At the Getty's two campuses, strikingly different gardens

Gardens at the two Getty Museum campuses could not be more different. California artist Robert Irwin's central garden at the Brentwood Center is a constantly changing, off-balance geometric splash of color and texture. It's a stark contrast to the beige classicism of the towering, marble buildings above it. Conversely, the elegant Mediterranean-style landscaping of the newly reopened Getty Villa in nearby Malibu is an understated partner to the estate it surrounds.

Nonetheless, the two gardens share a dramatic spirit: One is a work of living sculpture, the other a piece of horticultural theater.

Mr. Irwin has been shaking things up at the Getty from the moment he was hired more than a decade ago to replace the original, highly formal landscaping plans made by the building's architect, Richard Meier. (At several points, Mr. Meier was so upset at the decision that he clandestinely removed plantings. He was periodically banned from the garden.)

Irwin, a dancer as well as a renowned installation artist, has flouted southern California gardening conventions with such departures as deciduous trees and crushed volcanic rocks in the soil (to make it darker), among other innovations. "It's sculpture in the form of a garden that aspires to be art," says garden designer Jim Duggan, who worked closely with Irwin in the garden's creation from the beginning. He and Irwin walk the garden monthly, making changes to the more than 400 plants.

Rather than looking solely at what will grow, says Mr. Duggan, Irwin always looks for texture, color, and "the experience it provides." This is what makes it different from other gardens, he says, "because it starts as a work of art."

Irwin has called gardening "a process where we optimistically set in motion our desires for how we want things to be and, in turn, discover how things actually are," as he wrote in an essay for Duggan's book, "Plants in the Getty's Central Garden."

From the air, the central garden has a tadpole shape: a large bowl at the bottom with a slender undulating water garden (water running over stones and a variety of grasses and flowering plants) leading down from the main buildings. A walking path zigzags back and forth across the river.

The garden changes three times a year, says Duggan, to present a winter, spring, and summer experience. He and Irwin just finished planting the spring garden with the theme of poppies.

"There will be many times we'll try a plant the book says won't grow here," says Duggan. "But the books shouldn't be taken as bibles," he adds with a laugh. Many plants will thrive for a time and can be replaced when they decline, while others, such as the shrubby dogwoods, can surprise: It was thought they wouldn't survive the winter, so the trees were boxed in the fall and replanted in spring.

One year, he missed a few. "They grew just fine," he says, adding that he learned something new by accident. "The key to success with this garden is to continue gardening [in] it."

While the newly restored gardens at the Villa site about 13 miles away are constantly maintained, they are not dynamic in the same way as the Irwin garden, says landscape architect Matt Randolph, who worked on the new installation.

The idea for the plantings was set in motion more than 30 years ago when J. Paul Getty originally commissioned an accurate re-creation of an ancient Roman villa, circa AD 79. While the present-day team added color and more diversity, the plant palette is essentially the same, one that has endured the test of time.

"The Old World plants have been around since the beginning of gardens," he says. He includes well-known Mediterranean favorites such as rosemary, lavender, and common myrtle.

The biggest change to the Villa gardens has been to relax the overall feel by adding more flowering perennials, says Mr. Randolph. This was based on research into the original function of ancient Italian estate gardens. "They were almost country gardens, much looser in feel and tone than [the Getty's] were originally designed."

Many of the site's mature trees were saved, which fits the overall conceit of the Villa experience, says landscape architect Randolph. "The architectural concept for the Villa is that it's an archaeological dig, so it should have a mature landscape around it, one that looks like it was carved into the hills."

In keeping with the function of an estate garden, the Villa has a kitchen garden, alive with grape arbors, fruit trees (quince, pear, apricot, apple, citrus), and herbs (thyme, basil, oregano, catnip, spearmint, sage, and chamomile). It also has ornamental plants, including a central fountain filled with tropical lilies. Visitors enjoy the kitchen garden, says grounds manager Richard Naranjo, who has managed Getty gardens for over 30 years. "People can relate to the herb garden," he says, "many have one of their own and the plants are familiar."

Takeaway tips from the Getty gardens

• The basic Mediterranean plant groups are a "bulletproof foundation for any garden," says Matt Randolph, landscape architect for the new Getty Villa garden. They're easily available, easy to grow, and particularly valuable in warmer areas of the country because they can thrive on small amounts of water once they're established. This includes a wide range of plants, beginning with myrtle, ivy, boxwood, and an array of herbs.

• You have to stay open to new ideas, says Jim Duggan, who worked with artist Robert Irwin on the Getty Museum's central garden in Brentwood, Calif. "When Irwin first mentioned deciduous trees, I thought it was nutty. Nobody deliberately uses deciduous [plants] in southern California," he says, "but it turned out great."

Irwin chose a combination of willow trees with colorful barks, such as the orange and blue varieties. Once the leaves drop, the colors provide an unusual wintertime experience.

Irwin extends the concept to plants with no leaves but colorful stems to reinforce the underlying artistic concept, says Duggan. "Winter is a quieter time of year," he says. It's a new way to look at annual color, something a gardener wouldn't think of."

• Maintenance should always be a consideration, says Richard Naranjo, who manages both Getty gardens. "Unless you have the resources to constantly change plants, you should probably take the time to find out what works in your climate," he says, adding, "It can get pretty expensive otherwise."

• The mature size of a planting should always be taken into consideration, a concept that artist Irwin had to learn, says Duggan. "He would look at a small cutting in a nursery and fall in love with it. Sometimes I'd have to tell him, 'That's going to be huge,' and we'd have to turn to something else. Or he'd use it and plan space for growth in the long term."

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