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As the Romans Did : Malibu: The villa that houses the J. Paul Getty Museum is surrounded by classical gardens of plants that might actually have grown in Imperial Rome.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Michael DeHart oversees the irises at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Not Van Gogh’s famous painted ones that hang inside, but the splendid living ones that grow in three of its five Roman-style gardens.

The late oil tycoon hated the modern concrete-bunker school of museum architecture. Instead, he decided to build a Roman-style villa based on a real villa that was buried in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79, to house his collections. From the beginning, plants that might actually have grown by the sea in Imperial Rome were part of Getty’s eccentric grand plan for Malibu.

Like its classical model, the Getty has its topiarii, as the Romans called their master gardeners, to nurture its plants. But Getty gardeners have concerns their Roman counterparts never dreamed of, including making sure the plants are historically appropriate and saving water in a California drought.

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DeHart, 29, is the museum’s new horticulturist. A graduate of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, DeHart did a stint among the topiary Goofys and Snow Whites of Walt Disney World, installing plants for special events, before he arrived at the Getty in April.

A resident of Brentwood, DeHart arrives at the Getty every weekday morning at 7. His first duty is to walk all five of the gardens, clippers and notebook at the ready, scrutinizing the evergreens, flowers and other plants for evidence of droop, trampling and other vegetative crises. Hundreds of species of plants grow on the 60-acre site.

A Roman-style garden is feasible in Malibu because the climate is so similar to that of the Italian coast. Herculaneum, where the model for the museum, Villa dei Papiri, stood, was even earthquake-prone. Caesar would feel right at home with the olive and fig trees at the museum, the oleanders, bays and myrtles, the beds of sweet mint and sharp-scented rosemary. There are also pink damask roses, one of DeHart’s favorites, despite their tendency to develop powdery mildew in the damp air.

“It’s about as fragrant as any rose I’ve ever smelled,” he says. “It’s a rose the way roses were before they were played with.”

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After inspecting his charges, DeHart alerts the gardening staff of 15 (11 in winter) to any horticultural emergencies. He reduces the complex tasks of keeping a world-class garden lovely year-round to a series of work schedules.

DeHart, who has loved horticulture since he tended African violets and worked the family kitchen garden as a child, says there are multiple satisfactions to the job. There are the sensual pleasures of working in a beautiful place by the sea. There is the joy of problem-solving, experienced recently when he found a safe pesticide to zap the white fly that has been plaguing the pomegranates.

And there is the satisfaction of grappling with concerns unique to horticulture at the Getty.

Take the irises. Most of the irises in the museum’s main peristyle garden (the large rectangular area that runs forward toward the ocean from the display galleries) are what DeHart calls “Van Gogh blue.” They are both the shade of the flowers in the museum’s most famous acquisition--"Irises"--and the color of the species form of the plant, which the ancients knew and named after the goddess of the rainbow. But the garden also has burgundy-colored irises, a modern variety developed after 1800. The red irises are lovely, but as anachronistic in the classical Getty gardens as a digital alarm clock. They are slated for removal.

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The authenticity of the gardens is important to the Getty, which is why there is no bougainvillea despite the fact that it thrives both in Southern California and modern Italy.

The gardens are more than a setting for the Getty’s antiquities. They are a context, and the staff labors to make them as accurate in their own way as the museum’s display signs. The catch is that no one now knows exactly what a Roman garden was like, although there are clues in ancient frescoes, classical writings and archeological remains. Dennis Kurutz, a Pasadena landscape architect who designed the gardens in the early 1970s and now serves as a consultant to the museum, says the accuracy of the plantings are an ongoing concern.

He cites the main peristyle garden as an example. Based on his research, he says, “I made the assumption that Roman gardens would have been very structured and ordered.” As a result, the peristyle garden has symmetrical rows of bay laurel trees that might have been cloned and carefully balanced boxwood hedges on either side of the central pool. The effect is a little static for Kurutz’s own taste, he says, but it reflects his best historical guess at the time.

Since then, he’s learned from archeologists that the Romans included impulsive touches in their gardens, not unlike modern gardeners who fall in love at the nursery Sunday afternoon and have to have some pretty plant, symmetry be damned. “Those gardens wouldn’t have been quite as structured as that,” says Kurutz, who is exploring ways to add calculated spontaneity to the peristyle garden.

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Other refinements are under consideration. Roman gardeners liked to train and trim plants into artificial shapes, called topiary. They would sometimes spell out their names in boxwood hedges--a kind of living graffiti--and they recreated battle scenes and chariot races in their greenery. The Getty decided to stick with simple geometric topiary when the gardens were installed, Kurutz says, in part because Getty was still alive and had given no indication that he was going to endow the institution as lavishly as he did. But now more more ambitious topiary shapes, lions perhaps, could be phased in.

Accuracy doesn’t always triumph, even at the Getty. Paths that would have been simply packed dirt in ancient times were paved to protect museum objects from dust. And Kurutz had hoped to see the villa surrounded with Roman-style meadows, not the lawns, as manicured as golf courses, that now exist. He even specified appropriate plants for the meadows, including that old Roman favorite, the dandelion. Ironically, he says, the public has complained whenever the museum has experimented with letting an area get authentically scruffy, often with barbed remarks about the institution’s having enough money to mow the lawn.

Authenticity is always on DeHart’s mind, as he circumambulates the gardens. In choosing plants, he says, he asks himself three questions: Is it Roman, when does it bloom and how thirsty is it? Knowing a plant’s blooming cycle is key to keeping the gardens perennially attractive. And drought resistance is both a horticultural and a social issue.

In the spring, the museum called for a cutback on water use. DeHart was asked to trim 10%. By cutting back just over 20% on water for hillsides and other non-museum areas, he has enough to keep the five museum gardens, which are hand-watered, looking their best. Whenever possible, he says, plants such as pearlwort that need a lot of water are being replaced with equally authentic plants that are drought resistant, such as lamb’s ears.

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The museum’s potted plants are also getting by with less since a special water-retaining polymer was mixed with the soil in the containers.

Propagation of plants is one of DeHart’s most important duties, not only to save money but because many of the varieties are not readily available in this country. DeHart says he had never even seen a medlar--a small tree that produces bitter, apple-like fruit--until he arrived at the Getty. After the museum’s two medlars finish fruiting, he’ll take tip cuttings in hopes of multiplying them.

Modern scientific horticulture is only part of the picture for DeHart. In the half-ancient world in which he gardens, plants are one of life’s essential mysteries, food for the stomach, the eye and the mind. Old beliefs live on, particularly in the herb garden, a favorite with visitors.

Herbs had religious significance for the Greeks and Romans and were also valued as cures. Garlic, for instance, was thought to be an aphrodisiac and to ward off snakes. Richard Naranjo, head of grounds at the Getty, was born in Mexico, where his mother treated his childhood earaches in a manner the Romans would have approved of, with rue. “She’d crush it and mix it with olive oil and put it in our ears on a piece of cotton,” he says.

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DeHart’s grandmother in Pennsylvania Amish country made comfrey and borage teas for colds. “She also gave us baby aspirins,” he recalls.

The staff are allowed to do some restrained harvesting in the herb garden. “They keep the basil in check,” says DeHart, who is brought the occasional gift of pesto by a grateful colleague. Getty-raised dill sometimes appears in dishes served in the museum tea room. DeHart has been known to bring dill home to season stir-fry vegetables and sprinkle over salmon.

There are moments on the job, DeHart says, when the classical world seems more real to him than Southern California, with its smog, traffic and other not-so-civilized discontents. You can sometimes time-travel through the gardens.

“At 7 o’clock in the morning, when no one is here and there’s nothing to distract me, it’s easy to think of what this must have been like when slaves were doing this work and there was just one family living here--one very rich family.”

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