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.