Totally Metal

Like wood and other building materials, metal is a resource that is discarded en masse but can be easily, cheaply, and creatively rescued from the landfill and put to good use. It is another texture that can be incorporated in garden design to either to complement or contrast with the more organic elements (aka, the plants!). Metal is at once both artistic and functional.

These simple wooden benches at the Boonville Hotel in Mendocino’s Anderson Valley have bases made of recycled twisted rebar. Anyone who’s ever tripped around a construction site knows rebar isn’t in short supply, and the possibilities with this bendy material (trellis, stakes, furniture, embellishments) are nearly infinite.

Elisa designed and constructed this trellis in the Mission district using reclaimed metal found at the local treasure trove of reclaimed materials, Building Resources. Check out the tiny mosses and flowers planted along the horizontal pieces, as well as the larger plants given a habitat in reused metal ducts.  In the same half-inside, half-outside garden she used an assortment of recycled materials to create a plant display over an old fountain base:

A fire-engine red sculpture made from, obviously, old garden tools (as seen in Sausalito, artist unknown). An artistic addition for a funky garden, perhaps?







Remembering Repetition

There may be more types of hardscaping materials in this garden than actual species of plants. Wood, concrete, gravel, metal, tiles, and glass. Yet the colors repeat – the sienna of the wood and metal, and the grey-white of the gravel, glass, and concrete – making the design cohesive rather than seeming scattered. With a limited color palette of mostly light or grey-green plants, this repetition results in a clean, pretty space. The bold lines of the fence, the metal, and the grasses and agave are a simple and strong compliment to the plants gently cascading over the retaining walls.

Promoting Beauty while Eliminating Waste

Having to go to the bathroom in the midst of a shopping day in San Francisco can be a frustrating hassle, often necessitating buying the cheapest thing on a café menu to be allowed to use the facilities, or weighing the grossness of the public stall against the pressure in your bladder. Contrast this scenario with the “coolest public bathrooms in the world”, which happen to be in Austin.

The structure is a spiral shaped by various sizes of metal rectangles — some taller, some shorter – that are spaced further apart from each other at the entrance to the bathroom (and the tail end of the spiral) and get increasingly closer together until they form a solid wall around the toilet in the center.  This design could be used in other scenarios, too, where privacy is the issue, such as around a backyard hot tub or half a spiral around a seating or changing area. The possibilities are dizzying.

Friendly Fences

Leave it to a garden designer to go to one of the world’s premier music and media conferences and return home with a ton of pictures of…..fences. This horizontal wooden fence is not only stylish in its simplicity and departure from the more common vertical alignment, it is also a “smart” fence, with two of the sides having gaps between the slats but the side shared with the neighbors being solid and allowing for more privacy.

This is another example of experimenting with openings to make a fence more fun. Again, a boundary is built but it looks more akin to art rather than an element of some strict, impermeable fortress.

The metal gate provides continuity by using the same rust color as the wooden fence but plays with the vertical dimension rather than the horizontal.

This shorter fence is almost like a sturdy lattice. The open squares allow the olive trees to be visible from the other side which, if you think about it, is a very efficient use of beauty!

On the [Planted] Road: Notes from Austin

A couple of months ago Elisa visited Austin, Texas for South by Southwest. Of course, amidst all the music, her eyes wandered toward creative uses of plants in small spaces. The following few posts contain a sampling of what she saw. –Katie

Contain Yourself! This is a Public Place…..


Arranging plants in containers is an easy way add more diversity to garden design. You can play with differences in height, variations in the materials and color of the container, or the idea of an instant mini-garden created by the boundaries of a pot. The rust-colored steel containers in this sidewalk strip allow the eye to pleasingly bounce through the small landscape. Moreover, sturdy containers help protect the plants. And note the plant selection as well: Succulents are great for sidewalk gardens because they hold their form and don’t require much water at all. (Contrast this to a common problem in San Francisco, in which neighbors get excited about installing and initially undertaking a sidewalk beautification project, but sometimes neglect to maintain it, leading to an overgrown mess and a magnet for trash.)


These hexagonal pillars add an artistic, sculptural element, with succulents poking out the sides like the drought-tolerant version of strawberries tumbling out of a strawberry pot. The shock of sword-like leaves crowning the top is a cool addition, as well.


These two matching but differently sized pots are a perfect example of paying attention to height to make a simple corner more interesting. With the succulents planted in the ground around them, it draws the eye to three levels, offering a sense of balance.


The Way We Roll

Planter boxes on wheels are becoming increasingly popular around café and shop entryways in the City. Have you noticed? The ultimate small spot – a container – that won’t be stolen or vandalized come nighttime, nor will prompt curse words to fly from the mouth of the person with the closing shift attempting to lug a heavy planter through the doorway. And how much cuter can you get than a Radio Flyer full of houseplants?

Or, for a more modern aesthetic, a recycled metal duct. But these are just two examples. The possibilities for moveable planters-on-wheels are pretty infinite.

Steep Hill Ahead? No problem!

The ancient gardening art of terracing has been used all over the world for taming hillsides while simultaneously respecting their, shall we say, “hill-ness”. A steep asphalt street in Noe Valley is no exception. One of the best sidewalk gardens in San Francisco, this one uses modern-looking metal boxes, which are both durable and develop an attractive rust patina. The grey-green and golden grasses, wine-colored aeoniums, and bright red kangaroo paw offer complementary hues as well as diverse textures. And an added benefit? The small gardens are something to stop and check out while huffing and puffing one’s way up the hill!