Attack of The San Francisco Flower and Garden Show (*Or How I Created a Show Garden And Lived To Tell About It: Part I)

Rejoice garden lovers! The San Francisco Flower and Garden Show is almost upon us. You are probably overjoyed and giddy, right? But me…? It gives me sweaty palms and an irregular heartbeat just thinking about it.

Yes, I love the S.F. garden show and look forward to it every year (like lots of other plant-lovin’ peeps from around the country). But the reason for my gut-rolling reaction is deeper than that: two years ago I shocked myself by saying “yes” to creating a five-hundred-square-foot display garden for the show. I can’t help but relive the experience when this time of year comes back around.

Flash back to nine months before the 2010 show: I scheduled a meeting with Kay Estey, the show’s producer. I nervously presented her with my concept plan for a teeny, tiny 50-square foot, New Orleans-themed “pocket garden”. I guess she liked my little idea, because she then asked if I would consider turning it into a full-on, juried show garden. As in, one that was to be front and center on the show floor, judged by a panel of industry experts. Uh, come again?? The thought of designing and building a whole garden space that would be one of the show’s featured gardens, walked through by thousands of people, and, holy crap, judged…ohmygod. I felt sick all the way home. Yet I knew what my answer had to be.

I had no clue what I was doing. Designing a garden for a show like this is not like designing a regular garden. A show garden has to be more theatrical, more over-the-top, more everything. No one comes to garden shows to see boring stuff they could see on a stroll through their ‘hood. To make matters worse, I had no one lined up to help me build this thing. I naively thought that I could ramshackle this sucker together myself. What an idiot. I was dead.


I started to obsess about it. I mean freakishly obsess, and not in a good way. I started sleeping an average of three hours a night. The rest of each night was spent rolling around, wide awake, drenched in sweat, nerves taking over: “I’m going to fail miserably and everyone will see what a shitty designer I really am.” And the nightly, “What the hell was I thinking?” Or I would be awake thinking of stuff to include, of what needed to still get done, of problem-solving. At any rate, I lost a lot of sleep in those nine months. Did I mention that at the time, I was also in college finishing my second degree, running a design business, and managing a household of teenagers? I’m getting queasy just remembering the logistics of it. Ooooooh, shudder.


The one comforting thought that I had through the process was this: I was madly IN LOVE with the little garden that I was envisioning. I imagined an enchanted courtyard space at twilight, one that was firmly Californian in nature, but resonated with the soul of New Orleans. The city is pure magic to me. I love the paradoxical nature of the place–the absurdity, the grit, the kitsch, the funky architecture, the soulful food and music, the celebration of life, the preoccupation with death. I appreciate even the dirty, ugly parts of it. I knew that if I created a garden that I was head-over-heels for–my soul’s true garden—then at least I was making something that would enjoy. If other people enjoyed it…well, I guess that would be cool, too.




Just Don’t Call It “Whimsical!”

It’s been a pretty bad work week for me, and it’s times like these—when I’m ready to go into full mental-meltdown, panic-attack mode—that I appreciate stuff that makes me laugh. Life (at least on good days) is funny and random and silly—and I love when the environment around me reminds me of this precious fact.

Humor and silliness in a garden usually ends up walking a fine line. I prefer just a hint of cheekiness in a garden. I think too many garden spaces go too far to the extremes: they either take themselves too seriously (think stark, ultra-modern design), or they are over-the-top cutesy/barfy/”whimsical” (think creepy statues of children frolicking, oversized butterflies, and nearly any garden art purchased from an art and wine festival). Hell, I don’t even like the word “whimsical.” For some reason, it gives me the heebie jeebies.

Adding humor to your outdoor spaces is therapeutic. If it makes people smile, then it’s probably a good thing. Unless you have really bad taste. I once had a next-door neighbor who thought it was “cute” to fill a couple of old toilets with plants and put them on display in her front yard. Uhhhh, no. Not cute. Not funny. Not even close.

I’ve compiled a little collection of photos (from my yard and beyond) that inject a bit of the unexpected, the silly, and the slightly ironic into the garden. Sometimes we all need a reminder to lighten up, quit taking life so seriously, and laugh a little.

This tiki guy is from a garage sale. I gave him a succulent 'fro. He's kind of a stalker, always watching, watching.

Crawfish are a pretty cool and strange addition to a water feature. Got it in New Orleans. Brought him home on the plane with me, which drew funny looks all-around.

This is part of the fountain that stands in front of the Pantheon in Rome. Even the Romans have a sense of humor.

This was part of a stone wall built by Mariposa Gardening and Design for the 2011 San Francisco Flower and Garden Show. This would be a funny little element in an otherwise serious garden.

God, I love this garden. Why didn't I think of this first? The juxtaposition of the stripes and the giraffe and the color: scrumptious and funny, too.

This vintage detergent bucket was a major score of mine. I especially love the reference to Monsanto on the bottom. "Where creative chemistry works wonders for you." Phhhhbbbbttttt.

And what's the funniest thing you can put in your garden? Why, a pug, of course. They are hilarious, and quite the cheeky little monkeys.

Succulents That Don’t Suck in Winter

Succulents are my one true love (sorry, honey). Even though everyone is now drinking the succulent Kool-Aid and they’ve become more ubiquitous and overexposed than the Kardashians—I still covet them, design with them, and plant them with abandon.

Succulents are the ultimate in no-fuss plants.  That is, until the winter season hits. We all know that (blah blah blah)—succulents are filled with water which will freeze once the temperature drops. This will cause your once-pretty little plant to suddenly look like something the Swamp Thing smeared behind him when he came crawling out of his marshy bog.

We also know that, if a succulent has marginal hardiness, you’re supposed to venture out into the icy night and cover up your precious babies before the frost descends. Hmmm. Am I the only one that doesn’t have time for that crap? There is nothing worse than having to babysit a damn plant. I, for one, have way better things to do, like curling up on the couch with a pug, a Fat Tire, and an episode of “Portlandia.”

The answer, then, is to plant succulents than don’t need to be babied. Here are some of my tried and true plants for the Bay Area that seem to take all that frosty air in stride, and continue to add a “wow” factor even when it’s winter. This is not a comprehensive list, but just a few of the plants that are in my yard at the moment that are looking kinda’ purdy. And I almost forgot—freezing temps aside—if ANY succulent doesn’t have reeeeeally good drainage (add a boatload of 1/4″ lava rock or pumice to the planting hole) it will rot out in the rainy season. Keep it loose, people.







Getting Down and Dirty at the Salvage Yard

My family members are die-hard garage sale freaks. This is how we spent our weekends growing up. A large chunk of my childhood was spent picking through other people’s undesirables. This was our idea of fun. Other families played sports, hung out at the beach, enjoyed other normal, healthy pursuits. Not us, my friend. We were junkers.

Which is why I now think a Saturday spent schlepping around at a salvage yard (the garage sale’s cool cousin) is about as good as it gets. I can yap on and on about how earth-friendly I’m being, by finding old stuff and reusing and repurposing it for my garden. But that’s not the real reason I do it. I like salvaged stuff because it’s so freaking cool. And because it’s in my blood. I love finding random stuff and figuring out how I can transform it into something completely different, completely original. And I’m not alone. Oh no– not by a long shot.

One of my favorite local salvage yards is Building REsources in San Francisco. This place is a major hipster hang-out. You may have to shove a few skinny-jeaned-and knit-capped guys out of the way to get at the good stuff, but oh—it’s so worth it. Check out a few of the amazing finds from my last excursion:

I should probably know what this is. I don’t, nor do I care. All I see is some funky, rusty, radiatior-looking object that would be perfect embedded into a rock wall. Or laid on its side on top of an outdoor dining table, with tapered candles shoved in it. Yum.

Old window sash weights would look really neat pushed halfway into the dirt, forming a little edging border for a planter bed. Or dangling from a pergola to form some sort of kinetic sculpture.

Don’t get me started on old traffic light lenses. I’m a sucker for color and circles, so I would use these anywhere: embed them in a patio, afix them to a clear polycarbonate panel to make a poor man’s stained glass window, or screw them onto a fence in a geometric pattern.

Here’s a couple of things that I couldn’t live without, so I parted with some cash:

A bitchin’ manhole cover. This puppy is getting embedded in my front walkway (made of salvaged driveway concrete, natch). I’ll post pics later of the project.

A piece of steel with a “d” cut out of it. Perfect for a girl named Dawn, no?

Okay, these almost came home with me. I figured I would half-bury them throughout my back yard, to add color and some humor. Then I realized that these were no ordinary painted bowling pins. These were juggling pins that belonged to a clown. Clowns are the supreme ultimate in creepiness. I passed.

There is so much fun stuff to be found at salvage yards. And salvaged stuff can work in almost any garden style. Even ultra-modern gardens can benefit from a little age and patina being worked into the design. Roughs it up a bit. But for Pete’s sake, don’t go overboard with junk strewn all over the place. You don’t want the film crew for “Hoarders” showing up at your door. Keep it classy. And never, ever buy salvaged stuff that was used by a clown. That is just disturbing.

Tattoos: They’re Not Just For Hipsters Anymore

Every now and then I get a landscape client that is fully open to any design idea that I can dream up. When a recent client professed her love for rock and roll, I knew I had to incorporate something in the design that stood out, looked a little edgy, and reflected her inner rocker. What would be more edgy than a garden tattoo?

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Dawn, haven’t tattoos lost their edge by now? I mean, come on! The girl at the grocery checkout, my Aunt Millie, and even Justin Bieber have tattoos, for crying out loud. Justin Bieber!

Despite their ubiquitousness, I still think tattoos are kinda cool, especially when in an unexpected spot, like a garden. And there are many advantages to tattooing your garden vs. tattooing your butt, for example. First, there’s no needles and no pain. Secondly, there’s very little risk of contracting Hepatitis A, B, or C. And lastly, you won’t end up looking like a complete idiot, like when you get your boyfriend’s name tattooed on your booty, only to have him dump you soon after. That would suck. Tattoos for your garden definitely don’t suck.

Basically, a garden tattoo is a stenciled image that you can apply to a driveway, walkway, patio, wall, or any other flat and boring surface. I found my stencil from a company on the internet. Just do an internet search for “concrete stencils:” lots of fun stuff will pop up. You can also buy stencil film from an art supply store and make your own. Just make sure the image is not something lame. Remember: this is rock and roll, man.

Once you have your stencil, then you can begin. Start by cleaning the area really good, so whatever you use for the color–concrete stain, acrylic paint, organic beet juice if you’re into that sort of thing—will adhere properly. Here’s a picture of our space, all gussied up and ready for tattooing:

Next, stick the stencil paper onto the surface and peel off the top protective paper. Then, use a burnishing tool (either comes with the stencil or just use a credit card) to get all of the air bubbles out. Here’s a picture of the mind-numbingly tedious, pain-in-the-ass burnishing process:

Then, mask off the whole area so the stain or paint doesn’t get everywhere, and apply your coloring.

Apply any and all necessary coats of paint or stain and give them time to cure (this varies according to what you’re using. I’m pretty sure organic beet juice only takes an hour or so). Then peel the sticky paper off, do a happy dance, and immediately take a whole mess of photos of your handiwork. Lastly, plug your camera into your computer so you can download the pics and share your supreme awesomeness with your friends on Facebook and Twitter.

Make sure to take time to inwardly gloat about how your garden is a whole lot hipper and edgier than your neighbor’s. You may not have a retro handlebar moustache, wear a fedora, or have a tongue piercing, but you are cool, man, cool. Or at least your garden is.

Bad-Ass Gardening Background

I come from a long line of passionate, hard-core gardeners. There are three women in my family that set an example for me of why you shouldn’t always play by the rules when it comes to gardening.

My grandma was the original badass, and taught me all I needed to know about organic gardening.

Grandma would go out in the morning in her bathrobe, clutching her mug of Folger’s in one hand and a Marlboro Light in the other. While muttering, “those little bastards,” she would quickly dispatch of any snails that dared to enter her garden… by crushing them with her bare toes. Why whip out the dangerous pesticides when you can just use your foot, right? Just pull the damn snail off the plant, and squish. Easy and environmentally friendly, too. Jeez, I wish that woman was still alive.

Grandma's Preferred Tools for Integrated Pest Management

My aunt was equally fervent when it came to the natural world. She once chained herself to a Schinus molle (Peruvian pepper tree) to keep the city from chopping it down. Unfortunately, this happened during school hours (this was back in the early ’80’s when I was a frizzy-headed grammar school nerd) and I didn’t get to witness it. I heard later about the Tiananmen Square-style showdown. Big, burly city maintenance workers came at her with chainsaws and big trucks. For hours and hours she held her ground. At least that’s how she told it. Anyways, she won. Of course.  Below is a picture of the tree, taken recently. I live around the corner from it. It’s still standing, suckas.

I'd chain myself to this tree to save it. Wouldn't you?

My mother is a whole other level of gardening badass, but I’m not about to give her secrets away, seeing that she would kill me if I did. But suffice it to say: if you happen to have a crappy, weed-infested front yard, and you happen to live in my mom’s town, you might get an anonymous letter from a “concerned neighbor.” It might be filled with admonishments and suggestions on how to clean up and improve your garden. It won’t be from her, though. I swear.

My hope for this blog is to inspire this same amount of passion for plants and gardens, and to show that you don’t always have to play by the rules. As a landscape designer and as a product of some pretty kick-ass women, I’ve learned that gardens are worth investing in, caring about, and fighting for. I also want to share my design sensibilities and my modern, but offbeat take on garden design in these posts. But that will come later. Today, I celebrate bare feet, chicks in chains, and letters from “Anonymous.”