Getty Center Rooftop Garden

Getty Center rooftop garden: golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) edged with blue chalk sticks (Senecio sp.)

Getty Center rooftop garden: golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) edged with blue chalk sticks (Senecio sp.)

The new Getty Museum complex, rising atop the San Diego Freeway south of Mulholland Drive, will contain a 60,000-square-foot garden and an expansive rooftop, succulent garden. This is not a coincidence, since art and horticulture always have been inseparable. Memorable gardens are works of art.
There is, though, a primary difference between a garden and a painting or a sculpture. A garden is alive and always changing, and so the gardener forever is redesigning and fiddling with his creation. The successful gardener not only is an artist, but also a soil scientist, a plant pathologist, an entomologist. The gardener may be without academic degrees, but, as an observant student of nature, he doesn’t need any.
The practice of horticulture, like that of medicine, often is more of an art than a science. Gardeners, like physicians, must look at the big picture, taking many variables into account. A good doctor examines the patient’s whole way of living, and not just the symptoms of an illness, to make a proper diagnosis. A good gardener needs to know if light and water and air and minerals are available to a plant sufficiently before that plant’s growth, or lack of it, can be understood.
People who put in a shiny new garden or landscape and expect it to always look that way resent the idea of growth and change. Certain plants will do fantastically well and others will be miserable failures. Some plants will flower once and then produce scads of lush green leaves, but never flower again. Others may flower nonstop for a whole year and then suddenly die for no apparent reason.
To bring painting or sculpture into the garden is to provide changeless beauty in a world of unpredictable and chaotic botanical life. Such art may provide an antidote to the frustration of keeping living things, such as plants, constantly beautiful. In older neighborhoods, where mature trees steal most of the sun’s rays, there may not be enough light in the back yard to grow any flowering plants, including those that love the shade. In such a situation, a statue or a sculpture or a painting, properly finished to resist the elements, may provide the desired ornamental touch.
Robert Simon of Sherman Oaks has created garden art, fashioning pre- Columbian potentates out of cement, volcanic pumice, fiberglass and polyresin. Regal figures stand with elaborate headdress; torch in hand, they are protected by barking dogs and serpents. Simon’s use of oxide colors ensures that his earth-toned textured slabs will stand the test of time.
Taste and style are reflected in the garden no less than in the home. A home with bric-a-brac on every shelf and end table will be complemented, no doubt, by a cluttered garden. There is a temptation when you walk into a nursery to buy one of every kind of plant, and many gardens – those that make your eyes sore – prove how difficult this temptation is to resist.
The use of garden art is similar to the use of plants in landscape design. An outstanding work of art, like a distinctive plant, should stand alone.
To learn the principles of landscape design, begin by visiting a Japanese garden, where the values of restraint and spaciousness have triumphed. Such a garden may be too monotonous and colorless for certain Western eyes, but the use of only a few plant species and the spaces allowed between garden areas are instructive to all. The garden, in the end, should be a place to retreat
from the noise and the crowds of daily life.

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