For a basically bookish "indoor" person, I have, over the years, become a great fan of the outdoors. Not hunting or fishing: more like walking and gardening. Fortunately I have a nice backyard, and things grow easily in southern California, whether you want them to or not, so I've become a gardener. Sort of.
But here are five gardens, created by professional landscape artists, that I really love:
CENTRAL PARK (in New York City)
OK, at 843 acres, it's a little more than just a garden, but I've loved Central Park my entire life, only more so since I moved to California. Now every time I visit New York, I have to spend a maximum amount of time in Central Park.
Perhaps the greatest thing about Central Park is that it is almost entirely man-made. Built between the years 1858 and 1873, the park was actually sculpted out of basically raw land by teams of men and horses. It is the work of visionary creators Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Composed of natural elements – turf, wood, water, and rock – and accented with exceptional decorative, architectural and fine arts, the Park is a living work of art that lets Manhattan and its residents breathe in Nature in many forms. There are pastoral landscapes, formal landscapes, picturesque landscapes, bridges, sculptures, theatres, lakes, animals, and many hidden treasures – all created for a specific aesthetic purpose. Nothing is accidental in Central Park; it was all planned and executed. I sometimes think that Manhattan would go entirely mad without Central Park for release. It's where Manhattanites can sunbathe, play baseball, rollerblade, ride bikes safely (except for Bono), picnic, throw Frisbees, walk their dogs, and sit and daydream, looking at the towers of Central Park South and the San Remo on Central Park West.
A little research into the creation of the park reveals a story of great drama and clashing personalities. Frederick Law Olmstead is one of the most admirable men in American history. One of the very first landscape artists, journalist, social reformer, pioneering conservationist, and organizer of medical services for the Union Army in the Civil War, he deserves an entire blog. How he and Vaux worked out the design of the Park to satisfy all the interested constituencies is a tale of remarkable ingenuity and politicking.
In my younger days, I saw lots of great music in the Park: Barbra Streisand's famous concert in the Sheep Meadow, and shows by the Byrds, Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, and Arlo Guthrie. I've seen great theatre in the Park: from Stacy Keach's "Hamlet" to "The Seagull" with Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Natalie Portman, directed by Mike Nichols.
When I was a kid, I used to envy the rich kids who had the cool model boats that zoomed around the Model Boat Pond, where Stuart Little sailed "the Wasp." Nowadays, I just like to walk around the Park with the Tiny Goddess and read the wonderful inscriptions on the backs of park benches. Except for my own backyard, this may be my favorite piece of real estate on this earth.
DESCANSO GARDENS (in La Canada, CA)
Less than two miles from my house, just down the hill, is Descanso Gardens, one of the loveliest little botanical gardens in southern California. At about 150 acres, Descanso Gardens is snuggled into the San Raphael Hills, on the Flintridge side of town, and I can drive there in less than six minutes, having to pass only one traffic light. It couldn't be more convenient.
The estate of Los Angeles Daily News publisher E. Manchester Boddy, Descanso is one of the secret treasures of southern California. At one time, Walt Disney thought of locating Disneyland there, but fortunately he chose the wide-open fields of Anaheim instead.
Descanso is most famous for its vast camellia forest and its collection of native oaks. There is also a rosarium, a Japanese garden, a bird sanctuary, a lilac garden, and a xeriscape. (That's a drought-tolerant or low-water garden, composed of native plants.)
There are lots of walks and trails, a miniature railroad, and a stream. There are koi in the stream, and I've spent many hours, illegally feeling the koi with contraband bread. Kids love to feed bread to the koi, both my kids and the kid I used to mentor. Oh hell, I love to feed bread to the koi.
I shot most of my short film LUNCH WITH LOUIE in Descanso. (We shot there for two days and picked up the office shot on a third day.) It was a wonderful couple of days. I piped in Verdi as we set up the shots. I invite people to watch LOUIE on my website. I purposefully did not put on the end credits where the movie was shot, so I had people tell me that they knew exactly where I shot it: "Budapest!"
Someday, the Tiny Goddess and I might train to be docents there. That would be a nice thing to do.
SCHOENBRUNN PALACE AND GARDENS (in Vienna)
One of my favorite days of all time was one that the Tiny Goddess and I spent a few years ago at Schoenbrunn Palace and its gardens, just twelve miles outside of Vienna.
Schoenbrunn (meaning "beautiful spring") was the summer home of the Hapsburgs, and those Hapsburgs sure knew how to live. The palace is a masterpiece of the Baroque style, with more than 1,400 rooms, but it's the gardens I remember most. They are beautifully laid out behind the palace, with a formal French garden stretching across an incline leading up to the magnificent Gloriette, a triumphal pavillion constructed at the crest of the hill, opposite the palace. Quite a site. We had tea at the little café in the Gloriette and enjoyed one of the sweetest views you can imagine.
There are mazes, a zoo, a dovecote, an orangerie, a palmhouse, a carriage house, dozens of sculptures and fountains, woods, and more. There are beautiful vistas wherever you look. And, most preposterous of all, a major demonstration on the art of "strudel-making."
Then we took a quick train back into Vienna, went to the Musikverein that night for some Brahms, and then back to the Hotel Sacher, to sleep like Holly Martins and dream of Harry Lime. It was a wonderful day.
HUNTINGTON LIBRARY, ART COLLECTIONS, AND BOTANICAL GARDENS (in San Marino, CA)
Twenty minutes and ten miles from my house is an absolute, five-star wonder: the Huntington. A stunning, multi-faceted triple-combination library-museum-and-garden, the Huntington is almost the perfect place. It has everything. For paintings, it has Gainsborough's "Blue Boy." For books, it has a Guttenberg Bible, a double-elephant Audubon "Birds of America," and dozens of rare manuscripts. And for gardens, it has two-hundred-and-six acres of the most stunning gardens you'd ever want to see.
I love all their gardens, but the desert garden and the Japanese garden are world-famous.
Overall, there are fifteen themed gardens (rose, camellia, subtropical, Australian, jungle, spice, Shakespeare, etc.), filled with 20,000 different kinds of plants, 1,800 rose species, 1,200 camellia cultivars, and 5,000 cacti. From towering landmarks trees to tiny desert succulents, the Huntington offers a range of natural beauty and wonderment that delights every visitor. There is also an English-style tearoom that we've taken guests to, many times. That's a real treat.
We have the kind of membership that gets us into the gardens before it's open to the general public. I've only done it a couple of times, but it's a very special sensation, walking around the Huntington, all alone except for the sprinklers.
Going to the Huntington is always a good idea; it never disappoints.
WALLENSTEIN GARDENS (In Prague)
European cities just know how to do gardens. Some of them are leftovers from the era of nobility when kings, princes, and generals built great gardens for their own ego and amusement. One of our favorite cities is Prague, and Prague is filled with beautiful gardens.
We liked the Wallenstein Gardens and all of Prague, especially Mala Strana, the "Little Quarter" across the Old Town, at the base of hill leading up to the Royal Palace. We liked it so much that we stole the design from one beautiful metal gate at the Wallenstein Gardens and had it reproduced in our backyard.
So now where a plain, chain-link gate used to be is a piece of the Wallenstein Gardens. Right in our own backyard.
Come to think of it, that really is my favorite garden.