Living in Harmony: Balancing Artistic Integrity with Water Conservation at The Getty Center

California’s drought has inspired a new season of landscape design. Water-thirsty flowers and thick grassy lawns are being replaced by colorful succulents and ornamental mulch in homes, community parks, libraries, hotels and museums across the Golden State. For instance, Gorilla Hair (a mulch that preserves moisture in soil and a terrific grass replacement) was not part of artist Robert Irwin’s original plan when he designed The Getty Center’s Central Garden in the early 1990s. Now in 2016, the mulch has replaced water thirsty grass and is currently spread throughout several parts of The Getty gardens, in an attempt to conserve water.

Irwin’s Central Garden is considered a vast outdoor sculpture, and is even part of the museum’s permanent collection. Irwin was fascinated by the unique challenges that come with designing and working with plants and nature. While he was planning the Central Garden, he reflected: “Gardening requires the ultimate hands-on, everyday ‘attending’… 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 and then we learn to work at keeping them in play.” Perhaps this is what Irwin meant when he choose the phrase “Always changing / Never twice the same” to be inscribed on a stone along the Central Garden’s path. These words have never been more true for Jim Duggan, associate curator of the Central Garden at The Getty Center, who has been tasked with balancing the integrity of Irwin’s original vision with the water conservation needs of today. I recently had a chance to speak with Duggan about the legendary garden.

What changes have you made to the Central Garden to conserve water due to the drought?
We have cut back on some of the annuals in the summer time. We’ve also added a polymer to the soil mix used for the dahlias, which has certainly helped them retain water. The dahlias are the highlighted flowering plant for the summer season and 350 plants are used.

When Irwin designed the Central Garden, he established distinct aesthetics for all the difference seasons. What is your favorite season at the Central Garden and why?
Spring! That was easy. The diversity of plant material and the riot of color make it the most interesting to me. The garden is truly ever changing here and never twice the same. When you visit, you will see: Shirley poppies, California poppies, Iceland poppies, Breadseed poppies, alliums, tulips iris, azaleas in the maze and various California wildflowers.

Getty Center Garden designed by Robert Irwin

Getty Center Garden designed by Robert Irwin

The Central Garden always looks so spectacular. Does The Getty make their own special blend of museum compost that you can share with us home gardeners?
Yes. We use equal parts of kelp meal, alfalfa meal, bone meal and cottonseed meal. This is used as a pre-plant fertilizer where one would add some to the hole when dug, mix it around and then plant on top. Worm castings have been added annually as a top dressing for two reasons: first, the dark rich, organic color is a treatment that Robert Irwin likes, and secondly, over many years, the soil humus level is very much improved. Good soil is always key for plant growth.

What impact (if any) do you feel climate change is having on California landscape design and overall home gardens?
Turf is becoming less desirable. In place of turf, gardeners are exploring other options such as: non-mow grass, California native plants and designs that include walkways and shrubs instead of expanses of green.

How many gallons of water and gardeners does it take to maintain the Central Garden?
Water usage fluctuates seasonally and from year to year. There are months when there is no additional irrigation. The Central Garden is staffed with five full-time gardeners with additional help from tree crew and irrigation specialists.

Has anyone ever fallen into the Azalea maze?
No. Thankfully, this has never happened!

Are there any plans to add sculptures, like say a Charles Ray peeking out of the Garden Bowl?
There are no plans to add sculpture in the Central Garden, which, as you point out, is itself a work of art. Sculptures from the Stark Collection are on view adjacent to the Central Garden.

What flower or plant do you feel is most associated with the image of California other than the palm tree?
The California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica).

What is the main message or feeling you hope visitors take with them after experiencing the Central Garden?
Southern California has a very diverse and colorful plant palette drawing from all corners of the globe. Visitors can experience these plants in their own garden or by returning to The Getty during the various seasons. Hopefully, a visitor will feel horticulturally empowered.

There is a stone in the Central Garden’s path that Robert Irwin inscribed and it says: “Always Changing / Never Twice the Same.” If you had a stone inscribed for the garden, what would yours say?
“Enjoy Empower Engage.”

What’s your favorite flower planted in the Central Garden?
In the Central Garden, the azaleas are amazing when they bloom. You see them from a quarter of a mile away and they are solid!

Maggy Siegel is a Los Angeles-based interior designer, vintage finds buyer for One Kings Lane and a veteran apparel industry leader who pioneered the wildly popular children’s brands Barn Organics, Mad Sky and Mad Boy. She is a mother, art and nature lover, avid gardener and collector of all things chic for the home.
Contact her at
maggysiegelcastyle@gmail.com