The Old Mill

By: Pamela Waterman

Pamela Waterman is a freelance writer who gardens in Pasadena, California. She has written frequently about gardens and gardeners in…

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Entry terrace at The Old Mill, San Marino. Author’s photographs

Entry terrace at The Old Mill, San Marino. Author’s photographs

The garden at the Old Mill in the upscale community of San Marino has become an island of environmental sanity in the green sea of wasteful, heavily watered lawns of surrounding homes. A handsome brick wall encloses the historic structure and garden while an ancient pepper tree (Schinus molle) and groups of century plant (Agave americana) announce to the visitor that this property is in harmony with its present and its past.

The structure known as the Old Mill dates from the early decades of the 1800s, perhaps 1816, during California’s mission days. The two-story building was originally designed as a gristmill for Mission San Gabriel, located two miles to the southeast. The lower walls are five feet thick, composed of oven-baked brick and volcanic tuff. Despite its sturdy construction, the mill operated only a few years before a newer mill was added to the mission grounds in 1823. The San Marino mill then became known as “El Molino Viejo” and by 1860 it had been completely transformed into a pleasant residence with a 500-acre garden, vineyard, and orchard.

Henry E Huntington’s Land Improvement Company purchased the property in 1903 and adapted it for use as a golf course clubhouse for the Huntington Hotel, which opened nearby in 1914. Ownership of the Old Mill property, now approximately two acres, passed back into individual hands in 1927 and, after extensive restoration, the building was again used as a private residence. During this period, landscape architect Katherine Bashford designed a garden for the Old Mill that looked to the Mission era for inspiration. Mr and Mrs James Brehm deeded the property to the city of San Marino in 1962, to be preserved as an historic landmark. For many years, it served as the Southern California headquarters of the California Historical Society. In 1995, the Old Mill Foundation, a non-profit support group, was established to maintain and operate the building that now serves as its headquarters.

Echoes of a Past Era

Because of its many uses over the years, virtually none of the surrounding garden dates back to the original construction of the mill. However, a few coast live oaks (Quercus agrifolia) with deeply furrowed bark in a shady grove alongside the entrance may be as old as the building itself.

Even so, visitors may find themselves transported back in time as they stroll along the path leading into the garden. The oaks grow in a heavy mulch of fallen leaves; birdsong and the sounds of leaves whispering in the wind mute the noise from suburban neighbors. Perhaps it’s the contrast between the manicured landscapes of nearby homes and the semi-natural grounds that makes a visit to the Old Mill seem so authentic. Though the garden that visitors step into today dates mainly from modern times in design and planting, it feels very much like we imagine the gardens of Early California to have looked. Many of the plants are edible, many more are natives, and almost all are decidedly drought tolerant.

A volunteer group from the Diggers Garden Club of Pasadena now designs, plants, and maintains the garden. The relationship is a natural one, since three members have lived in the Old Mill. Club members were already involved in garden upkeep when the city of San Marino was in charge, and they took the lead role in re-landscaping the property with a drought-tolerant plant palette. Following budget cuts resulting from State Proposition 13 in 1978 (which significantly reduced local tax revenues), club members assumed responsibility for all garden maintenance expenses.

Volunteers have continued to expand the garden with members donating teak benches, the trees of the north citrus orchard, and a drip irrigation system. Each week, two or three members donate a few hours of maintenance time and the club pays for professional gardeners to complete heavier tasks and tree trimming. Each spring the Diggers stage a luncheon and auction of interesting potted plants to raise funds for arborists, garden help, and irrigation maintenance.

Yellow Lady Banks rose (Rosa banksiae ‘Lutea’) covers the wooden Doerr Arbor, named for Harriet Doerr, author; former resident, and donor of the eighteenth-century stone font on the right

Yellow Lady Banks rose (Rosa banksiae ‘Lutea’) covers the wooden Doerr Arbor, named for Harriet Doerr, author; former resident, and donor of the eighteenth-century stone font on the right

A Garden Stroll

As visitors approach the garden they find two native currants at the entry gate, thriving in the shade of nearby Torrey pines (Pinus torreyana). Chaparral currant (Ribes malvaceum) is native to California’s coastal ranges whereas the more compact evergreen currant (Ribes viburnifolium) originates on Catalina Island. The familiar and locally native toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), with its dark green leaves and bright red winter berries, has achieved tree-like stature in the same entry area. Several more toyons appear in other parts of the garden.

Two large climbing Lady Banks roses (Rosa banksiae ‘Lutea’) have spread their canes over a wooden arbor in the patio and display a dazzling cap of yellow flowers in spring. Named the Doerr Arbor, it honors Pasadena resident Harriet Doerr, author of Stones of Ibarra, who lived in the Old Mill in the 1930s as a young bride.

A bed of coral bells (Heuchera sanguineum) in the shade of oaks

A bed of coral bells (Heuchera sanguineum) in the shade of oaks

From the patio a path winds around and down a gentle slope to the lower garden. Hundreds of callas (Zantedeschia aethiopica) brighten up the southwest corner of the garden beneath a large walnut (Juglans californica). The demure western redbud (Cercis occidentalis), also grows in this semi-shaded section. A field of coral bells (Heuchera sanguinea), bush anemone (Carpenteria californica), and Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha) provide a long season of color under the limbs of a California live oak (Quercus agrifolia). The coral bells are particularly happy with the conditions and have spread well beyond their original planting area.

Velvet groundsel (Senecio petasitis)

Velvet groundsel (Senecio petasitis)

Japanese wisteria (Wisteria floribunda) grows along one edge of the brick wall that encloses the garden. As the path slopes down through the dappled shade of another large live oak, a showy group of velvet groundsel (Senecio petasitis) impedes the path with huge heads of yellow flowers. Various other trees, such as madrone (Arbutus menziesii) and peach (Prunus persica), grow near the path, which is composed of a mixture of rototilled native soil and dry cement. The path curves enough to mitigate the steepness of the slope, and the surface is firm enough for wheelchair use, allowing disabled visitors to access both lower and upper gardens.

At the foot of the path a flowering quince (Chaenomeles japonica) deflects visitors to the left into a citrus orchard that takes advantage of the sunniest quarter of the garden. The presence of an oversized white house on the far side of the enclosing fence is a distracting element at this point in the garden. One of the Diggers’s most recent projects is a planting of bays (Laurus nobilis) along the eastern edge of the property to eventually screen out the neighboring home and reestablish a sense of privacy in the garden.

At this point there are two attractive vistas. To the left is a citrus grove with lemons, limes, and oranges. The most fragrant is a large Valencia orange planted at the intersection of two paths, one of which leads back to the upper patio. The second view features a dozen or more pomegranates (Punica granatum) with decades’ worth of twisted growth on their trunks; they cast wonderfully bizarre shadows in the late afternoon sun.

Focal point of the lower patio is an eigtheenth-century Mexican fountain

Focal point of the lower patio is an eigtheenth-century Mexican fountain

The Lower Garden

Down a few steps, the visitor encounters a large bricked courtyard area adjacent to the bottom floor of the Old Mill building. In the Katherine Bashford garden design of the 1920s, this part of the garden consisted of formal beds with decomposed granite paths. Now, this pleasant bricked area is the spot where events connected with the Old Mill Foundation are held. The courtyard is graced by Ceanothus ‘Concha’ in side planters and Santa Barbara daisy (Erigeron karvinskianus) at each edge. Another vigorous climbing Lady Banks rose ornaments the building wall. An eighteenth-century baptismal font, donated by Harriet Doerr, is a focal point of the patio area. Behind the font, a large bronze loquat (Eriobotrya deflexa) has obviously occupied the space for many decades, as its upper branches are level with the second story of the mill.

Ceanothus impressus against the wall of The Old Mill

Ceanothus impressus against the wall of The Old Mill

The St Francis patio on the western side of the Old Mill was an early Diggers project. Members found roof tiles left over from the original construction of the Huntington Library and used them as bed edgings. The river rock in the hardscape was hand picked by Florence Banning, an active member when the Diggers first began caring for the garden. A donated statue of St Francis sits in a corner with pride of Madeira (Echium candicans) along one wall. The patio still shows the structural outlines of the original cistern into which water was channeled from the canyons above to operate the waterwheel and turn the millstones. After the mill fell into disuse, the millstones disappeared. A century later, General George S Patton, who grew up in the area, found the stones on the grounds of the Huntington Library. They are now displayed in the entrance patio directly in front of the rose pergola.

Other favored drought-tolerant plants, including California natives, Mexican imports, and specimens from other mediterranean climates, are scattered throughout the garden. Visitors can find madrone, rock rose (Cistus), native iris (Iris douglasiana), olives (Olea europaea), Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri), and more selections of ceanothus and sage. Most plants in the garden have identifying labels.

With plant donations and advice from Susan Jett of Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, the Diggers Garden Club has helped to create and maintain a garden that is in harmony with its early California origins. The Old Mill garden also illustrates the power that results from massing plants that are appropriate to their site.

Visitors will find attractive plants that are suitable for both shady and sunny areas and that require minimum maintenance. At the Old Mill garden, it is possible to be transported back to a time when choosing water-wise plants was a necessity, not an option.