Restoration of Tor House Gardens

In 1919, the American poet, Robinson Jeffers and his wife Una built Tor House on Carmel’s windswept coast, calling it their “inevitable place.” Both he and Una valued their natural surroundings, particularly the wildflowers.

Through his poetry, Jeffers became known as an environmentalist. A forester by education, he planted literally thousands of trees on their property and in the area.

Una was more involved with social activities and letter writing, but she planted roses, fragrant herbs, geraniums, and other flowering plants. Her list of “Tor House Plantings” (1934) is available today at the Tor House. Una also appreciated the native wildflowers that grew abundantly around their home, calling the spectacle her “mille fleur tapestry.”

In 1946, their son, Donnan, brought his new wife, Lee, to Tor House, and they soon added to the garden. After 1950, after Una died, Lee designed an English-style cottage garden and planted numerous roses and heirloom plants with fragrant blooms. Her garden was often appreciated in magazine articles in the 1980s and 1990s.

Lee continued to tend the garden even after the founding of the Tor House Foundation in 1978. In the early 1990s, the Foundation’s gardener, Margot Grych, made a drawing of the garden’s layout and listed its many roses and other plants. Volunteer Pauline Allen prepared a garden manual with a complete record of the plantings as of Lee’s death in 1999.

Since then, the Foundation has maintained the garden without a restoration plan. Today’s volunteers, including Master Gardener Kathleen Sonntag, are studying the records of the Tor House gardens, and beginning a systematic restoration process.

The goals of this work begin with recreating the rose beds by cultivating the original plants that are still in the garden—or starting cuttings from them—and searching for specimens of the heirloom roses that grew once in the garden.

Also, the project is adding bright yellow and orange flowers and fragrant herbs that Una liked so much, as well as blue iris, lavender, wallflower, sweet alyssum, lion’s tail and other plants that the records list. One challenge is to replant asphodels, which Una mentioned in a letter. This is most likely the White Asphodel (Asphodelus aestivus) from the Mediterranean basin.

Another goal is to restore wildflower display on the slope from the house down to Scenic Road, to represent Una’s “mille fleur tapestry.” Simply withholding irrigation will allow eventual domination by California native flowering shrubs and annuals.

This project has all the principal motivations for garden restoration: revealing the historical cultural of the original garden, restoring an exceptional landscape, and enriching the biography of the prominent owners.

Visit the Tor House website occasionally to follow the progress of this historic garden renovation.

Garden Restoration

One day in the spring, not long ago, I visited one of Carmel’s treasures: the National Historic Landmark known as Tor House. This was the home from 1918 to 1962 of the poet Robinson Jeffers and his remarkable wife Una, who was with him until she passed on in 1950. I encourage readers to learn of Robinson’s and Una’s fascinating lives. Today, however, we address the restoration of the Tor House gardens.

Before describing that project, I will share a bit about garden restoration. This work involves recreating—as the extent possible—a garden’s design as it existed during an earlier, significant period. The principal motivations for garden restoration are

  • to reveal the historical culture of the original garden,
  • to restore an exceptional landscape (by the owner or a designer), or
  • to enrich the biography of the prominent owner(s) of the garden.

Garden restoration is closely related to garden conservation (i.e., maintaining a noteworthy garden), and less closely related to garden rehabilitation (which might or might not include the garden’s original features) and garden reconstruction (which might replicate a typical garden of a given period). The U.S. Secretary of the Interior recognizes these four garden treatments, so you know they are official!

Proper restoration projects depend upon drawings or photographs of the garden’s design or lists of its plants or both. Securing such documentation can be challenging, since residential garden designs commonly lack a visual chronicle, and plant lists routinely change over time as the original gardener adds, subtracts, multiplies or divides plants, or presides over their sad demise.

When working with detailed garden records, however rare, the restorer typically seeks historic cultivars that are difficult or impossible to find in the contemporary marketplace.

Because of such issues, restoration projects often become creative art, in which the restorer replaces missing information with deduction, extrapolation, and educated guesswork, and represents long-gone heritage plants with near—or distant—relatives.

Still, garden restoration can be an intriguing and enjoyable enterprise, comparable to solving a mystery, untangling a puzzle, or tracing a family tree.

Like all gardening, restoration projects proceed slowly as the restorer unearths facts, searches for plants, and decides next steps, and as plants grow to complete the picture.

Now, the preamble has postponed the story. For next week’s column, we will proceed to the restoration of the gardens of Tor House. Meanwhile, visit the Tor House website for the rich “back story,” and perhaps find time to visit the Tor House itself. The website has all required information.

Also, if you are considering your own garden restoration project, you might enjoy a brief historical perspective: visit the website of the Smithsonian Institution, click on “Collections & Research” and then “Garden History Timeline.”

Saving the Bees

The puzzle of recent years—what’s killing the bees?—appears to be close to solution.

Scientists have said that the cause of the bees’ mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) could be a combination of factors. The possible explanations, however, always include uses of pesticides that have some beneficial effects in agriculture, but that are toxic to both bumblebees and honeybees.

Both kinds of bees are essential to the success of about one-third of U.S. food crops. As the bees die, our food supply is subject to very serious threat.

Increasingly, the focus is on neonicotinoids, a class of chemicals that are used as systemic insecticides in both commercial agriculture and residential gardening.

This year, an estimated 500,000 bees were found dead or dying in Oregon. Ironically enough, this largest known incident of bumblebee deaths, occurred during National Pollinator Week, an annual celebration of the valuable ecosystem services provided by bees, birds, butterflies, bats and beetles.

The Oregon Department of Agriculture soon confirmed that a neonicotinoid insecticide, dinoterfuran, caused the bee die-off and announced a temporary ban on its applications on landscape trees and shrubs, nursery and greenhouse plants, turf grass, forests and agricultural crops.”

Despite the growing evidence of the negative impact of these pesticides on bee populations, and the European Commission’s continent-wide suspension of neonicotinoids, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been looking for other explanations of CCD and has established a 2018 deadline for completing its reviews of the major neonicotinoids.

Earlier this year, commercial beekeepers and environmental groups petitioned the EPA to suspend uses of these pesticides, and, early in July 2013, a coalition of environmental groups urged President Obama to direct the EPA to follow the European Commission’s lead by suspending uses of neonicotinoids.

This is high drama, indeed, with great consequences for our food supply and our gardens as well. There are of course several sides to significant issues, and this one is no different. Restricting applications of widely used synthetic chemical pesticides will impact farmers’ practices and constrict the revenue streams for manufacturers of agricultural chemicals. It will be interesting to see what arguments they will devise to justify the systematic killing of a critically important group of farmworkers: the honeybees.

To help save the bees, do your homework.

• Download and read “Bee Protective Habitat Guide” (www.beyond This free publication provides information on CCD and pollinator-friendly flowers.

• Download and read “Help the Honeybees: A List of Pesticides to Avoid”  ( This is another free publication with a surprising list of popular pesticides that contain neonicotinoids.

• Take the Pesticide-Free Zone Pledge and post a Pesticide-Free Zone sign in your garden ( Bees and other beneficial insects) will thank you!


Here are several websites with up-to-date information on CCD and related topics, e.g., pesticides.

Beyond Pesticides

Center for Food Safety

Melissa Garden

The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation

Pacific Horticulture’s “Pollinators: An information and Action Guide for West Coast Gardeners” (scroll to the end of the article to click on “Pollinator Projects for Citizen Scientists”

Here is a 4:25 video clip of Nature’s pollinators at work: The Beauty of Pollination.