To care for Central Garden, Houck routinely refers to Irwin and Duggan’s original instructions, which outline the importance of certain aesthetics in different areas. Each season, he examines the way the garden has grown and compares it to Irwin’s vision. He weighs a series of considerations: Is the ground cover still the same color palette the artist outlined? Are the allium plants thriving in the way that they should? Are the roses dying, and if they are, is the same varietal still available?
Some areas, Houck pointed out, are easier to maintain than others. The bougainvilleas that climb three tall, arcing trellises at the top of the garden are hearty and rather painless to prune (“You just have to be careful of the thorns,” he said). Others, like a stand of chartreuse cyprus trees, require regular pruning and sometimes full replacement. “At some point, a plant outgrows a design,” Houck explained. “So, either you adjust or take the extravagant approach of ripping it out and putting young plants in again.”
A large part of Houck and his team’s jobs consist of traversing West Coast nurseries to re-up on plants. At times, they must consider new options, when a given varietal is no longer available or isn’t growing well due to climate shifts or insect infestations. Recently, Houck embarked on a roadtrip to Oregon to find just the right dogwood and willow trees, which feature prominently in what he refers to as the garden’s “Winter Show.”
These nursery trips are among Houck’s favorite responsibilities. “Because the plants that are available change from year to year, it’s important to go look at the materials you have to work with,” he explained. “You’re looking at your palette; you’re looking at the potential of what can be done.”
Houck notes that Irwin would agree with him. These days, the artist makes less frequent trips to the garden, and has placed its care in the Getty’s hands. But Irwin’s vision still drives Houck’s decisions, as he and his crew tend to the artwork’s hundreds of plants, and their riotous, ever-changing colors and forms. “There’s no palette as rich as a garden,” Irwin once said
, adding quickly: “You can’t plan nature; you court her.”