Debra Prinzing

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Spring bulbs, this time in planters

Monday, March 7th, 2011

A galvanized flower bucket is paired with plum-purple tulips and shimmery pink glass as a soil topper

A year ago this month, I met my photographer friend Jack Coyier and his assistant Stuart Gow at a great location perched above the ocean in Malibu. My car was filled with flats of flowering bulbs – tulips, hyacinths, daffodils, grape muscari blooms — and an assortment of perennials and annuals as their companions. Oh, and lots of pots.

Color-coded pots, selected to match or coordinate with the blooms of spring bulbs purchased in 4-inch pots and nursery flats. It was a bulb garden in a Volvo station wagon!

March 2011 Better Homes & Gardens

We photographed a feature that I created for Better Homes & Gardens, which you can find in this month’s issue.

Called “Matched Sets,” the story gives hope and design inspiration to anyone who forgot to plant bulbs last fall.

It’s not too late to buy beautiful flowering bulbs, just peeking out of their buds. In Seattle at least, we have a variety of narcissus and daffodils, grape hyacinth, a gazillion tulip choices and at least three colors (pink, white and dark purple) hyacinth.

For a few bucks, you can plant these in a container, plunk it on your front porch or patio, and look like a genius who really did think about bulb-planting last October.

When you match the pot color to the bloom color, the design packs a punch. In some examples you see here, I tweaked the rules; in others, I didn’t deviate from the palette’s theme. It was fun working with Stuart and Jack, and seeing this story in print brings back some great memories of our day together on location in Malibu.

Two of the designs we shot didn’t make it to the pages of BH&G, so I’ve included them here. The first is above right. Below is a detail shot of how perfectly the glass marbles look as a color-matched soil topper, followed by a close-up of the not-used hyacinth design:

An affordable and reusable way to add color to any pot design.

The hyacinths didn't behave well that day, but I do love the checkerboard accent of white alyssum with dark purple ajuga at the base of each container.

My absolutely favorite design: Oval-shaped blue-glazed pot, with blue=green echeverias and sweet blue grape hyacinth (muscari) bulbs.

Simple tips to get started:

  1. Select bulbs with blooms that match your container’s color
  2. Add cool-season annuals, grasses, succulents, or perennials that match or complement the palette
  3. Plant bulbs first, then pack other plants around them so the bulbs seem to be emerging through the plants at the base.
  4. Remember the basics: Use potting mix and a container that has proper drainage.
  5. Water regularly.

Sources: Blue pot (Sperling Nursery & Gift Shop, Woodland Hills, CA), square wood containers (Rolling Greens Nursery, Los Angeles), galvanized flower pot (Michael’s Craft Stores).

Growing Vegetables Organically: an old technique for new gardeners

Saturday, June 20th, 2009
The layered, above ground, "no-dig," organic vegetable bed

The layered, above ground, "no-dig," organic vegetable bed

Here’s a sneak peek at a story that I’ll be reporting for an upcoming issue of Organic Gardening magazine.

I stopped by Pat Marfisi’s house in the Hollywood Hills last evening to tour his unusual “no-dig” veggie patch and to say hello to Pat and my colleague Jack Coyier, who’s photographing Pat’s prolific garden for my piece.

I arrived around 5:30 p.m. The late afternoon light was beautiful and warm. Pat’s dog “VaBene” (Italian for “it’s going well”) came down the street to greet me, followed by his owner: A grinning face under a broad-brimmed straw hat; strong gardener’s arms, emerging from a soft green T-shirt; functional jeans and black sneakers. He was in his element with vegetables, soil, and a harmonic convergence of pollinating native bees darting around to their heart’s content.


With apologies to Jack, who with his camera was preoccupied with artistic portraits of young squashes and pole beans, I launched into “interview mode” with Pat. Every word that emerged from his mouth was inspiring – practically prophetic. This was just a meet-and-greet visit. It wasn’t supposed to be an interview. I grabbed my notebook and pen and started scribbling furiously to capture our conversation. 


His face hidden under a brim, Pat demonstrates the layering method

His face hidden under a brim, Pat demonstrates the layering method

A central pathway cuts through the narrow garden with no-dig beds lining each side

A central pathway cuts through the narrow garden with no-dig beds lining each side

Pat was profiled last summer in an article by Lisa Boone for the Los Angeles Times Home section. Willi Galloway, west coast editor for Organic Gardening, saw the piece and tracked Pat down to learn more about his unusual method of layering newspapers, alfalfa, straw and compost – with a bit of blood meal and bone meal stirred in – to grow edibles above ground. He plants straight into this towering medium, which is a good alternative to tilling up poor soil or back-breaking “double-dig” methods. As I was trying to understand the process, I jotted this explanation down on the page: He creates rich soil while at the same time grows food in it.  


When Willi asked me to interview Pat and write the article for Organic Gardening, I was thrilled! I remember reading Lisa’s piece when it came out and learning that this practice of sandwiching organic materials (some also call this the “lasagna” technique) was decades old. Pat picked it up during an early retirement trip to Australia and New Zealand, where he volunteered on organic farms. He’s refined the scheme in his own LA garden and now teaches it to schools and community groups. He’s a modern day vegetable gardening Pied Piper.

kalesquashetcAs I’ve mentioned here before, some people learn by reading or doing, but I tend to learn by writing about something. I fall in love with each tree or flower I find myself writing about. I become fascinated with a style, a material, a project as I craft the narrative piece that will be published and read by others. 

I suspect it will be the same when I learn more about Pat’s process of growing food with abundance – in a very small area with few resources, natural or physical. I can’t wait to actually write this story (after returning to spend more time with Pat), and to see how it turns out in print with Jack’s photos.


Until then, the photos you see here are some of my snapshots to illustrate what Pat’s up to in his few hundred square feet of level land on an otherwise very steep 1/5th-acre urban lot.

A Malibu garden party worth writing about

Thursday, February 26th, 2009

gardendesign0309001Designers Scott Shrader and Julie Millgan are friends who teamed up to produce a fantastic garden party for GARDEN DESIGN Magazine’s March 2009 issue (on newsstands now). I am the fortunate scribe who was asked to tell the story of their “Sunset Soiree” (which is what I titled the 10-page article). A great shot of Scott Shrader’s custom fire table appears on the cover of the magazine.

Here’s the background: Scott designed the outdoor living spaces of a modified A-frame midcentury beach house owned by Rea Laccone and Paul Perla, a style-savvy couple who run the casual fashion line called Vince USA.

When the project was completed, Rea and Paul suggested that Scott invite a few friends and clients to “show off” the project and celebrate. He took them up on it and recruited Julie Milligan, herself a fave Garden Design landscape designer, to produce and co-host the party.

Garden Design sent along Jack Coyier, a great photographer (this is my third article illustrated by Jack’s photographs – his images also accompany a piece Metropolitan Home’s March issue and last September’s Garden Design cover story about Ron Radziner’s garden in Venice). Through his lens, Coyier captures the playful, carefree nature of the space, the event, the people and the food — with gorgeous shots.

Scott Shrader and Julie Milligan - on location in Malibu

Scott Shrader and Julie Milligan - on location in Malibu

Even though this is an outdoor entertaining piece, the story naturally centers around its designed environment and the oceanside setting. Buy the magazine in order to really feast your eyes on the photos. Or read it here, on my web site: Sunset Soiree.

For the student of landscape design, this project offers several important take-aways. This is not a plant-centric space, so some hort-heads may scoff that Garden Design actually describes it as a “garden.”

But by designing with stone, textiles, elements like fire and water – and plants – Scott has created a magnetic reason for his clients to spend time outdoors.

And isn’t that the point, the mission of everyone in the garden-making world? To advocate for the role of exterior design and put it on par (or even elevate it!) with architecture and interior design? Scott has hit a home run with this project.

A stucco half-wall encloses the U-shaped banquette that Scott Shrader designed for his Malibu clients

A stucco half-wall encloses the U-shaped banquette that Scott Shrader designed for his Malibu clients

Even though you’d think it would be awesome to live by the beach (who wouldn’t?), there are some pretty harsh conditions here to challenge a homeowner and designer alike. The extremes range from intense sunlight and heat to intense wind and chilly temperatures. So the design thoughtfully accommodates the elements and helps protects those who spend time in the outdoor spaces.

To begin with, the home’s entry area (the non-ocean side) was really just a jumble of grass and an aging deck. Scott reconfigured these “negative” volumes to form a spacious outdoor living room. It doubles as the entry courtyard, enclosed on four sides. Two sides are created by the “L” of the home; new walls form the other two sides (one wall has a rustic wood entry gate; the other is the backdrop to a linear pool of water level with the “floor” of the space). The courtyard is by no means dark because sunlight flows through the beach house. Glass walls on the home’s west and east sides give the home a see-through quality.

On the western side of Rea and Paul’s house is a serene sunset-viewing terrace. When the winds die down, the couple adjourns to this partially-covered outdoor room. Sinking into comfy armchairs, they can prop their feet up on the versatile basalt table-bench-firepit and watch the orange-red orb disappear beyond the Pacific’s horizon. A lone palm tree – part of the borrowed scenery – adds a bit of perspective to the scene.

The new basalt patio faces the ocean; new furnishings from Janus et Cie are placed around a cool basalt fire feature.

The new basalt patio faces the ocean; new furnishings from Janus et Cie are placed around a cool basalt fire feature.

Here are some of Scott’s the smart design ideas:

  • Palette: Inspired by the fashion colors in the Vince clothing line, Scott worked with a range of gray hues (this means a monochromatic use of pewter-colored basalt, aluminum planter boxes and smoke-gray cushion/pillow fabric choices). Shrader translated Vince’s spectrum of warm-toned neutrals – ranging from dove-gray to dark gunmetal – into a tranquil and unified garden environment.  “If you look at the Vince clothing line, you see warm grays. I wanted to use that palette and keep things minimal and clean to reflect Rea and Paul’s  life,” he says.
  • Function: This is not just a pretty space to observe from an indoor vantage point. The courtyard has multiple functions, with a U-shaped chaise providing incredibly generous seating (what do I mean by the term “generous”? I can easily imagine several intimate clusters of two or three friends in intense conversation OR 20 hipsters for pre-dinner drinks). But what I like most, as I said in the article, is that Scott created a cozy, curl-up-your-feet kind of space. When there are gusts of wind at the shore, this space is protected; blocked mostly by the home’s architecture.
  • More Function comes by way of the 6-by-6 foot coffee-table cum buffet-counter. It is the most utilitarian element of this setting. Hidden castor wheels enable its movement, rolling in-and-out of the “U” seating area. Custom designed by Scott Shrader and fabricated of weathered teak (very beachy), the chunk of wood is earthy and durable. Piled with beverages and hors d’oeuvres during the photo shoot, it earned its weight in gold.
  • Even More Function is revealed in the basalt-wrapped fire feature, pictured on Garden Design’s cover. The heat source doubles as a cocktail table and bench. Its flames are mesmerizing; you can get even closer to the warmth by perching on the ledge. “This part of the garden is fairly limited in size, so I wanted to give it a warm element and make it a generous gathering space,” Scott says.

Cliipped Carolina laurel cherry hedges form a transitional corridor between the two gardens

Clipped Carolina laurel cherry hedges form a transitional corridor between the two gardens

Where plants are used in this landscape, they serve as architectural and sculptural purposes. The opening shot of the magazine spread depicts one of Scott’s guests as she walks through a hallway of green (which creates a maze-like journey from entry courtyard to oceanside terrace). The hedge-walls are formed by clipped Carolina laurel cherry (Prunus caroliniana). Simple and dramatic. So much more exciting than a few stepping stones that could serve a similar, but ordinary purpose.

Just inside the front gate is another beautiful and functional feature – a basalt counter that acts as a foyer table. On it, Scott placed a potted bonsai of boxwood. It has just as much presence as if he put a small ornament or sculpted object instead. Phormiums and agaves also lend sculptural form; they are mulched with Japanese black river rock, which looks sleek, modern, and works with the overall slate-gray palette.

Finally, there are two private miniature gardens outside the guest bedrooms. Scott treated these spaces as still-lifes; he called them “planted beach” scenes. Grasses and phormiums emerge from a salt-and-pepper mixed gravel carpet. A stone bench, planted with a moss “seat” is quiet and meditative in feeling. I can understand the sense of calm that settles over Rea and Paul when they escape here after an intense week in the city. This is another world altogether.

I ended the article with this paragraph:

To Rea and Paul, the Malibu getaway is one of the only places they can relax and unwind. Rea loves the “boundary-less environment” that encourages her to easily move from indoor spaces to the open-air ones. “Sometimes we quietly sneak out here by ourselves,” Rea says. Yet she’s happy to welcome friends, even during sweater weather. “How lucky am I? “Paul and I are both from New England, so we couldn’t be more excited to live near the ocean and where we need our sweaters.”

So, you can tell that I loved this garden and I certainly loved writing about it!