Renovation Balances Form and Function to Offer Greater Community Access and Great Home Gardening Ideas
By Claire Bradley
What happens behind that thick hedge?
It’s a mystery that many a visitor strolling the rose garden at 86 Cañada Road in Woodside may have pondered since the historic Filoli estate (built in 1917 as a private residence) first opened to the public in 1975. Excluded from public access behind that hedge had been a half-acre vegetable garden, where productivity happened quietly in large, closely spaced beds.
A renovation completed last summer opens those beds to the public on accessible walkways. Visitors move through an opening in the hedge at a gate decorated with zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, and peas exquisitely rendered in wrought iron by artisan blacksmith Toby Sticpewich. Once inside the Filoli Vegetable Garden, everyone can enjoy the raised vegetable beds and berry cages on new ADA-accessible paths designed by San Francisco landscape design firm The Garden Route Company. The paths also lead to inviting patio gathering spaces and a wooden pergola that offers a shady place to sit and take it all in.
It’s a truly multisensory experience, and no one will ever get scolded for sampling. While outright harvesting is discouraged, visitors are welcome to try a berry or a leaf, touch the foliage, and smell the flowers.
A portion of the produce grown in the garden is crafted into foods and other products sold in the Filoli store or served during public programs, but there is always excess to be shared. Community organization Second Harvest picks and distributes some to local food banks, and St. Anthony’s Foundation in San Francisco receives donations as well.
Community Partnerships and Learning Through Gardening
It’s important to Filoli staff that it’s not just ticketed tourists spending time in the vegetable garden. Community partnerships are plentiful.
Sixteen Bay Area preschool classes pay frequent visits during the growing season. As the children pick fruits, flowers, and vegetables for salads and snacks, they learn how food is grown.
Filoli looks both outward and inward to ensure that the crops being grown reflect the Bay Area’s diversity.
“One of the most exciting things we’re doing in the Vegetable Garden are these partner plots,” says Formal Garden Manager Haley O’Connor, who joined the Filoli staff around the time renovations began. Planted by partner organizations, the plots highlight diverse Bay Area vegetable traditions. The current partner is Pasifika Planting Group. Comprising local Pacific Islander community members and organized by Tongan poet and farmer Loa Niumeitolu, they will continue to meet here throughout 2023 to share stories around food as they care for their taro, sī plant, kava, kumala sweet potato, and other crops with important cooking and ceremonial uses in Pacific Islander cultures.
A bed planted with Chinese vegetables was designed in part by Filoli’s plant records specialist, John Chau, whose family is originally from Hong Kong and Southern China. Chau included bitter melon and amaranth, sourced from his family’s own seed collection.
A Melding of Formal and Functional Design
“You don’t really notice when you step out of the formal gardens into the production area that you’re in a different type of garden,” O’Connor points out, and indeed, while the garden is practical and productive, it doesn’t depart from the aesthetic formality that characterizes the rest of the grounds. This is largely accomplished by incorporating edible plants into traditional garden elements.
Visitors will find exciting architectural plantings like an impressive wall of espaliered apple and pear trees that form a windbreak separating the family orchard from the formal gardens. Lateral branches of dwarf apple trees are being trained to form a low, two-tier “Belgian fence” lining the walkway and hops are quickly climbing up archways outside the berry cages. Golden kiwi vines will eventually cover the central pergola.
Tips for Home Vegetable Gardeners
While we may find it hard to even imagine our own home gardens looking anything like Filoli’s, there is much here to learn through inspiration along with O’Conner’s expertise in formal productive garden design. She shares several techniques employed at Filoli that could easily apply to a backyard garden or community vegetable plot.
Add a touch of formality with a single, repeated unifying element like a planting of lavender, nasturtiums, rosemary, or calendula at the end of each row. The flowers attract bees and beneficial insects. “It doesn’t really matter if it gets weedy or you’re not harvesting everything,” O’Conner says. “That’s the beautiful moment of a vegetable garden to me – when it gets out of control and abundant – but you don’t have to panic if there’s something formal unifying it.”
Extend the life of seeds by refrigerating them in an airtight container, kept separate from ripe fruits and vegetables. “You usually get three to five years out of a fresh seed… it just depends on how well it’s stored.”
Change out where you plant each crop from year to year to prevent diseases. “It’s always important to remind people to rotate their tomatoes, so they don’t get tomato blight.”
Filoli gardeners lay down cardboard as sheet mulch on pathways between vegetable rows to suppress weeds and bury the cardboard under woodchips. “You can use recycled cardboard, but make sure it doesn’t have print on it, because the ink can contain lead.”
Anyone interested in learning more through hands-on experience can participate in Filoli’s service learning program, which offers volunteer opportunities for folks of all ages and skill levels, with no minimum requirements.
The Filoli Vegetable Garden is open during general Filoli visitor hours: daily 10am to 5pm with extended hours until 8pm on Thursdays for the Summer Nights program through September 21, 2023. Learn more at filoli.org
Writer Claire Bradley gardens on her Oakland balcony and shares her experience with fellow small-space container gardeners in a blog called “Botany on the Balcony.” She is a lifelong student of Italian culture, food, and language, learning daily from her Italian husband and in-laws.
This story was created through a sponsorship arrangement with Filoli.