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Margie Grace

Paul Wellman

Margie Grace


Santa Barbara Landscaping 101 with Margie Grace

An Interview with the Award-Winning Founder of Grace Design Associates


After 18 years working in the landscape design business, Margie Grace got her contractor’s license and hung her own shingle in 2000. Today, Grace Design Associates works on about 20 projects each year and was recently named International Designer of the Year by the Association of Professional Landscape Designers, an award she also won a decade ago.

She recently answered some basic questions about landscaping, shared her thoughts of current trends, and discussed some highlights of her career.

Where did you grow up? I grew up — albeit on the wrong side of the tracks — in Altadena and Pasadena. Their rich architectural and natural splendor were my stomping grounds. My siblings and I would borrow the family VW van when we had gas money and drive around looking at architecture and gardens, critiquing as we went. (You can learn a lot just by looking critically. Four out of five of us in the family work in design and/or construction in some form or other.)

What are the steps to redoing your yard?

1) Research: Find/take photos of gardens you love, online, in magazines, around your neighborhood. Don’t focus on plants or other details yet — you’re looking for a feeling; it pulls you, inspires you; it’s joyful. You can place yourself in the picture; see yourself/friends/family gathered there; see your kids playing there; feel the sun on your skin; hear the water playing in the fountain; smell the citrus blossoms. Do as little or as much of this as you’re inclined to do. Do not stress over this. It’s supposed to be fun. The intention is to get in touch with what you want.

2) Homework: Think about:

Functions: Make a list of how you’d like to use the space — outdoor cooking, a place to play, animals, entertaining, chill-axing, etc.

Fantasies: Write down your wish list: everything you ever wanted in your dream garden. Nothing is off the table here (hot tub, fire pit, bocce court, pool, etc.)

Finances: Figure out your budget.

3) Build your team: Find a great designer. Ask friends; find out who designed the gardens you love. Vet them. Meet them on-site. Bring your homework and photos from your research. See if you have a good rapport and a shared vision of your project and you like his/her aesthetic. Then hire them, and trust them to guide you to your best garden, given your site, your lifestyle, and your budget.

4) Find a design that fits your needs: This is where your research and homework come in.

5) Build your garden: Do it yourself. Have a landscaping party. Use a gardener or a landscape contractor. Or use a design-build firm such as Grace Design Associates.

What’s the typical budget? It depends entirely on the scope of work and the size of the project. Are you just adding some plants or are you doing an extreme makeover? Are you picking inexpensive hardscape materials or gold-plated bricks? Smaller projects start for us around $80,000 and can reach $500,000 and up (way up) for a large estate. We figure about 10-15 percent of the home’s value — again, it depends, but this is a good starting point

What are your thoughts on current landscaping trends?

Love It!

Water-smart, low-maintenance, fire-smart landscapes: I’ll continue doing this forever!

Veggies/food/herb gardens: Tucking them in here and there — front yard, curb strip, pots, rooftop. Another thing I will keep doing forever!

Outdoor living: Spaces that function just like rooms in the house — what better place than in our climate? We can live outside most days of the year. It’s a lighter environmental footprint and easier on the wallet — great furnishings; shade here, sunny spot there; a roof overhead in places, but walls are totally optional. Skip the cost of a big house, and go for a great garden with “just enough house for in case of rain.” (I can’t remember who said that.)

Over It!

Living walls: Super-cool look. But they’re resource heavy and ill-suited for our climate. Terrestrial plants in our climate survive nine months of drought annually by having their roots in the soil. ’Nuff said.

Sustainable gardens: I’m over it. It’s important to have this in the lexicon, and the intent is more valid than ever. The meaning, however, has been lost through overuse and misapplication. Let’s do that which transcends fads and marketing taglines, a shift from buzzword gardens (“green,” “permaculture,” “bio-swale,” etc.) to what I’ve termed ecological thinking.

In the landscape, focus on a healthy microbial soil suite, the nitrogen cycle, the water cycle, the oxygen cycle; provide habitat (water, food, shelter) for as many components of the native biome as possible. Knock out a couple of fence boards between neighbors to provide a wildlife corridor; leave a few logs to rot to support bugs, lizards, and salamanders.

Can’t Wait for It!

Integrated design-build teams: Owner, architect, interior designer, builder, landscape designer, landscape contractor, site engineer — everyone who contributes to the design and construction of the project, working together collaboratively from the very beginning of the project. This allows for the best use of resources, provides efficiencies, and ensures an integrated finished project.

We work this way as often as we can swing it. (It’s not a familiar model for most folks.) A goodly number of the most important things you can do for your landscape are lost by calling the landscape guy in at the end of a project.

We want to be in on the siting of the house — it impacts sun exposure, light levels, and views, both good and bad; provides opportunities for passive heating/cooling; affects the movement of wind and water on-site; gives the size and shape of landscaped areas and outdoor rooms; and soooo much more.

We want to salvage useful materials being demolished (concrete, stone, lumber, etc.). We want to have the topsoil stockpiled for safekeeping and reuse rather than being polluted by construction waste or hauled off during grading. We want to talk out options with the site engineer — rainwater harvesting and storage, grading, storm-water treatment and more.

Surely, the architecture contributes to the landscape, the construction to the architecture, the interior to the exterior, the design to the maintenance, the site work to the landscape, and on and on. So why are we all acting independently?

What project are you most proud of? My first Zen garden. It’s beautiful, and it was really hard work, given site constraints and timeline. I received the most heartfelt appreciation for the garden from two widely disparate sources: the UPS guy and Yo-Yo Ma.

While I was working on-site, I happened to catch the brown blur of the UPS guy out of the corner of my eye dashing into the walled garden, intent on delivering a package. Twenty minutes went by before I noticed the UPS truck was still standing idle in the drive. I grew concerned he’d met some harm, as I’d never seen a UPS guy linger anywhere ever for anything. Those guys are like the Energizer bunny — they just keep moving.

I sought him out and found him in the Zen garden, all blissed out, dreamy eyed, and dozy. (He was not dead in a trench, as I had feared — what a relief!). I asked him if he was okay. He’s no garden guy, he explained, but it was the most beautiful garden he’d ever been in, and it felt so good. Would it be alright if he stayed just a little longer?

Yo-Yo Ma is one of my heroes. He was the guest of honor at a fundraiser on the estate with the Zen garden. We were invited as guests to hear him play and to attend the fundraiser. We were seated at the kids’ table, the farthest away from the guest of honor.

I was transported by his music: one cello talking to me alone in a hall full of people. It was sublime. And his energy! He was radiating something that made you wanna get close and rub up against him, in the way I always feel when I hear Dr. MLK speak or read Gandhi’s words. The guy radiated love. He inspires.

So there I was, later in the evening, in my little chair at the kids’ table, minding my own business, when a man approached me and introduced himself as Yo-Yo Ma. He had sought me out to thank me. (Me, I thought? What did I do?) He had spent five hours in the guest room that gives on to the Zen garden, a break between the afternoon concert and the evening event. He told me he travels all the time and really relishes short breaks to recharge his batteries. He told me he felt renewed, having spent time in that garden. So incredibly cool.

That night was a fundraiser for UCSB’s Arts & Lectures program. Thus it came to pass that the chancellor of UCSB asked the Nobel laureates in attendance to stand up and be recognized. I counted eight Nobel laureates, right there, in the gardens I had designed and our team had built. I was gobsmacked.

I’ll likely never be the recipient of a Nobel Prize, but I can absolutely create spaces in which Nobel Prize winners assemble, where world leaders can come together in common cause.

Which project was the most challenging? Designing and installing 13 gardens on a three-acre estate in four months’ time. It was the third project we ever did. Our firm consisted of three people, a pickup truck, and a handful of gardening tools when we started the project. I worked in the field all day and designed until midnight what we would install the following day. By the time we finished the project, we had 20 employees and a whole bunch of tools and equipment. It was exhausting and exhilarating. We made the deadline — with the benefits of youth, tenacity and brute strength on our side — and the gardens were exquisite.

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