the best

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