Debra Prinzing

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All about designing with gravel

Sunday, April 3rd, 2011

A few weeks ago I had a phone date with Stephen Orr, the guy who has held all the jobs I’d love to have: Garden Editor for House & Garden magazine; Garden Editor for Domino magazine . . . and now, garden editorial director for Martha Stewart Living magazine.

He is one of the friendliest and most genuine individuals I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet in the magazine world. It was a treat for me to interview Stephen about the publication of Tomorrow’s Garden, his first book. I’ve met Stephen in person a few times, both in Los Angeles at a Garden Conservancy symposium, and in San Francisco when I spoke at Flora Grubb Nursery after Stylish Sheds and Elegant Hideaways, my own book, was published. We garden writers really do live in a small world!

Thanks to Craig Nakano, my editor at the Los Angeles Times HOME section, for agreeing to feature my Q&A with Stephen.

You can click here for the full story. And click here for a web gallery of Stephen’s photography that accompanies his book. Here is an excerpt of my interview with Stephen:

“People don’t think much about where gravel comes from as a resource,” Orr said, yet gravel gardens are becoming increasingly popular. His book features gravel landscapes from Venice and Ojai to Austin, Texas, to Nantucket, Mass. We asked him to discuss gravel as a sustainable design material:

What appeals to you about the use of gravel?

It is such a great base for many styles, from traditional to modern. There are plenty of people in Los Angeles and San Francisco who have jumped on the bandwagon wanting to make low-water gardens, but I’m happy to see it catching on in other parts of the country. The California lifestyle is so amazing, with outdoor rooms, and they can be “floored” differently. One room could be floored with grass, another with stone pavers or gravel.

Designers praise gravel gardens as permeable and an alternative to lawns. How has your view of the material changed?

I was visiting nursery owner Flora Grubb in San Francisco, and she told me she often recommends gravel to customers. And then the question “Where does it come from?” came up. Our conversation opened my eyes to begin viewing gravel as a finite resource.

Where does it come from?

As with so many environmental choices, the decisions we make trying to do the right thing are complex and often somewhat overwhelming. In many cases, gravel does indeed come from local quarries. The Austin gardens in my book used local gravel. Those gardeners like how it matches the colors of the natural geology around them. But in other areas, its origin is a big question mark. Even after a lot of research, I found I still have a lot of questions about how responsibly gravel is mined. The EPA monitors gravel production, which is a huge industry mainly for construction and highway building. In comparison, gravel for gardening use is minor, but it’s still something to be conscious of.

What questions should homeowners be asking about the gravel they buy?

I suggest you approach it like having a local consciousness of food. Don’t buy bags of gravel if you don’t know where it comes from. It may be shipped longer distances than is environmentally responsible. Try instead to source the material close to home.

What type of gravel do you recommend?

There is a difference between “crushed stone,” which has sharper edges, and “pea gravel,” which is rounded. Some people prefer walking on the rounded pea gravel, but consider the environmental impact it takes to extract it from ancient stream-beds formed by alluvial processes over millennia. Pea gravel isn’t a manufactured product. It’s not even a renewable resource. Many forward-thinking designers are switching to more jagged, crushed limestone or granite instead.

Any tips on how gravel should be installed?

One major thing I learned is that the depth of gravel is important. If it’s laid too deep, it’s like trudging through deep snow. Most of the designers I interviewed recommend you first put down a layer of “road base,” bigger pieces of crushed stone — an inch or two in length. Lay it very flat with a compactor and then place just a few inches of crushed gravel or pea gravel on top. This approach makes a very stable surface.

What are some of the interesting ways people use gravel?

I love the modern look of some of the gardens in my book. But I also really love gravel gardens with a more traditional influence where plants are encouraged to self-sow. I’m a plant nut. I come at gardening because I love plants. So to me, the space that contains the plant — the garden — is a frame to show them off. I love seeing volunteers like verbena or a spire of silver verbascum in the gravel. Or, I like to see gravel as the flooring for a spare space containing just a water feature.

Do you see gravel as the anti-lawn?

I like to see gravel and lawn used in combination. Just as a lot of us live without wall-to-wall carpet and instead have rugs with wood floors, I encourage people to think of their lawn as an area rug. Think about using it with an element of crushed rock, such as a flat area under a tree or where you need better drainage.

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!