Family Trip: Explore the Filoli Gardens

POSTED: February 21, 2012

Spring knocks early on Filoli‘s doors but then, what wouldn’t spring do for one of the Bay Area’s finest gardens? Spreading over hills and meadows in Woodside, Filoli is one of the last early 20th century estates still intact its full glory with a mansion, historic orchards and manicured gardens. Just minutes off Highway 280, it’s another world where the word “gardens” doesn’t quite capture the largest collection of heirloom fruit trees in America, the Greek mythology feel of the High Place or the Woodland Garden that seems right out of Alice in Wonderland with its shaded alleys. From the Daffodil Days in February to the fragrant roses in the summer, the garden is a wonder to explore with children.

I discovered Filoli thanks to a Sunset magazine article right after I arrived in the Bay Area 11 years ago. The holiday season at Filoli was unlike anything I’d ever seen. Since then I’ve taken my girls to most of the seasonal events, taken many visitors off season and make it a family tradition to go at least once a year, sometimes twice, and see what’s blooming.

What’s Blooming?

Last week when I dropped by for an afternoon, I was delighted to see that the narcissus were opening up, that the meadows were turning yellow with daffodils and that potted miniature violet irises were gracing the Garden House. Spring is here! Any other time of the year, there’s an easy way to know what’s blooming before you go.

There’s a See what’s blooming page on the website or if you want to see a particular flower – say, you’ve named your daughter Rose or you have a fondness for sweet peas – you can browse the Blooming Calendar and plan ahead.

I have a weakness for the summer when the scent of roses and lavender lingers on in the air but it’s hard to pick a favorite time. Even the list of blooms feels like a familiar nursery rhyme: lilac, clematis, foxglove, columbine, sunflower. Would you favor one over the other? I guess the solution is to visit regularly and enjoy the passing of the seasons.

What Kids Like

After you walk through the gate next to the garden shop, the first garden your eyes see is the Sunken Garden and this is one for kids to love. Follow the red brick road around the pond and get to the edge. Now kneel down and look for tiny fishes swimming in the water. You’ll see them!

The next thing that catches your eyes is the Garden House, a sort of fairytale brick building with checkered floors, potted plants, tall French windows and two doves in a cage. When I was, girls and boys were taking turns pointing to the doves and trying to find the opening of the cage.

Now walk into the Walled Garden and make your way to the Knot Garden. This is totally one of my girls’ favorite. Best seen in bloom around late spring and the summer, it’s a garden of tricky geometrical patterns with a great history. Let me explain, quoting the Filoli Gardener’s Reference.

The Knot Garden is a unique geometrical arrangement of plants commonly associated with European gardens of the Middle Ages and Elizabethan England, where lords enjoyed their colors and patterns from castle windows.

Knot gardens were commonly designed to display royal coats of arms, figures of plants or animals, or stitches of embroidery, and the interstices would be filled with colored sand and earth (open knot, as at Filoli) or with flowers (closed knot). At Filoli,  hedges are shorn and sculpted into three-dimensional under- and overlapping woven strands creating a beautiful, intricate, undulating effect. If your kids are too short to grasp the intricacy of the garden, no worries. You can find miniature reproductions of the gardens in a square wooden pot. Clever, hey?

Another kid favorite is the High Place, a grassy yew theater looking down the succession of gardens and an alley of Iris yew trees – great spot for hide and seek or tumble time. Going down the garden, my girls like to sneak inside the Woodland Garden where bell-shaped flowers bend over gracefully next to the narrow path.

Just over the wall is the place that’ll make you wish you owned the place: the swimming pool! It’s no Hearst Castle pool but framed by these gorgeous gardens, I’ll take it any day. Too bad you can only look at it.

Of course I couldn’t put in words the rest of the gardens but last week I stayed 20 minutes looking at a blooming magnolia tree shedding its pretty pink leaves on the terrace facing the mountains. I say, it was very relaxing.

If you wonder why the gardens are so pristine and well maintained, imagine an army of 1,300 volunteers busy as bees and passionate about Filoli. These guys do most of the work!

Now, to spice up your next visit, here is a short list of upcoming events.

Upcoming Events

Seasonal events are very popular at Filoli and it’s bet to get your tickets early.

  • Friday February 22 – Sunday February 24, 2012: Opening celebration with Daffodil Dreams. See nearly a million bulbs burst into bloom in the meadows and around the mansion. Hours: Friday and Saturday, 10am to 3.30pm, Sunday 11am to 3.30pm. Free for kids age 4 and younger, fees apply for others. Read my Frog Mom post on Daffodil Dreams.
  • Saturday March 31, 2012: Spring Fling. Family fun, floral displays, hands-on activities, live music and you can sample the Filoli garden products (honey, herb mixes, vinegars). 10am – 3.30pm. Free for kids age 4 and younger, fees apply for others. You can pre-order lunch boxes.
  • Friday May 11 – Sunday May 13, 2012: Celebrate Mother’s Day with the Filoli Flower Show. Details coming up.
  • June 2012: Father’s Day event, details coming up soon.

Where to Eat?

Filoli offfers one of the rare dining options off of highway 280 and a cute little cafe where you can enjoy paninis, soups, salads and for kids a short selection of kid-friendly meals. Unfortunately picnicking is not allowed on Filoli grounds but if your child needs a snack right now, I’ve seen moms sit at the tables on the tennis court and whip out an emergency snack. Local picnic options in the area include Edgewood Park and Preserve, Wunderlich Park and Huddart Park.

Directions

Filoli is roughly 30 miles south of San Francisco. To get there, get on Highway 280 and exit at Edgewood Road. Turn towards the mountains on Edgewood Road until it ends at Cañada Road and turn right on Cañada Road. After 1.25 miles, turn left into Filoli entrance. There’s free parking by the visitor center.

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