Cool Green Gardens

My Very First Garden Conservancy Open Days Tour!

Photo/Illustration: Billy Goodnick
Photo/Illustration: Billy Goodnick
Photo/Illustration: Billy Goodnick
Photo/Illustration: Billy Goodnick
Photo/Illustration: Billy Goodnick
Photo/Illustration: Billy Goodnick

True confessions: Last Sunday was the first time I attended a Garden Conservancy Open Days tour.

It was all Lin’s idea. After reading an eye-catching article in the Los Angeles Times, my spousal support unit suggested we spend the next Sunday in Pasadena, strolling other people’s gardens (without fear of getting arrested for trespassing). No way I could turn down an offer like that.

That’s what’s so cool about Open Days, a program that, since 1995, has allowed folks like you and me – and about a million others – to wander through more than 3,000 private gardens around the country. It’s the perfect marriage: Visitors pick up ideas for their own gardens, meet lots of like-minded garden enthusiasts and talk to designers.

And the Conservancy benefits by raising money and increasing public awareness of their primary mission: “…preserving exceptional American gardens for the education and enjoyment of the public. We seek to develop and deepen public appreciation of gardens as integral elements of our national artistic and cultural heritage.”

One thing I like about garden tours is the opportunity to take a pazillion digital pictures and write blog posts about all the fun I had.

Design Tips From Pasadena

Marry the house and garden:  Our first stop was Sally and Harlan Bixby’s home – a 1922 Spanish Revival house emblematic of many SoCal homes. There were a number of theme gardens, a spitting crocodile fountain, and interesting plants throughout the property. But what caught my eye was a subtle pairing of easy-care cane orchids (Epidendrum imbaguense) and the warm tones of the exterior walls.  Vibrant orange and yellow flowers blend with the ochre stucco. Does your garden’s color scheme respond to the exterior colors of your house? If not, opportunity knocks.

Variation on a theme:  Still at the Bixby garden, through an arched doorway leading to a secluded courtyard, I spotted this textbook example of harmony and contrast. Rather than get carried away with the cornucopia of succulents that thrive in Pasadena’s Mediterranean climate, this bed is a study in subtlety and restraint.

The most interesting garden compositions are the ones that strike a balance between variety and unity. Notice how the rounded forms of the two different cacti unify this pairing, while variations in the color and the topography of each plant brings variety. The secret is massing multiples of only a few plant species.

Shine a light: This traffic-stopping Japanese maple was growing across the street from one of the homes we toured late in the afternoon. I’d like to think the owners planted it there knowing that on September 25, 2010, around 3:30 pm, Lin, Billy and their cameras would be treated to a moment of digital delight as the softening rays set the leaves ablaze. Even if this visual confection came about purely by accident, it reminds us that light changes throughout the day, and from season to season.

The next time you redo one of your beds, imagine how light can play a key role in your own plant choices.

Yipes! Look at the time…
There are a few dozen more photos to sort through, so how about we temporarily pull the plug on the Pasadena Open Days tour and I’ll be back with the next installment ASAP.

Let me know if you’ve used any of these design tricks in your own garden and share some of your own.

Resource: To find out more about the Garden Conservancy and the Open Days program visit or

Read part 2…

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