The Spiritual Gardener: Filoli

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Has this ever happened to you?  The other day I walked into a busy Starbucks for a latte and the barista asked the person in front of me in line her name to put it on her cup.

This person gave her name, which turned out to be one of those new-fangled, made-up names that no one else has, that sounded something like “Shillelaghfiddlesticks.” And then on top of that the owner of this rarity was punctilious about the idiosyncratic spelling: “That’s ‘Shillelaghfiddlestix’, with an X on the end, not CKS.”

Really? I saw the barista gamely trying to write a name sort of like that on the cup, but I felt sorry for her. When the name was called out it inevitably was nothing like the name as it was given, and its proud owner was very indignant and, of course, made a shaming scene about it.

Honestly, I think people can call themselves whatever they like in our modern age, and I guess it is a sign of great cultural progress overall that we don’t all have to have saints’ names or Old Testament names anymore. Although I do feel a bit sad for the poor young woman in Denver whose mother decided to name her Chandelier “because I just liked the sparkly sound of it.”

Or a person of our acquaintance who was named Mancy and had to spend the rest of her life angrily correcting people with an outraged “No, it’s not Nancy, it’s Mancy, with an M of course!” I suppose in time, if these bold name pioneers are very good, they may be canonized eventually, and we will finally be lucky enough a Saint Chandelier and a Saint Mancy, and that would all be perfectly wonderful at last.

The problem with my name is just that it is too common. In any given Starbuck’s at any given time, it seems there is at least one other “Dave” getting coffee, so to avoid confusion I have taken to the use of Starbucks pseudonyms. You should try it, it’s fun. For a while I was “Finch-Hatton”; before that “Pinfeather.”

Lately, I have gotten frank scowls when I say my name is “Harry Gordon Selfridge.” “Rupert” for some reason always gets a smile, so I like to use that sometimes. And “Dionysius” elicits badly bungled versions that are extremely hilarious – at least to me, such is my sense of humor.

A contrary tactic is just to use an extremely simple name that is not much used these days.  Like “Bob.” Or my current alter ego favorite, “Ed.” It’s the shortest one I can come up with (“Al” is nearly as good, but not quite as frankly dull as dear old “Ed”) and I really think, if only out of consideration for the hard-worked baristas, that if you are lucky enough to have a singular name like Taradiddlebongofarraday or something of that exciting sort, you should use a nom de café that is short and sweet.

Is that too much to ask?  Probably it is.

In any event, today it is 6:30 a.m. and the sun is not yet up; it is clear and cool, with the house sound asleep but for the dog and me.  Last weekend I did some more stone work on the driveway and mowed the heavy spring grass. Saturday it was sunny and cool again. I got some muriatic acid and cleaned up the new stone work on both sides of the driveway and the new stone path back to the neighbors’ gate.

Be careful with this stuff; it is called acid for a reason, and rightly is it called acid. Just as old Rowley says with disgust in the Aldous Huxley novel Crome Yellow, while watching the pigs grunt and wriggle in the mire of their pen: “Rightly is they called pigs.”

Anyway, yesterday I stripped strands of ivy out of the trees and planted them outside the new stone work by the driveway, a further effort to clean up the street frontage a bit.  Then I straightened up the rose tripods in the front yard, which had been blown apart by some recent high winds, and I also put the “Eden” roses in the three raised pots on new stakes.  They are about eight feet tall now and about four feet off the ground on their brick plinths, so they tower over the garden and are now covered with swollen rosebuds. Last year at this time, they arrived from Heirloom Roses as small shoots barely six inches tall.  They have grown amazingly in just a year.

We were diligent in dividing our bluebells last spring, and now we are being paid back in a glorious pale blue dividend!


The first peonies opened today, the pinks. The blue clematis is magnificent, the orange poppies are exploding all over the place, the bluebells are finishing, lots of different irises are blooming, though still only about ten percent; the pink azaleas on the corner are opening and now even the pink rhododendrons are too.

We love this time of year when the irises and lupines are blooming together. What a winning combination!

And the tall red rose on the tripod in the front garden is producing much larger blooms than usual, as big as a bread plate and very heavily fragrant, and the blooms got a lot of compliments at a dinner party last week.  It must be finally happy where it is growing, and wouldn’t it be nice if we all were. Also, the variegated hostas and white rhododendrons on the patio are starting to look great together as some former owner, with excellent taste and I suspect not a little skill, planned long ago. I am their happy heir and beneficiary. The first red roses on the arbor are open too. Inside, I am growing two trays of seedlings, one of four o’clocks and one of foxgloves and cleomes.

If you really want to grow irises with abandon, as who does not, the way to do it is by the thousands in a long border, just as they do it at Filoli.

Recently I was in San Francisco on business and stayed at the St. Francis Hotel for old times’ sake.  I was put in one of the rooms in the old part of the hotel, so the room was a huge suite with elegant brass fixtures and rock crystal doorknobs.  This is a great old hotel; I never tire of it.

I had a fantastic dinner with business associates in Pleasanton, a gracious and lovely old California town in the Livermore Valley of the East Bay. We ate wonderful food outside on the patio under mellow lights, and in the soft air and under the velvet sky of northern California. But the highlight of this trip was my drive south of San Francisco to the Filoli Center, one of the great gardens of the world and something I had long wanted to see.

And of course, this is a perfect time of year to see a great garden, particularly because Filoli was staging a big May flower show, so every room of the stupendous mansion was crammed with more and ever more gorgeous floral arrangements; it was all rather overwhelming, and a feast for the eyes.

And the gardens themselves! Well, they are of course superb. Favorites: the colossal tree peonies, with hundreds of blooms, one had to just stand before them in simple awe; the long iris border, with purissima irises as a running backdrop to set off clumps of more color-charged varieties; the spectacular twin colonnades of colossal columnar yews that I had seen photographed in books and had always longed to see in person, and they did not disappoint; the long row of “old” roses, each one a famous name I had read about for years but had never met in person, and how amazingly scented they are; the sunken summer garden, tied together visually with light blue and accented with purple, pink and pale yellow, with loud shocks of foxgloves in all four corners.

A truly spectacular and amazing garden, 16+ acres in all, around a magnificent house and the whole in a glorious setting. It was built by the Bourn Family and now is operated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  One of our great gardens in this country, and well worth the effort to visit.


David Jensen writes the popular American blog “The Garden Interior,” which chronicles his garden in southern New Jersey. Please visit at You can follow David Jensen on Twitter at @GardenInterior.