Filoli and the framing device

Fight for a just cause; love your fellow man; live a good life = FiLoLi

I don’t own a goldmine, do you? That makes us unlike the Bourn family, who built the Filoli estate early in the last century. It’s also pretty certain we’re not Blake or Krystle Carrington (Filoli acted as their mansion on TV’s Dynasty).

So, compared to Filoli, our gardens and garden budgets are pipsqueak. Yet, we can always learn from the greats – and grand and great are what Filoli is.

What I noticed on my visit there at the end of May 2013 are some of the tricks that classical garden designers used to control – not nature (the theme of man over nature was big for the classicists) but the eye. Let’s call these framing devices. And even if we don’t have classical gardens, we can use these principles in our own space. Here’s what I saw.

The Reflecting Pool in the Sunken Garden

Use line to lead the eye. The symmetrical lines of the pool above, with forced perspective, draws your eye through the garden to the view beyond. See how the widened pool creates a kind of FedEx arrow to point to the pavilion and the mountains on the horizon? We can do this with a pathway or the edging of a bed. Make sure there’s something at the end of the line worth looking at.

A filigree gate and arched doorway takes you into the Chartres Garden

Frame the view. Like a frame around a picture, a door or gateway accentuates what you see through it. The classical view through this portal is a long, symmetrical walk – seen at an angle in this shot. My angled view shows that we don’t need symmetry and formality to use this window into another space. Your eye goes through the door, and where eyes go, feet soon follow, creating movement. I like how foliage frames the door itself, a frame within a frame, with a punctuating clump of fern.

Dark hedging frames Filoli’s colourful Knot Garden

Create a contrasting background. Filoli’s Knot Garden is an organized riot of colour, backed by a broad, dark line of purple-black hedge, like a simple, contrasting border on a bright quilt. Think how different this might look if the hedge behind had been green, instead. This was on a super-bright afternoon, darkening the leaves – which likely will change colour with the changing angle of the sun.

In the formal Chartres Garden, a bright carpet of flowers

Lay a carpet. Or move to another plane and frame the garden from below. How often do we really use the ground plane as a frame? I like how they’ve tamed a complicated plan with one colour, trimmed with lines and balls of green. With the roses in a lull, the floral carpet is the main show.

The cupola clock tower on Filoli’s carriage house garage

Stagger heights to frame the reveal. Just about everywhere you go in Filoli, the clock tower is visible – because the garden is designed so that just about everywhere you go in Filoli…. Height is one way they do this. Here, against the ivy-covered wall that borders this space, a tall file of beech trees towers over columns of Irish yew, shortened by perspective. And there’s the clock tower.

How do you like that knocker?

Draw an opaque curtain. The filigree gate a few pictures back draws a soft curtain over the view. But this solid door screens the other side completely from view, so when it opens you feel total surprise. Think: Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz opening the door onto a world of colour.

Acanthus spires on the terrace

Mirror or mimic shapes. Those yew columns are an important design feature in the central garden. Spikes of acanthus punctuate their upward line, creating a connection between near and far.

Bowers of fragrant lilies draw you into the Tea House

Frame from inside. How do you view the garden from indoors? I’ve written about this before and Filoli’s Tea House with its Palladian windows reminded me to think of views from the inside, out.


  1. Now, this is wonderful, Helen! What an artist's eye you have. I see Filoli in a new light thanks to you, and will use your lessons in my low-budget garden.

  2. I didnt feel well when we visited Filoli so its nice to see someone else's point of view as much passed me by. I quite liked the pink bergenia bedding in the rose garden and thought it was in keeping with the age and style of the garden but I know some of my UK companions were very dismissive of it which is interesting.

  3. When I saw the title of this post, I thought it might refer back to Saxon Holt's lesson in framing to tell the story. I like the way you use artistic concepts in describing good garden design. The grandly conceived spaces in Filoli are great places to see those design principles in action.

  4. Helen, this is a great post with wonderful examples for people learning garden design. It is hard for many looking at huge estate gardens to translate that to smaller scale, but noting the principles to work from gives them a great tool to start.

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