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Getty's constant gardener

Richard Naranjo knows the elaborate Mediterranean flora of J. Paul Getty's villa better than anyone. He planted it, spent his life tending it -- and is sprucing it up for a second act.

January 12, 2006|Christy Hobart | Special to The Times

IT was 1973, and eccentric billionaire Jean Paul Getty was planning an ambitious folly for his property in the Palisades: a precise replica of Villa dei Papiri, a grand home destroyed in Herculaneum in AD 79, that would house his collection of Greek and Roman antiquities. He hired the architectural firm of Langdon Wilson to create the villa, and noted landscape architects Emmet Wemple and Denis Kurutz to design the 64 acres around it. The landscaping firm Moulder Brothers was to execute the installation, and 27-year-old foreman Richard Naranjo was to supervise.

With ancient Roman gardens as their guide, designers envisioned a Getty Villa that looked like it came from the Italian coast 2,000 years ago: an intimate inner courtyard with a reflecting pool; a formal outer peristyle garden with covered walkways, hedged paths and a long, rectangular pool; a walled garden; and an herb garden. Every plant on the plan was chosen to be as faithful as possible to the Villa dei Papiri's.

It was the job of Naranjo and his crew to track down and plant the flora, from the common (oleander, bay laurel and boxwood) to the unusual (Serbian bellflower, butcher's broom and medlar trees) -- all under intense scrutiny. J. Paul Getty wanted every detail executed precisely, says Stephen Garrett, a London architect at the time and Getty's liaison during the construction. "Not just the building, but the surroundings and the feeling," says Garrett, who went on to become J. Paul Getty Museum's first director. "Getty was extremely interested in the gardens."

Because the building already had been erected, Naranjo had to devise a way to get massive amounts of soil into the enclosed courtyards. The solution? A conveyor belt set up through a window. Grown trees were brought in that way too, as were about 3,500 boxwood plants. "I planted quite a few of those," Naranjo says with understatement.

Decades later, and after a nine-year closure for renovation, the villa is set to reopen Jan. 28. And the man who has overseen the planting, the pruning, the watering and the raking of J. Paul Getty's folly near Malibu is preparing for the next stage of his own life: retirement.

More than 30 years at the villa have yielded some colorful stories, all of which can be traced back to the day when, as the installation of the garden was coming to an end, Naranjo heard that J. Paul Getty was looking to hire someone to maintain the newly landscaped grounds. Naranjo interviewed with Garrett three times in a drawn-out process that involved regular updates with Getty, who was living in England.

In the last meeting, feeling a little exasperated and really wanting the job, Naranjo asked, "Listen, who better can maintain this garden? After all, I did most of the plantings and the installation." After consulting with Getty one last time, Garrett, who believed the choice was "obvious" from the start, hired Naranjo as head gardener.

"When I first started, Getty's personal gardener, who'd retired, would come around about once a month," Naranjo, now 60, says in his soft, low voice. "He'd say, 'See that tree? I planted that about 15 or 20 years ago.' Now, I'm doing the same thing."

Naranjo, tanned face shadowed by his always present Getty Grounds Department baseball cap, walks around the villa with an air of proprietorship. With more than half of his life spent in these hills, he has the right.

In the herb garden ("It really should be called a 'kitchen garden,' " Naranjo notes), he climbs a short, steep, chamomile-covered knoll with the careful pace of a man who has survived a heart attack. His footsteps release a wonderful flowery scent until he stops at an unimpressive looking tree with shriveled fruit hanging from its branches.

"I'm very proud of this," he says, touching a limb. "It's a medlar. It's very typically Roman and it's very hard to find." The fruit, he says, is somewhat bitter. Although it is appropriate in this garden, the olive trees, Naranjo concedes, are not. "They should be a fruiting variety. But I knew people would walk on the dropped fruit, then track them into the museum floors."

He points out capers growing on the stone wall, and basil plants. "I always thought that cilantro was from Mexico," he says, shaking his head as he moves on. "But it comes from the Mediterranean. The Romans used it for medicinal and spiritual reasons. Same with ruta. I thought crushing it and putting it in the ear was just a Mexican remedy for earaches that my mother knew, but the Romans used it too."

A love and understanding of plants are in Naranjo's blood. His father, brother and son are in the business. Trees seem able to talk to him, to tell him if they're lacking a certain mineral, or which of their branches should be pruned. But his deep knowledge of specific flora -- those that grow, and have grown for thousands of years, in the Mediterranean -- was learned at the Getty, talking and reading about plants.

Naranjo has learned a lot about non-horticultural matters on the job too.

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