Debra Prinzing

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Meet a beautiful – and sustainable – landscape

Friday, August 28th, 2009
Mike Mcdonald, a Green Builder and Visionary

Mike Mcdonald, a Green Builder and Visionary

gardendesign004Garden Design magazine asked me to profile one of its “Green Awards” winners for the September-October issue, which is out on newsstands this week.

The story is about a lovely, sustainable landscape designed to complement the cutting-edge, eco-architecture of Margarido House in Oakland.

Margarido House is the creation of builder-owner Mike McDonald of McDonald Construction & Development, and his architect-brother Tim McDonald of Philadelphia-based Plumbob.  The brothers and their multiple collaborators have created a stunning residence that earned the highest (Platinum) rating from the U.S. Green Building Council. It is the first home in Northern California to obtain the LEED-H Platinum Award (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).

gardendesign005What makes this garden and its home sustainable?

1. It’s Permeable : The patio, roof and driveway surfaces are designed to capture all of the property’s storm water runoff. The driveway’s decorative design uses recycled and perforated Pavestone concrete tiles. Water percolates into a 4,000-gallon cistern hidden under the driveway and, when needed, circulates through the property for irrigation and flowing through the Zen garden’s piped fountain. “We’ve created a self-contained water loop,” Mike points out.

 2. It’s Durable: Garden designer Lauren Schneider of  Wonderland Garden and Landscape in Oakland, chose a diverse, drought-tolerant plant palette. She worked closely with local growers to specify California native varieties, as well as plants from many Mediterranean regions, including South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, South America and Mexico. She closely observed the garden during its first year to evaluate whether each plant was durable enough to survive Oakland’s dry summer conditions with infrequent water.

 3. It’s Reusable: Recycled concrete is the basis for Margarido House’s über-modern S-curve chaises, tabletops and sleek urns, which contain succulents, bamboo, and New Zealand flax. Created by Bay Area Concreteworks Studio, which also fabricated interior concrete counters, the products satisfy LEED’s “local” and “reusable” criteria. Other outdoor furniture also has recycled content, including Room & Board’s  “Emmet” Adirondack-inspired chairs, by Loll Designs, made with 100 percent recycled high density polyethylene (plastic).

Margarido House, enhanced by a soft, sustainable garden

Margarido House, enhanced by a soft, sustainable garden

One of the key scoring factors in earning this ranking is Lauren’s sustainable landscape design.

Dreamy and naturalistic, the garden is an organic counterpoint to the geometric architecture.

Lauren actually created three distinct gardens – one on the ground; one in the air; and one that climbs an incredible vertical retaining wall and has multiple sections for planting (not to mention a melodic water feature to attract birds).

Photographs of the Margarido’s rooftop garden weren’t included in the Garden Design layout, due to space constraints. I wanted to make sure and show some here. The rooftop is pretty stunning, and not just because it has killer views of San Francisco Bay. It is installed on top of a capillary mat and layer of geo-textile material; over this base are “three inches of horticultural pumice as a drainage medium and five inches of lightweight planting mix,” Lauren explains.

Garden designer Lauren Schneider gave me a personal tour of Margarido House's exterior spaces

Garden designer Lauren Schneider gave me a personal tour of Margarido House's exterior spaces

The dramatic design includes sedums and sempervivums, golden barrel cactus, lewisia, Cleveland sage, lavender, deer grass, and Libertia peregrinans, a New Zealand iris relative valued for its bronzy-orange blades.

This garden provides top-down insular qualities that cool or warm the home, depending on the season. Flowers and stems of Cleveland sage, silhouetted against the sky, can even be seen through the skylight that illuminates the master bath. The roof garden invites its viewers to look close and study the interplay of plant colors and forms. In an abstract way, they echo the distant scenery where treetops and buildings form an irregular city skyline.

You can read the full story here. And enjoy this gallery of photos that I shot when visiting this past May. You’ll see details that caught my eye and get a fuller sense of this amazing landscape and home.

Rooftop Crop: Edible Gardens Overhead

Thursday, June 11th, 2009
A sculptural vegetable garden grows on a downtown Los Angeles rooftop

A sculptural vegetable garden grows on a downtown Los Angeles rooftop

I wrote about Los Angeles’s gardens-in-the-sky in 2007, so when my chef-photographer friend Rico Mandel told me about a rooftop vegetable and herb garden that fellow chef Jonathan McDowell had been cultivating, I was excited to learn more. And to see it!

We grabbed a Starbucks and hopped on the freeway a few days ago to drive to downtown Los Angeles. On the way, I told Rico about an article I had just read in the January 2009 issue of Growing for Market, a journal for local food and flower producers. It was written by Marc Boucher-Colbert, a Portland sustainable farmer who created Rocket Restaurant’s rooftop garden with table-high steel planting troughs and 39 lightweight “kiddie” wading pools.

“Kiddie pools – how do you like that?” I asked Rico. “That’s cheap, lightweight and clever, isn’t it?” He silently chuckled to himself. Later, I understood why. Because what Jonathan had to show us was as far from a plastic wading pool as you could get.

bluevelvetBlue Velvet restaurant occupies the ground floor of a 10-story, 1960s-looking (but new) apartment building – all horizontal lines and clean facade. Jonathan met us in the parking lot and took us up the elevator to the top floor; we climbed a flight of stairs and emerged onto the roof.

Rico hinted about the totally unusual, sculptural design that contains Blue Velvet’s edible crop, but there was no way I could have envisioned the fluid, galvanized metal, Frank Gehryesque installation in front of me. What the . . . ?

"Gutters" hold trailing rosemary in a vertical wall system.

"Gutters" hold trailing rosemary in a vertical wall system.

Turns out, this creation was fabricated on site to mold up and across a bleacher-like frame that hides HVAC units and other commercial rooftop paraphernalia.

It begins as a 10-foot vertical installation of long, horizontal channels – stacked almost like a wall of roof gutters. Many of the sections are planted with trailing rosemary. We marveled at the metal material. Even though Rico and I visited on a dreary, cool day in June, there’s no denying Southern California’s heat and sun effect. “Oh, well, this wall is north-facing, so at least it’s away from the most intense heat,” I commented.

“Wait until you see the rest of the roof,” Jonathan promised.

We walked a few yards across the roof, following that vertical wall of herbs, and I noticed how this “metal farm” took on kinetic qualities, wrapping over and around the “stuff” on the roof (and in the process, facing due south!).

Fluid, shaped metal planting channels hold veggies and herbs

Fluid, shaped metal planting channels hold veggies and herbs

plantedroof3To get an idea of how this scheme looks in person, take a sheet of paper from your printer and fold it back and forth every 1/2-inch or so. This is how we made paper “fans” when we were kids. Open up the paper slightly so there are V-shaped pleats. Now, imagine translating that texture to sheet metal. The V-shapes create long planting channels, about 4- to 8-inches at the deepest point. Sections of the metal, welded together every 18-20 inches or so, take form, twisting, bending and turning as a beautiful sculpture.

veggiesBut for all practicality, in responding to this design as a gardener, I have to admit that a million questions flooded my mind. How can tender herbs, greens and vegetables handle this sun-baked, roots-against-metal, rooftop condition, especially in July and August when it is ugly-hot? Moreover, where was the irrigation?

Jonathan, who just completed a four-year stint at Blue Velvet (two years as sous-chef and two years as head chef), looked at me and shrugged. Although he wasn’t involved in the design of the “garden,” Jonathan was tasked with figuring out how to grow plants in it. That has meant filling those pockets and grooves with soil and planting veggies in an artful way. There’s no denying this is an evocative design. “It pleases the eye,” Chef Jonathan acknowledges. “It has attracted a lot of attention.”

But – duh. Every square inch of this garden has to be hand-watered.

“In L.A.’s restaurant gardens, freshness is grown to order,” a May 20th Los Angeles Times Food article, Betty Hallock featured Blue Velvet’s rooftop garden, quoting its designer, architect Alexis Rochas: “The point was to experiment with how to turn infertile ground into a fertile one,” he said.

Chef Jonathan McDowell and Chef-photographer Rico Mandel

Chef Jonathan McDowell and Chef-photographer Rico Mandel

That’s an admirable goal. But the experiment has revealed that plants here don’t thrive against metal, and the absence of drip irrigation – that could direct moisture straight to root zones – is a negative. I’m worried that those hand-watering duties will likely be neglected when the guys in the kitchen get super busy!

Metromix Los Angeles recently featured “rooftop gardens” in a trend report by Krista Simmons. She included Blue Velvet’s in-the-sky garden, calling it “a sweeping silver flatbed . . . strikingly similar to the Walt Disney Concert Hall.” Simmons points out that the garden doesn’t generate enough to sustain the restaurant, but adds: “. . . McDowell does use the produce for tasting menus, amuse bouches and specialty holiday events.”

I applaud the rooftop restaurant garden. It’s a great vehicle to bring the “seasonal, sustainable and local” concept from garden to plate. To succeed, however, Blue Velvet needs a retrofit. Maybe getting an irrigation specialist up to that rooftop will help. Ask a professional market farmer or gardener to consult on how to better grow and sustain these poor little plants – they looked pretty stressed out! After all, part of the sustainable equation is to work with nature and create a supportive growing environment so that plants are productive and bountiful.

More reading: INHABIT, a design blog

Everyone wants a “green” planted wall

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009
Carina Langstraat's delicious planted wall

Carina Langstraat's delicious planted wall

Green walls are the hot, new, must-have landscape design element. The Europeans were the first to figure out how to engineer large-scale planted walls, inspiring some innovative American designers to follow with their own twist. From my research, most are here on the West Coast, natch.

My friend Flora Grubb in San Francisco has received quite a bit of press for her avant-garde planted wall tapestries that incorporate everything from succulents to air plants (Tillandsias). 

And recently, the Los Angeles Times featured green wall designs using edibles (by Go Green Gardeners’ Anne Phillips) and California native plants + succulents embedded with LED lighting (by L.A. artist Michel Horvat).


Garden writers have been describing “vertical elements” in the landscape for years. Traditionally, this idea involved arbors, trellises, fences and other structures upon which vines and climbing plants are trained. An explosion of interest in “green” planted roofs – including here in Los Angeles – followed. Pamela Berstler and Marliee Kuhlmann, two cool LA designers, create planted succulent “sky-scapes” for their clients’ garden roofs. I’ve seen, touched, and admired their work – and I can tell you, a lush, foliage-strewn roof is a lot more snazzy (and eco-smart) than tile, composite or tar!

But privately, some designers have confided to me their concern about liability issues involved in engineering green roofs. Even when I wrote on this topic for the Los Angeles Times in 2007, the experts I quoted cautioned that roof structures should be designed with load-bearing supports to manage soil/planting medium, handling moisture, and just the sheer weight of plants.

So, it’s only natural that the planted wall is the next installment of “plants-as-architecture” – a trend that seems more achievable than a green roof. I love seeing how designers are “going vertical” with a planted foliage palette.


One of my favorite designers, Seattle-based Carina Langstraat (who runs Langstraat-Wood Landscape Architecture & Design with her landscape architect partner Erik Wood), has recently engineered a 4-foot by 5-foot green wall prototype at her Ballard studio. She shared with me photos and tips on how she created the system. It’s exciting to think about the possibilities, whether you’re willing to play around with this concept on your own or if you want to hire a professional.