Debra Prinzing

Get the Email Newsletter!

Fall design inspiration: foliage, flowers, fruit and architecture

Monday, November 1st, 2010

“It would be worthwhile having a cultivated garden

if only to see what Autumn does to it.”

–Alfred Austin, The Garden that I Love (1894)

Acer japonicum 'Aconitifolium'

Whether emulating what you see in nature or combining plants to masterful heights, gardens that excel in the fall are ones that showcase the best of the season. 

There are certain trees, shrubs, perennials, ground-covers and vines that you may not notice during the rest of the year. But somehow, once the temperatures cool and the sun’s arc lowers in the sky (lighting foliage and plant forms from the side, rather than from overhead), a fall glow illuminates – and we see the garden in a new way.  

Last Friday I gave a presentation entitled “Gardens that excel in the fall: Something for everyone” at the Garden Conservancy’s one-day seminar in the San Francisco Bay Area. Called Fourth Quarter Gardens: An August to December Romance, the symposium featured several really inspiring speakers on design, horticulture and the unique gardening culture of the west. 

I was thrilled to be part of this cohort, which included Bob Perry, Katherine Greenberg, Nicholas Staddon, Elizabeth Murray, Chris Jacobson and Brian Kemble. The highlight for me was a tour of Katherine Greenberg’s all-native garden in Lafayette (an East Bay community). It was the three-dimensional, living embodiment of her lecture “Greens, Grays and Golds in a Native Garden.” 

My talk was a visual meditation of what inspires me this time of year: foliage, flowers, fruit and architecture in the landscape. 

I started by sharing the excitement I feel about the season as I design for texture in a new way; find unexpected plant pairings (not just those Halloween hues, either); tend to the harvest and see the bones, lines and structure emerge as leaves fall and flowers fade. My attention is drawn to the aging beauty of what some may call “decay.” Yet those yellowing hosta leaves and nearly-bare branches are a sign to me that the garden in every phase of growth is to be celebrated. 

This lovely melange shows the amazing diversity of fall leaf color.

I also shared a lay-person’s explanation of why leaves change color in the fall. I quoted from Brian Capon’s book Plant Survival

“. . . the cool night temperatures and shorter days of September and October are sure to start the season’s normal color changes in leaves and . . . trigger their falling from the trees. 

“Leaves change color when the green pigment, chlorophyll, decomposes in leaf cells to reveal orange and yellow pigments, present all summer but hidden from sight by the more abundant chlorophyll. 

“In some trees, the unmasking of the yellow-orange pigments is accompanied by production of brilliant red ones, made from sugars and other substances in the leaves. The purpose of this last-minute display of added color is not known.  

“In the green leaf, both green chlorophyll and yellow-orange carotenoid pigments are contained in tiny chloroplasts. Because there is more chlorophyll than carotenoid, the leaves appear green. In fall, after the chlorophyll decomposes, only carotenoides remain to give the leaf its glowing, golden color. In some plants, the leaf cells produce red pigments, anthocyanins, that are stored in the vacuoles. As the anthocyanins collect and mask the carotenoids, the leaf turns red.” 

A lot has been written about fall gardening and much of it focuses on the importance that gardeners in the west do fall planting! 

Witch hazel is espaliered along a lattice arbor at the Center for Urban Horticulture in Seattle.

I embrace and endorse this strategy, since it accomplishes so much that one may not have energy to tackle six months hence. It gets us out into nurseries and weekend plant sales, heightening our sensory response to a plant’s autumn form and texture and its promise of spring to come. The season forces us down on our knees to plan, prepare and place those treasures, brought home with the admonition (at least in the Pacific Northwest) to “plant before frost.” California gardeners want to plant in the fall for an entirely different reason — to capture any winter precipitation for good root establishment. 

If only to think about springtime, I will plant peony crowns in the fall. But then, I pause and remember what occurs after the blowsy bloom of Mother’s Day; and the sultry autumn glory of peony foliage comes to mind. Appreciating both the youth of spring and the maturity of fall is one of those wonderful surprises that comes from having plant lust. 

If you, too, are a fall-planting advocate, then what may be second-most on your mind is the design of an autumn landscape. 

I love the architectural form of "spent" crocosmia blooms. These seed-heads are as beautiful as the flowers themselves.

Seasonal changes, at least at the beginning of the fourth quarter, work their magic here in the west. The light changes, the moisture content heightens, and the foliage reddens. The garden’s edges soften in some places (perennials go to seed; grass plumes explode; greens turn tan) and become more acute in other places (the architecture of deciduous plants is more pronounced; evergreen plants move to the foreground; anything that blooms is undoubtedly noticed as well). 

It’s almost as if the feminine personality of spring and summer steps aside for the more masculine personality of fall. Yet when I posed this theory to my friend Betsy Flack, she argued that “I’ve always thought (fall) was my own season—sort of the ample-bosomed (billowy) matron . . . after Spring’s sprite.” 

Our differing opinions reveal that the autumn garden is one we can all embrace. 

To me, there are four aspects to the 4th quarter garden that I consider when planning, touring and evaluating the well-designed landscape: 

This is some kind of wild-looking oak, isn't it?


Cooling temperatures and shortening days bring out the fall glow we so admire. Yet it’s not just color (golds, coppers, wine reds and dark purples) that I’m in search of. I also consider broadleaf evergreen plants with graphic foliage, as well as conifers that change with the season, taking on their own non-green hues. 

Laura Morton, a Hollywood designer, uses echinacea and asters in this yummy fall combo

Flowering plants: 

If you find a fall-blooming perennial that you like, plant it not once but thrice. 

Some of my favorites include Japanese anemone, heaths and heathers (Calluna vulgaris cultivars are especially gorgeous when the temperatures drop) and asters (A. novi-belgii; A. novae-angliae; A. lateriflorus). 

Fruit: Edibles and ornamentals unify in the autumn garden, lending a sense of “harvest” and hearkening 

This cotoneaster will delight birds and humans alike.

back to the ritual and sustenance of gleaning fruit from the earth. Nuts, berries, pods, seeds, fruit – for eating or just eye-feasting – are essential elements of the autumn garden. Because I am a floral designer, I take particular interest in gathering rose hips, crabapple fruit, seed heads and even spent grapevines (with tendrils and curls) from the garden for use in my vases. 

The yellowing gingko against a pumpkin-colored garage is a perfect fall scene.

Architecture: It goes without saying that structure is the backbone of 4th quarter gardens. Deciduous trees and shrubs, dormant perennials, disappearing annuals . . .they can do their thing and yet the arbors, gates, patios and pathways remain – thankfully. I take special note of the shadow-play created by light as it moves through a garden, catching shapes made by architectural elements and throwing those alluring patterns against walls and fences. 

Here are a few more seasonally-appropriate quotes to enjoy: 

” . . . asters: purple asterisks for autumn.” Conrad Aiken, Preludes for Memnon (1930) 

“Hurrah!  . . . it is a frost! — the dahlias are dead.” R.S. Surtees, Handley Cross (1843) 

A mosaic of autumn impressions: 

Garden Conservancy’s Altadena Tour

Saturday, April 25th, 2009
A small fountain bubbles at the intersection of the rose garden's central walkway and side paths

A small fountain bubbles at the intersection of the rose garden's central walkway and side paths

Last week, I toured the 3/4-acre landscape owned by Cheryl Bode and Robin Colman, a lavish garden developed over the past 10 years in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains.

Tomorrow, April 26th, they are generously sharing their lush and serene property as one of six private, residential landscapes on the Altadena Garden Conservancy Tour.

My story, “Botanical bounty in Altadena,” about Cheryl and Robin’s abundant landscape, appears in today’s edition of the Los Angeles Times.

Since we had to cut the original piece due to space, I have included the full story below.


Take a virtual tour through this web gallery of photos from my visit:

Here is my original story. Enjoy a peek into the lives of two who are passionate about the place they possess:

By Debra Prinzing

Ten years ago, Cheryl Bode and Robin Colman discovered the house and garden they soon called Casa dos Mujeres (House of Two Women).

Prompted by the desire for more space as they combined their individual households, the two Pasadena residents considered buying in nearby Altadena, a village in unincorporated Los Angeles County wedged between Pasadena and the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains.

“Cheryl went to Altadena on a lark with our real estate agent,” Robin recalls. “This house was in terrible shape, but part of it really captivated her.” Later, when Cheryl returned with her partner in tow, she couldn’t help jumping up and down with happiness when Robin pronounced: “I could live here.”


A POD in the Garden (POD=Personal Outdoor Dwelling)

Saturday, March 14th, 2009
San Francisco's hottest garden and plant emporium, Flora Grubb

San Francisco's hottest garden and plant emporium, Flora Grubb

A great gathering of Shed-Fanatics joined me at Flora's

A great gathering of Shed-Fanatics joined me at Flora's

After my exhausting trip to the wintry Philadelphia Flower Show, I returned to LA for a quick overnight to recharge my batteries with my family.

Then, last Thursday, I returned to Burbank to fly north to Oakland.

My friends at the Garden Conservancy invited me to share my fascination with sheds and hideaways at an evening benefit lecture.

Hosted by horticultural celebrity Flora Grubb at her eponymous urban emporium, the after-hours event included cocktails and hors d’oeuvres among Flora’s awesome collection of palms, succulents, Mediterranean and drought-tolerant plants – and more.

Flora and Debra, smiling in this great garden setting

Flora and Debra, smiling in this great garden setting

She curates this environment with an eye for design, style and presentation. Furniture selections, displayed among plant groupings really “pop” – from avant-garde concrete chaises to retro-salvaged circle lawn chairs (see below for specifics).

The playfulness with which Flora and her staff have created this plant-centric lifestyle just puts a smile on my face. I’ve heard and read about this cool SF destination nursery for a few years and am thrilled to have been given a great excuse to travel and speak there.

Thanks for the experience begins with my friend Margo Sheffner, who is Flora Grubb’s book buyer extraordinaire. Margo, who is also the business manager for the Pacific Horticultural Foundation (a nonprofit of which I am board member), was an early fan and supporter of Stylish Sheds and Elegant Hideaways. She brought it to Flora Grubb’s and continues to update me about how Flora’s customers “get” the notion of backyard sanctuary, habitat and haven. And that translates into book sales (which is so reassuring in this non-print phase we’re in). Yeah! It makes me happy to see our book in this cool environment.

Here’s a little gallery of Flora Grubb’s Garden. You will love every image:

Credit for my lecture title, “A POD in the Garden,” goes to Garden Conservancy west coast program manager and all-around horticultural go-to gal, Betsy Flack. She came up with the idea of using the acronym P-O-D (as a personal-outdoor-dwelling). I love it! This is my new buzzword. Stylish Sheds includes a chapter about Loretta Fisher’s “Mod Pod” in Austin, so Betsy’s title is apropos. Betsy and her assistant Maria Martinez (along with several Garden Conservancy staff, friends and volunteers) put on a lovely evening. I felt welcomed among so many kindred spirits.

The following morning, I stopped by Dwell's editorial offices to say hello to Miyoko

The following morning, I stopped by Dwell's editorial offices to say hello to Miyoko

Before I started my talk, Betsy invited Miyoko Ohtake, associate editor at Dwell magazine, to share a few words. Miyoko is a talented young architect-journalist who joined Dwell last summer after impressive gigs at Wired and Business Week.

She contacted me in August to ask if I could serve as Dwell’s guest expert for a review of prefabricated sheds (February 2009 issue). It was great to finally meet her in person and to also have the audience meet Miyoko and hear her enthusiasm for modern outdoor design. Dwell supported the event and Miyoko blogged about my talk in advance of the evening.

Then, Flora invited her architect-friend Seth Boor, AIA, of SF’s Boor Bridges Architecture, to comment on the city’s zoning issues relating to shed construction.

It was a stroke of brilliance to include Seth on the program. He and Flora (and her partner Kevin Smith) recently collaborated on a very cool planted-wall installation at a hip, new Napa Valley hotel called Bardessono. The project was recently documented by Stephen Orr in the New York Times. So we were in excellent company (oh, and how cool is this? Stephen was in the audience – what a sweet guy to come hear my talk).

Among other remarks, Seth touched on the permit and installation parameters for anyone wanting to add a backyard shed in San Francisco:

  • No permit is required if you build an outdoor structure under 100 square feet in size and no taller than 8 feet high.
  • The configurations can vary. For example, the structure can be 10-by-10 feet or 8-by-12 feet in size.
  • As for height, as Seth pointed out, “Eight-feet-tall is a little short” but you can work with it.
  • Working without a permit “frees you up to do anything within that size,” he says
  • Also, if the structure isn’t permitted, the typical setback rules do not apply. However, there is the “good neighbor” rule and Seth recommended that shed-builders think about how a 100-sf structure will appear to a neighboring property.

Debra’s note: Creative shed-owners are already aware of this issue. I’ve seen shedistas carefully paint, embellish and artfully adorn the side of their structure that faces a neighbor’s lot. Good shed policy!

Shed Spotting in Pasadena

Saturday, February 14th, 2009
The gate leads to a Shed Surprise

The gate leads to a Shed Surprise

If you’ve been following Shed Style for any period of time, by now, you know that I use the term “SHED” quite broadly to describe “a shelter in the garden.”

And so, here are two very different, but equally enticing, glimpses of garden shed architecture that I had the good fortune to tour earlier this week. The occasion: a preview of the Feb. 28th study tour that Betsy Flack of Garden Conservancy has designed to accompany the Feb. 27th seminar: Gardens that Re-Make Themselves.

The seminar will examine the restoration of historic gardens to reflect the original architecture and period, as well as sustainable design practices that today’s garden makers can use to ensure their landscapes endure for future generations. Several really incredible established gardens, mostly in Pasadena, will be open to seminar participants who take the study tour.

The garden structures I visited are relatively new, but they were designed – in the spirit and character of the property’s origins – to fit into older landscapes .

M's Garden House

M's Garden House

“M’s” Garden House stands at the back of a long, narrow garden in an historic Pasadena neighborhood.

The 1926 residence, a one-story Mediterranean-style bungalow, is situated near the front of the 50-by-195 foot lot. Because her house is closer to the sidewalk, the parcel behind the house is very park-like. She has preserved and enhanced the original hard-scape and bones of this Italian-inspired garden. It is truly amazing to see the setting and realize it is 83 years old.

At the far end of the garden path stands a scallop-topped swinging gate. According to the owner, the gate originally led to an old tool shed for garden storage.

But she had other plans for this underutilized space and asked her architect to design a garden structure in keeping with the garden’s vintage.

Hugh Maguire, an architect who does work in Pasadena and Palm Springs, designed the 11-by-13 foot structure in1995. “I had seen an old English train station ‘storefront’ at a salvage place in Pasadena,” Maguire told me when I contacted him by phone. “It had the words ‘Waiting Room’ on it”

An urn, in the garden court

An urn, in the garden court

He thinks the fanciful storefront dates to the 19th century.

Maguire discovered it years ago at Across the Street from Alice, a Mission Street salvage dealer and has had his eye on it ever since.

M’s request for a garden structure presented the perfect opportunity to use the beautiful architectural element with mullioned windows, an arched transom and detailed mill-work panels. Maguire spent around $1,200 for the salvaged facade. “Can you image what it would cost to have something like this custom made?” he asked me. No, I can’t. And that’s why I love it when designers and builders utilize materials from the past. Salvaged architectural fragments are a high art form when it comes to shed-making.

In order to build this pleasing space, a “collapsed shed” was removed. However, architect and client salvaged doors from the old structure and recycled them as cupboard doors on interior bookcases. In between the bookcases is a perfect-circle porthole window. It echoes the perfect-circle recycled brick “carpet” that now serves as the garden foyer to the little house.

a cut-away in the roof to wrap around the tree trunk

a cut-away in the roof to wrap around the tree trunk

On top of the new stucco building, Maguire added a standing seam metal roof. In one corner of the four-sided roof that caps the garden house, they had to make a cut-out – to accommodate a stately eucalyptus tree that M did not want disturbed by the construction. That’s showing serious concern for her garden and the plants she inherited!

Redwood and river rock form a rustic gazebo

Redwood and river rock form a rustic gazebo

The second shelter-shed I visited is from a different architectural era altogether. It was designed by architects Conrad Buff and Donald Hensman in 1993. Carol Soucek King, its intuitive and creative owner, calls the structure a “gazebo.” It is far from a wimpy, ultra-feminine Victorian gazebo. This is a rustic, natural edifice that is situated at the upper edge of a creek.

Using local Arroyo Seco river rock for the foundation and side wall (notice the wonderful niches that allow for pedestal candles – imagine how meditative this space will feel at twilight!) and leaving the structure covered, but open-sided, the design is a study in native, organic architecture.

According to Carol, when the gazebo’s construction was completed, the builder, stone mason and architect gathered with the Kings for a Bento box lunch “to bless it.”

“We all sat here and were very conscious that this would be a sacred place,” she told me.

In a magnificent book about Buff and Hensman’s architectural careers, the structure is described as a “lineal redwood gazebo” . . . “conceived as a refuge.”

A refuge indeed. No one could wish for a better way to experience sanctuary, solace, spiritual respite and beauty.

Here are a few more images:

California Garden and Landscape History Society

Friday, October 10th, 2008

A late September afternoon along Independence Creek, with the Sierras in the distance, at the Mary DeDecker Native Plant Garden, Eastern California Museum, Independence, California

I’m paraphrasing here, but that saying about how we understand the future if we learn from the past came to mind when I attended part of the California Garden and Landscape History Society’s annual meeting.

The conference was held in Lone Pine, California (about 250 miles north of my home on Ventura Co. – toward the high desert, the Eastern Sierras, and the west entrance to Death Valley). Its theme: “Spirit of Landscape: California’s Lower Owens River Valley.”

The event attracted me because dear friend and writing mentor Paula Panich was on the program to give a lecture about the writer and pioneer woman Mary Austin. She titled her talk: “Beauty and Madness and Death and God: Mary Austin’s Land of Little Rain.”

Why do we pursue such impetuous, insensible decisions as to drive 250 miles on a Saturday morning in order to get to a friend’s 1-hour lecture? It’s actually easy to explain, because the fabric of my life is woven with such spontaneous decisions. If I didn’t make these sudden journeys (to fly to Seattle for Braiden’s book-launch; to take the bus to the end of the line and visit Skip and Charles in Orient, NY; to drive to the mountains for Paula’s birthday celebration) what else would I be doing anyway? Shopping for groceries, paying bills, folding laundry?

A fellow conference participant, Liz Ames, pauses to observe the not-so-distant Sierra Nevada range

We often remember the glimmering highlights that punctuate the rough textures of everyday life; they are the peaks that even out the valleys, comforting us. Don’t get me wrong. Usually, I love my life and the choices I’ve made. I float through it observing all the blessings I have with my marriage, my children, my home, my safe existence. But sometimes . . . different seasonings need to be tasted. Gardens, friends, excursions…provide the unexpected flavors to our regular diet of normalcy.


Stucco Studio in a celebrated garden

Sunday, August 31st, 2008

Tired of crowding his landscape architecture practice into a tiny spare bedroom of his bungalow, Joseph Marek renovated a 400-square-foot garage. He quadrupled his work space and created an attractive destination in the garden [William Wright photograph]

Not that I’m competitive or anything, but I did feel a tad victorious when I opened the current (Sept. 08) issue of Martha Stewart Living magazine, seen at right, to discover a feature story about two of my favorite shedistas, Joseph Marek and John Bernatz. Pretty cool to “scoop” MSL on a design story (it isn’t the first time gardens I’ve written about in books have later appeared in this magazine; no, it’s the third time!).

Congratulations to Joseph and John for the much-deserved recognition. And kudos to their friend, writer Susan Heeger, for her story. To be fair, I can’t take any credit for “discovering” Joseph and John. Their garden and several of Joseph’s residential designs for lucky clients have been featured in House Beautiful, Metropolitan Home, Horticulture, the Los Angeles Times, LA Magazine, Pacific Horticulture and Cottage Living, as well.

I’m tickled that the dynamic duo’s “Stucco Studio,” a converted 400-square-foot 1930s-era garage in their Santa Monica backyard, is featured as the “opening chapter” of Stylish Sheds and Elegant Hideaways (see the first two pages of their chapter, above left).

Exquisitely photographed for our book by Bill Wright, the studio — a paprika-colored structure once designed to hold a single automobile — has been transformed into a creative and joyous environment for Joseph Marek Landscape Architecture, Joseph’s landscape architecture practice.  The highly functional interiors do double-duty (by day, this is the headquarters for Joseph’s design practice and John’s at-home office for his travel agency; come weekends and evenings, it is often converted into an impromptu party house, where friends and clients may gather for informal cocktails). It is also a vibrant architectural foil for the small but intensely-planted garden.