Saturday, January 12, 2013

Sunnylands - new landscape

A couple of weeks after our initial rainy visit to Sunnylands, the Annenberg estate, I returned to see the garden on  a better day. The low winter sunshine was good for pictures, but the surrounding mountains were wreathed in cloud, later to become snow. Arrival at Sunnylands is via an impressive drive, surrounded by the new landscape and ribboned by huge drifts of Agave desmettiana complete with towering flower spikes. All very dramatic! The new gardens created around the Visitor Centre extend to some nine acres and contain an impressive 53,000 plants in 50 desert species.

Agave desmettiana in dramatic full scale bloom

Aerial View of the new gardens with the original estate above

The entrance to the Visitor centre - pic doesn't do it justice

The design was by the landscape architect James Burnett and is said to have been inspired by the Annenberg collection of Impressionist and Post Impressionist paintings. In particular Van Gogh's Olive Trees is quoted, although he actually painted eighteen different studies of olive trees using different combinations of colour and expressions of light. Surprisingly, despite this statement there are no olive trees in the new landscape, although this tree grows well in this area - an odd exclusion. But before I make any more negative comments, I will in true RHS judging style, tell you about the positives before the negatives - sorry but I can't resist being analytical or is it critical?

Van Gogh's Olive trees - the inspiration

This is a beautiful new garden with an extensive collection of well grown plants. The quality of landscape construction is excellent using some lovely materials and it is properly maintained. Unlike so many desert gardens, it is not  heavily pruned, so the natural shape and flowering of plants is allowed. That is excellent and shows that it is possible!

On one side of the driveway is the Botanic Walk with gently curving paths that meander through huge swathes of succulents and beneath palo verde trees (Parkinsonia x 'Desert Museum'). It's reminiscent of the Huntington Desert Garden but so much newer. There are many groups of different Agave species, aloes, barrel cacti (Echinocactus grusonii) and vertical spires of Echinopsis pachanoi emerging from lower planting.

View across the Botanic Walk
Hesperaloe funifera - love those filaments

Another view across the Botanic Walk

Shadows on a winters afternoon
Still the Botanic Walk

Barrel Cactus - Echinocactus grusonii  in the Botanic Walk - plant spacings inspired from the Van Gogh

Graceful paths in the Botanic Walk

On the other side of the driveway and bordered by the car park, is a huge informal area called the wildflower field. At the point of my visit and with little rain this winter, there was virtually no sign of growth and no colour - just last years dead skeletons. Sand verbena, salt bush, desert marigold, California poppy and a host of grasses are said to be present. Another botanic walk with desert plantings surrounds the meadow.

Across the wildflower field in a dry winter
Opuntia microdasys - the Botanic Walk around the wildflower field

More of the second Botanic Walk

Agave parryi in - you guessed it - The Botanic Walk

Behind the visitor centre and visible from its huge glazed atrium is the Great Lawn, an impressive, circular close mown grass area, fringed with a formal planting of more palo verde trees. During flowering time in late spring these will be spectacular. Between the building and the lawn, there is an area of formal gardens with beds of specimen cacti, succulents and more agave. The second following picture is from the internet showing part of this area in later spring.
The Great Lawn surrounded by palo verde trees
Palo verde  trees in full spring bloom (internet pic)

The Specimen Bed

Stretching across the garden in both directions, there are two long beautifully designed  reflecting pools. Both are infinity pools with the water gently spilling over the edges all round the perimeter. The pools are shallow with black cobbles lining the base.  Depending on where you stand, there is a changing pattern of reflections from the surrounding vegetation, the sky overhead and annoying people that walk by!

The reflecting pool
More reflections
The pool base

Exploring the rest of this garden, I found yet more plantings of the same succulents in the same style. (Do you detect a hint of criticism coming?) A small circular space, called the performance garden is surrounded by similar arid planting. On the opposite side to this is a small labyrinth clothed in a grey leaved plant I did not recognise. In total, it is a beautiful garden with an environmentally friendly low water requirement. Planting is said to attract a range of wildlife, although I'm not sure whether the gardeners will welcome the quoted jackrabbits said to be present! Ladybirds are introduced for pest control.

The performance circle

The labyrinth
Another Botanic Walk and more agave

Yet more...................

Ocotillo - Fouqueria splendens

Those of you that have read my other blogs will know that I am not reticent with my comments. If it's good I'll tell you but if there are things I don't like, well why not say so! I like to think of it as constructive criticism! Whilst most visitors, including many gardeners will enjoy the garden, there are weaknesses in its design, so I will move on to the negatives.

The many and extensive areas of arid planting lack distinctive character. One Botanic Walk is very like another throughout the garden and the planting becomes repetitious. Various devices are used such as the introduction of strong vertical succulents amongst low species in key points and on footpath junctions. Whilst effective, the same device used throughout the garden loses its impact and becomes tedious. The quoted inspiration of the Olive Trees without the inclusion of any is decidedly odd. The planting of succulents in formal lines or curving drifts could be said to be linked to Van Gogh's brush strokes but again the device is repeatedly used throughout the garden.

Echinopsis pachanoi

Err - have we seen this before?
Must have been a good price on a job lot of these1

Same device - different plant - wooly torch - Espostoa melanostele - wonderful in the sun

Although there are four species of trees quoted as in use in the garden, I only observed two of which palo verde seemed to comprise about 90% of the tree cover - great in spring but again overkill and lack of interest. There were no palms at all in this garden, but maybe this can be forgiven as it was known that the Annenbergs did not favour them.

The meadow walk was disappointing. There was an irrigation system present which could  be used to simulate winter rain. This is after all a garden, not a nature preserve and visitors would love to see what Californian wildflowers should look like after winter rain. There also appeared to be no paths through the meadow, meaning that the flowers if present, could only be viewed at a distance - such a pity!

I also feel the concentration on arid plantings and omission of  desert 'tropicals' is a lost opportunity. The brief speaks of colour but the garden was decidedly monochromatic on my visit. Undoubtedly there would be more colour in spring and early summer. However, whilst there  are seven species of Leucophyllum used, (lots of blue in spring)  there are no Bougainvillea, Cassia, Caesalpinia or  Lantana. The inclusion of more species such as these would enable the creation of different styled areas. The discussion of  water usage for such areas would provide an educational opportunity.

The infinity pond is a triumph, but if you visit James Burnett's website, you will see pictures of his other impressive landscapes, several of which feature infinity ponds.  Whilst many designers will have signature plantings and features, it is a pity that this was not a bit more original for this unique commission.

So have I been harsh? Is such criticism justified? It is after all subjective. However a garden such as this has been built with a vast budget, is in a world renowned location and linked to the amazing Annenburg Foundation. Such a garden should be exceptional, not just good and to my mind that's where it stands.

Will I return? Yes certainly! I've already told Philip that he must visit when the palo verdes are in bloom to get some pictures for me, as I will be back in the UK by then. When I return to the desert next autumn, I'll make another visit and see how this garden has matured - after all it is only about a year old and great gardens are never finished!


  1. Hi Ian, I don't think your criticism was harsh, you made valid points and we actually totally agree with you....

    Anyway, I've never seen succulents planted so formally like that, and in vast swathes too. I can see the source of inspiration and understand it, but it helped that they actually mentioned it. If they didn't it would look more like a formal garden but instead of using box hedging they used succulents.

  2. You saved me many of the exact points of were not as harsh as I would be. Just too much repetition of repetition, even when using different plants in one place...they still do the same ting. Seems too much without enough softening. I'm missing the effect of a lush, oasis that seems present in natural orbuilt landscapes in other hot deserts.

    Yes on the lack of xeric tropicals...that is the climate and place for such an opportunity, to create lush pockets. Perhaps use such plants differently than the usual low desert manners as all over Phoenix, etc.

    Varying the trees more - agreed! How about a Elephant Tree grove of

    Your point on the Annenbergs not caring for palms is well-taken, even though one species is a local native and the city is their namesake. I can accept that, with a little growling under my breath.

  3. I am relieved to hear you folks agreeing with me. It always seems pretentious for me to criticise a scheme such as this but I guess I'll do it again in the future!

  4. Late to comment. Great pictures. I love the drifts of Agave and other succulents together with the different coloured chipping stones. I have seen Agave (A.americana variegata) used as 'formal' hedging in Portugal. Iloved it, only wish we could try the same all year round in the UK.

  5. Great pictures. I love the drifts of succulents and the use of contrasting landscaping in the specimen bed. I have seen Agave used in lines to form a hedge in Portugal. If you can picture 7 large A.americana variegata on either side of a wall forming the entrance to a villa mixed with some smaller silver succulents then you get the idea. Wish I could do that in the UK.