Private Gardens of Santa Barbara: The Art of Outdoor Living

Breaking away from a family tradition in the geological sciences, Margie Grace supplemented her UCSC coursework in earth and life sciences with classes in landscape architecture. That early interest forged a career. With nearly 40 years in the business, Grace’s award-winning work honors her native Southern California. At the same time, work trips to Spain, Australia, and New Zealand, among other faraway places, have informed her projects here at home, where she’s considered an expert in combining the natural beauty and design of the Santa Barbara region. Her first book on the subject, Private Gardens of Santa Barbara: The Art of Outdoor Living, was released by publisher Gibbs Smith on March 3. 

In the following Q&A, Grace reflects on dirt, deadlines, the joy of a granddaughter, and growing happiness through gardening.

What drew you to landscape design early on?  I was studying geology. At the time, there were no jobs in geology, and we were a family of geologists ​— ​my mother, brother-in-law, future husband, and future father-in-law. We had all our eggs in one basket. I thought it prudent to diversify. I’d always loved gardening, so I jumped into landscape maintenance, which led to design, which led to getting my landscape contractor license, which brought me to landscape design-build. It’s been 37 amazing years now ​— ​I’ve never looked back.

What has been your favorite work-related field trip or vacation?  Travelling in southern Spain ​— ​the Moorish gardens and architecture!

What is your favorite public landscape design in Santa Barbara?  I’m not sure Lotusland is technically a public landscape, but it is open to the public. Going with a stricter definition of public, it’s the Santa Barbara Courthouse.

Where do you find design inspiration outside of landscape architecture?  Nature ​— ​the master teacher and the wellspring of all inspiration, hands down.

What do you like most about your job?  What’s not to love? Dirt, rocks, plants. Dreaming, designing, drawing. Interesting people. Tremendous variety. It’s like being a kid in the sandbox every single day!

What do you dislike most about your job?  Time pressure. Deadlines. So many gardens, so little time! 

What is your current state of mind?  Lit up! I’m inspired. It’s a great big, wonderful, exciting world! I’ve got a grandbaby, a daughter-in-law and two grown sons I’m crazy about, a brilliant partner who amazes me every day, fabulous projects in the works, and a new book. It doesn’t get better than that!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?  Time spent with my granddaughter.

What is your greatest extravagance?  Travel. We’ve got a long list of places to go. And I splurge every year at the Lotusland plant auction.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?  Temperance. You should definitely overdo from time to time ​— ​play hooky on a gorgeous day; open the last bottle of wine even though it’s already late; dance all night; say yes to dessert.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?  Besides two amazing offspring, Grace Design Associates is my greatest achievement. I’ve had the honor and the pleasure to create gardens that bring joy every day to those who use them.

What is your most treasured possession?  My mother’s geology textbooks. Her notes in the margins. Her handwriting brings her memory close enough to touch.

Who are your heroes in real life?  The heroes of my youth, those incredibly courageous civil rights leaders: Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi. And my mom. She is the smartest and the most courageous person I have ever known.

What is your motto?  If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing to excess.

For more on Grace and her projects, visit Private Gardens of Santa Barbara can be ordered at Chaucer’s.


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