Featured Garden | Rancho Los Cerritos Historic Site
By Marie Barnidge-McIntyre
In landscape history, 1890-1940 is considered the golden age of gardening. Those who had the funds were creating major gardens. Llewellyn Bixby, born and raised in California, was keenly aware of the state’s resources. Llewellyn was descended from the Bixbys, who purchased Rancho Los Cerritos in 1866 to raise sheep on the land. They later subdivided the 27,000-acre property to create the City of Long Beach. Llewellyn Bixby purchased a parcel of just under five acres surrounding the old adobe and renovated the house for his personal home in the late 1920s.
Popular plants of the day were combined with California natives. This was uncommon as most native plants’ cultural needs were not well understood.
Despite the stock market crash, he and his wife Avis hired noted landscape architect Ralph D. Cornell to design the estate garden in 1931. Having a home on the top of a hill can often provide enchanting views. In 1931, the Bixbys’ view was of the developing communities – interspersed with working oilrigs. Cornell designed a buffer zone of plants to direct the eye upwards. The green canopies not only screened the view but also dampened the sounds. This densely planted zone followed the driveway to the service yard and extended to the unfenced property line.
In selecting the plant material, Cornell combined popular plants of the day with California natives. This was uncommon as most native plants’ cultural needs were not well understood. Cornell however, was an early advocate of using native plants and he found a kindred spirit in Llewellyn, a Sierra Club member who appreciated California’s native flora.
Historic home to museum
When the City of Long Beach acquired the Rancho in 1955 to turn the historic home into a museum, they eliminated a large swath of the buffer zone to create a parking lot.
Later, parking moved off site and a visitor center was built in its place. The remaining buffer zone was converted into three distinct gardens: the entry, the arroyo and visitor center gardens (2012), and the California native garden (2015), which contains a mix of natives and historic “exotics” from Cornell’s original garden plan.
The entry garden is outside the gates and fence line. At the gate, a pedestrian path runs alongside the crest of the arroyo. At the top of the path is the visitor center, with minimal landscaping. The native garden is more riparian in nature, based upon the historic sycamore’s needs. It features a looping pathway with low curving retaining walls, and a flight of stairs to gain access to the drive.
Another feature is the dry streambed near the property line. The cobbled streambed was installed by volunteers in the 1970s and improved in the 1990s. The goal then was to reduce erosion caused by run off from the paved parking lot. The streambed has evolved to contain runoff in deep, wide basins during heavy rains. This retained water stays on site and is absorbed into the soil.
Llewellyn Bixby’s thoughtful restoration of both the adobe house and the gardens have inspired countless visitors to this National and State Historic Landmark, but the story of the native garden restoration is just once piece of the history expressed through Rancho Los Cerritos’ gardens.
For more information, visit www.rancholoscerritos.org, or visit us at 4600 Virginia Road in Long Beach during open hours, Wednesdays through Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m.
Marie Barnidge-McIntyre is the staff horticulturist for Rancho Los Cerritos in Long Beach, California, and did the majority of the research on trees for the restoration of the historic orchard there. She also operates Gardens by Design, a consulting firm, from her home in Thousand Oaks, California.