Happiest landscapes on Earth

Special to The Times

Here’s an interesting fact: Only 100 feet divides Adventureland from Frontierland. While one land drips with banyans and bromeliads, the other sizzles with cactus and sage.

It’s within this great divide that perceptive visitors can find their own garden inspiration -- one of many masterfully conceived mini-landscapes at Disneyland whose design just might work at home.

That’s right. Now that the summertime crowds are starting to ebb, put on the mouse ears and head to Anaheim.


Aptly named horticulturist Karen Hedges, who oversees the day-to-day upkeep and artistry of the park’s gardens, provided a behind-the-scenes tour one recent morning, before the gates opened to the public. What she and her gang of nearly 150 gardeners pull off every day is nothing short of Herculean.

“It’s 6 a.m., and we just got through laying 10,000 square feet of new sod,” she notes cheerfully, adding that her crew deadheads the gardens of Disneyland, California Adventure, Downtown Disney and three Disney hotels every day.

Sure, most visitors don’t come for the landscape design, but take a look at that garden separating the entrances to Adventureland and Frontierland, and you’ll see a fantastic example of color usage, plant juxtapositions and water-wise design.

There beside a duck pond grows a deep spray of ruddy yellow rudbeckias, tawny yarrows, gaillardias, salvias, sunflowers and swaying golden fountain grasses. The sunset hues set a romantic tone, a Wild West where men crack bullwhips and madams snap garters. Some of these flowers are hot-weather annuals, whereas the grasses and sages will hold up for years to come.

In fact, using visually dynamic perennials as the bones of a garden is a classic design technique. Annual flowers can be shucked in and out as the seasons change (and they do change here, occasionally). Designing a garden with perennials first, annuals second, results in a landscape that’s almost always beautiful, easier to maintain and, because you’ll buy fewer plants as time goes by, kinder to your wallet.

The plants in this part of Disneyland are all distinctively shaped. Each one has a slightly different leaf and sends its own message to the eye. If you live in a Spanish-style bungalow or a California Craftsman, take a close look, me ‘earties, because the vibrant and expertly blended colors here are perfect for pirating.



NATURALLY, there’s more. This is Disneyland. Virtually every ride in the park comes with its own landscape look, a design that creatively overcomes the challenges of its space.

Perhaps you live in an apartment or condo, your only garden the hodgepodge selection of pots on a balcony or patio. A jaunt over to New Orleans Square provides some fine examples.

Throughout the narrow alleyways of the square are dozens upon dozens of beautifully rendered pots. Spilling and coiling from these urns are densely packed collections of begonias, variegated plectranthus, English ivies, coleus of all colors, azaleas, fuchsias and caladiums.

Each pot is a garden in its own right, abiding by a basic rule of landscape design: something spiky, something round, something dazzling, something subtle. Taken as a whole, no single pot is more dominant than another. Together, they speckle the dour, aged colors of New Orleans Square with bright, jazzy hues.

The trick to these pots is threefold: They’ve been stuffed full with fairly mature plants, they rely on the contours and colors of foliage rather than flowers to make their statement, and they grow simultaneously upward and downward, away from the confines of the pot.

There are more ideas to borrow over in Tomorrowland. As in all parts of the park, here Hedges’ crews perform the daily magic of “color call-outs,” deciding which annual flowers need to be replaced and what “instant landscaping” might be required. But it’s the people with Disney’s Imagineering unit who come up with the grand, big-picture ideas.

Imagineer Tony Baxter is credited with dreaming up Tomorrowland’s edible landscape, and if you’ve ever wondered how a hedgerow of clipped kumquats might look in your yard, this is where you’d find out. Stroll past Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters and you’ll see espaliered apples, cute rows of peppers, sheared rosemary, lavender and santolina.

Another twist and turn in the path reveals strawberries, artichokes, dwarf pomegranates and a perfectly sculpted persimmon tree.

“It took some time to figure out the best combinations in the edible gardens,” Hedges says. “Tomato plants, as any gardener knows, are not usually very ornamental. So we’ve substituted red peppers into Tony’s designs.”

Again, long-lived plants establish the structure of the garden, and annuals provide outbursts of colors and variations in plant dimensions.

It’s immensely useful to see an edible landscape in a finished form. Too often these gardens are photographed in bite-size pieces. In Tomorrowland, gardeners can appreciate the idea as a whole and more readily see how easily these plants can be incorporated at home.

The clean, French lines of the edible landscapes are also worth noting -- something one doesn’t often see in Southern California vegetable gardens.


EVEN Disneyland gardens that are a bit themey and theatrical have ideas worth borrowing. The gothic garden of the Haunted Mansion takes advantage of new hybrid colors available for familiar plants. Here, just inside the moss-green wrought-iron fencing, low-growing heucheras sport leaves in unusual shades that could be best described as dried Grey Poupon mustard and day-old lox. They bob above dark tufts of black mondo grass.

Ground covers of black ajuga and vermilion ipomoea trail around headstones. Small weeping mulberries, contorted willows and shimmering coprosma serve as the garden’s midsize plants, while dappled sunlight falls through classic Southern magnolia trees arched overhead.

The Haunted Mansion’s garden may be one of the most cleverly planted arrangements you will see. If you were to swap the colors of the plants -- say, trade the washed-out heucheras for ones in vibrant Cabernet colors, switch the ajugas to variegated pinks and greens, and change the ipomeas to purple and pinks -- you would have created a garden that was traditionally beautiful. The color palette that visitors see here does create a forlorn sense of decay, but the shapes and combinations of leaf and branch are what make this garden worth studying.

The list of such lessons here is long. There are the tropical gardens in Adventureland, perfect for a poolside landscape.

Around the darker rides in Fantasyland, you’ll find wonderfully coifed boxwood hedges and thick plantings of traditional European annual flowers. Expansive succulent gardens emulate underwater seascapes near Ariel’s Grotto and the new Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage. Nicely crafted gardens featuring California native plants await in Downtown Disney.

As Hedges’ morning tour stops at the animal topiaries crafted along the banks of It’s a Small World, one of the lead landscape gardeners, Mike Buhrmester, pauses to report that the blue lobelia he had been planting is rife with hookworm.

Hedges immediately asks which grower supplied the plants, and she and Buhrmester quickly figure out how to stretch their resources and still make the garden Disney-worthy. It takes all of a minute for them to devise a solution.

That, she says, is her wisest secret for creating a wonderful landscape. “We just try our best,” she says, leading the way to the next garden on the map. “It always seems to work out.”

In other words, relax. Don’t fuss. Have fun. That is the golden garden rule.


Tony Kienitz is author of “The Year I Ate My Yard.” Send comments to