Koishikawa Botanical Gardens, Finding Inspiration

Koishikawa Botanical Gardens
Japanese Garden at Koishikawa Botanical Gardens

One of my favorite things to do since I’ve been living in Tokyo is to pick out any garden on the map and go for an explore. It’s a pretty great way to see the city considering the abundance of gardens and parks scattered throughout. On this particular day, I discovered Koishikawa Botanical Gardens, which wasn’t even close to what I thought I was looking for.

It was the very beginning of summer and the tail end of the Ajisai (Hydrangea) blooming season. I was excitedly looking for the most stunning display of blooms that I could find. Back home in the scorching Los Angeles heat, Hydrangeas—total water hogs—have simply gone out of fashion because they do not conform to our Water Wise culture. This was my opportunity to see something new.


After reading one of my trusty expat blogs I landed on the perfect place to see them: Hakusan Shrine! It took me a full hour on the train followed by a 10 minute walk to get there. But I’m always happy to go to great lengths for a fabulous garden. As I approached, a throng of visitors with impressive camera equipment in tow told me that I must be in the right place.

The shrine was small but beautiful, and there were blooms but certainly not in the vast quantities I had imagined. Try as I did to be enthusiastic the wow-factor I was looking for after such a long journey was absent. But, I’d been living in Tokyo for about a year now, so I fully appreciate that there is an unimpressive ratio of hits to misses when you follow recommendations on expat blogs. One just has to be prepared, each time, to experience either knock-your-socks-off amazement or utter disappointment.

I spent a generous 20 minutes at the Shrine, pulled out my phone and found another patch of green on the map to go and check out. I’m so glad I did!


The Koishikawa Botanical Garden is an extension of the Graduate School of Science at the University of Tokyo. Visitors to the garden—locals, foreigners and students alike—were exploring, relaxing, and working to identify and classify the various species of plants.

It was early summer. The weather seemed to be easing me in to the oppressive heat that would descend any day. I entered the garden and strolled along a densely wooded path, up the side of a ravine, emerging onto a clearing. In stark contrast, orderly botanical gardens grouped specimens of medicinal, aromatic and systemic plants. The demonstration of biodiversity and intricate classifications of vascular plants marched in tidy double rows. This seemed a total divorce from the wild that I had just passed through moments ago.

Next in my discovery were vast meadows carpeted with blooming clover. All a-buzz, it was alive with drunken bees and butterflies loop-de-looing from flower to flower.

The garden expanded out before me with ever more surprises. My next stop was a memorial—a substantial stone with a plaque nearby commemorating the 1923 Tokyo-Yokohama Earthquake. It along with the resulting fires and tsunamis decimated the city leaving 140,000 people dead and thousands homeless. Survivors flooded into the Koishikawa Botanical Gardens for refuge. While many left within a few months, some stayed, making it their home for over 2 years.


Continuing on I walked through another more wooded section of the garden before coming upon a clearing. Beyond it revealed a magnificent traditional Japanese garden. The babbling river spilled into a picturesque lake where a gasp of Koi and a few turtles were paddling about. Beyond the lake sat a stunning red building housing the University’s museum. I’m not exaggerating to say that the beauty of this garden stopped me in my tracks.

Although I felt satisfied with my journey at that point, I wasn’t even close to finished. There was a shrine nested into a hillside, and a Ginkgo biloba tree, instrumental in the early days of botanical research. Newton’s Apple Tree, said to be grafted from the original and given to Y. Shibata, the former president of the Japan Academy by Sir G. Sutherland the former director of the National Physical Laboratory is also there. That’s right, a grafted apple tree from which the fateful apple tumbled upon the revered physicist’s head is right there in Tokyo.

My last stop at Koishikawa Botanical Gardens was a demonstration trial of sweet potato farming. Perhaps this doesn’t sound like a big deal but I assure you, sweet potatoes are a thing here! Tiny example—Starbucks does not offer a Pumpkin Spice Latte in Tokyo, rather a Sweet Potato Latte. No joke!

All in all this garden was a real treat!


Koishikawa Botanical Gardens is beautiful on so many different levels. It is a supremely peaceful place. Whether you prefer fields, woods or the gardens, there is something for everyone. Respite from the chaos of the city lets you enjoy the beauty of nature and inspired design.

This experience, however, was so much more than that. It was a reminder that every so often it’s important to step off the path you’re on. Sometimes we get so caught up in what we’re we think we’re supposed to be doing, that we miss opportunities. We miss the bigger picture.

That day in July, I thought I was going to see a shrine and some Hydrangeas. That was the plan. Once the plan turned out to be a bust and a total disappointment there was a slight pause: do I pack up and go home, or improvise?

When I’m designing a garden, I know exactly what products and materials I want to use. I’ve already done the research from over 20 years in the business. There’s one place I go to for modern planters and a different one for traditional planters. I go to the same vendor for lighting because they have exactly the model that I prefer. I know what types of stone I can get at my trusty rock and gravel supplier, Sunburst Rock. And yet, I know that there are innumerable resources, both conventional and otherwise, out there.


This little adventure in disappointment and triumph reminds me that in my quest to create spectacular, innovative gardens I must spend more time seeing the world around me. The most amazing objects, places, and creative ideas are there for the taking. When I’m hyper focused on finding something specific, perhaps I’m missing something even more exquisite. By accepting that the shrine wasn’t a win then opening my eyes to possibilities, I discovered something even more valuable.

Happy hunting!

Product Review: Hyperowl Garden Grafting Tool


I first saw an ad for the Hyperowl Garden Grafting Tool on Instagram about six months ago. People have been talking about how great Insta’s ad targeting is but I had simply never seen it. They’d been feeding me ads for cosmetics—hilarious because I only occasionally wear mascara—so those ads get no traction with me. But this one I kept coming back to.

I had never even once attempted to graft a tree! But this nifty tool had me mesmerized, dreaming of the magical fruit concoctions that I could create. Demonstrating the perfect puzzle notch cutting feature, I was simply Wowed! I needed to know more!

One of my Gardening Specialists had been doing quite a bit of grafting recently so I quickly sent her a link to inform her of this wonder-tool. To which she promptly informed me that she had been using this tool for over a year. So, I set aside some time for an interview with Jana.

a conversation with jana: about the Hyperowl grafting tool

Natalie: You’ve been grafting fruit trees for a while now. Have you ever done any grafting with a different tool prior to using the Hyperowl?  

Jana: I’ve been grafting for about three years now so considering you have to wait for a while to see whether your effort was a success, that’s not a long time. That said, I’m definitely planning continue on the bumpy road of manipulating nature. I started out using a grafting knife, which certainly challenges a person’s mental endurance, since you’re often holding that very sharp knife in heart-attack inducing positions. It was bad enough when I practiced on cut branches, but became truly challenging when working up in a tree, balancing on a ladder, holding the grafting tape in my mouth and being poked by a branch in both eyes. Then, I joined the California Rare Fruit Growers organization and attended their annual graft exchange. That’s when they presented the grafting tool that would make my life much easier.

Natalie: That sounds completely treacherous! So when you started using the Hyperowl Garden Grafting Tool instead of a knife, in addition to reducing the dangers, did you find it to be sturdy?

Jana: The tool is well made, lightweight and works effectively. It is very important to spray the blades with a bleach solution between cuts so that you don’t end up spreading disease between grafts and trees. Because I do that after every single cut, the metal blade is a little rusty, which doesn’t bother me at all. 

Natalie: Do you feel like it gives you a clean cut? Do the notches fit together perfectly?

Jana: It cuts well and the cuts are clean. To make a complementary cut, you simply turn the tool, therefore the cuts match perfectly as long as the circumference of the graft matches the circumference of the receiving branch closely. You want as much contact as possible between their respective cambium layers (the thin green layer right under the outer bark) for the best possible success rate. The only challenge for me is to center the receiving branch so that the cut is even on both sides, especially when the branch is quite thin. It is easier to achieve an even placement of the cut on the graft, since you’re holding the graft in your hand. Ideally, there should be a centering mechanism or visual aid to help center the cut. That would be my main suggestion if the manufacturer wanted a tip on how to improve the tool.

Natalie: Do you use the cellophane that they provided or something different?  Are there any other ways that you’ve modified how you use this tool compared with the way it was intended?

Jana: I like to use Parafilm instead (available online), it’s more stretchy and adheres to itself more readily, which is a desirable trait when trying to achieve a good seal. Also, three different attachments are provided to create a different shape of cuts, but I picked one that seems to be working best for me and I don’t bother switching them.

a conversation with jana: about grafting

Natalie: What types of trees have you grafted with it.  Are any types more successful than others?

Jana: I have grafted citrus, apple, apricot, pomegranate, persimmon and avocado. Citrus, was the most successful with this tool. I want to mention it’s crucial to get citrus graft material from Citrus Clonal Protection Program (CCPP). The program of University of California Riverside offers grafts free from citrus greening disease (aka Huanglongbing or HLB disease) a quickly spreading, fatal disease for citrus trees. CCPP offers an incredible selection of grafts for very reasonable prices. I also grafted apple (90% success), apricot (90%), pomegranate (50%) and avocado (so far so… not good). It’s also possible to graft various fruit onto one tree, as long as they are closely related. I recently successfully grafted plum onto apricot, as well as several different crosses like plumcot, aprium and nectaplum onto my apricot tree.  

Natalie: How successful would you say your grafts are with this tool vs. with the grafting knife?

When a fat bird sits on your graft.

Jana: There are many factors at play when it comes to grafting success. The quality of the graft, the time of year, the grafting technique, and how fat the birds are that land on your new graft. Fruit trees require different individual grafting techniques. Citrus trees and persimmons, warrant bud grafting, in which a grafting knife must be used. You cut a T shape in the bark of the receiving branch, peel the bark to expose the cambium layer and then insert the bud into the space. Despite having an extensive theoretical knowledge of the technique, my success rate on that one was zero.

The next best method for citrus is the Z cut method, which also requires the use of a grafting knife. A series of heat waves followed my grafting spree. The rate of success on that one was about 10%. Then I attempted to graft citrus with the Hyperowl and the success rate was about 20%. Not amazing but much better than using the other methods. Here is a note of caution when using the Z cut method on citrus. Your arms will look like a mountain lion used you as a scratching post. Using this tool it’s more like you had a play date with a rambunctious house cat. When I used the Hyperowl on apple and apricot trees, the success rate was about 90%. It made the process infinitely faster and more convenient—no animal analogies required.

final word

I really enjoyed getting this information from Jana about grafting. Although I spend most of my waking hours in gardens, designing them, visiting them and writing about them, grafting is something that I’ve never really delved into before now. The challenge excites me and the discovery of this tool has me ready to dive in head first.

What about you? Are you an experienced grafter? If so, let me know what your favorite methods are. And if not, what do you think? Will you give it a try?

Good luck!

Draw Them In Deep

MAKE THE MOST OUT OF The Far Corners Of Your Garden

The best part about having a garden is…using it! Whether you want to have activities, entertain guests, or just sit back and enjoy, the important thing is that it’s there for your pleasure, anytime. But every garden has an neglected or unsightly corner, right? How do you make the most out of those spaces? Sure, the patio next to the back door gets a lot of action, but how do you draw them in deep to take full advantage of every square foot?


Do you have a junk drawer in your house? No judgment here. Surely we all have at least one. (I think I have three). Unfortunately, for a long time, I also had one in the garden. There were pots with dead plants, 5 dozen bamboo poles I rescued but didn’t have a plan for, an assortment of orphaned pavers and bricks, my son’s punching bag that never got punched. What a mess! The best part was that it was in a hidden patio behind the garage. No one could see it. The worst part was that it was in a hidden patio behind the garage. No one could use it.

There in lies the problem. These garden junk drawers become barriers to using real living spaces. If you don’t fix them, you’re surrendering part of your property! Other common barriers to having functional spaces are:

  • Broken or nonexistent paths
  • Large items stored without containers
  • Broken down fencing
  • Unpleasant views
  • Uneven paving
  • Overgrown plants requiring maintenance

Think of it this way. What if you suddenly found out that your neighbor’s fence was built 5’ inside your property line? Probably you would want to reclaim that space, right? So, let’s look at how we can reclaim space in order to take control over what we already own.

How to make the most out of the far corners of the garden

How do you draw them in deep? The same way we do it inside the house. People use the kitchen because that’s where the food is. The living room has the t.v. and places to sit. The bedroom is where we go to sleep. The bathroom…well, you get the idea. Rooms have a purpose.

Gardens should also be designed with rooms that have a purpose because, when you do, people will go to them.

Include these rooms to Draw Them In Deep

  • Cooking/dining room: depending on the space available they might be the same place or divided, but they are always adjacent to one another
  • Entertaining room: this may be part of the dining or lounging room and has an adequate amount of seating for your needs. It’s the place you bring your guests to enjoy the outdoors
  • Lounging/relaxing room: outwardly looking in to the garden
  • Private room: inside and surrounded by the garden
  • Fun and games room: big open flat space for games
  • Vegetable garden and gardening work room: a great place to have a potting table and shelves for proper storage of garden tools, amendments, and pots

These are all garden rooms that have purpose and that, matched with the right family, would get a lot of great use—IF they are convenient to access. If an outdoor room is inconvenient to get to or cluttered and messy, no one will go there!

do’s and don’ts to creating spaces that draw them in deep:

  • DO make sure there is a smooth, direct, and uncomplicated path to your room. If it is at the top or bottom of a slope, it is imperative that you either have a smoothly leveled and paved ramping system, or a proper set of steps. By proper I mean they should be no shorter than 5 1/2” and no taller than 6 1/2”. The tread should be no smaller than 12” deep. You can still use natural materials like wood or stone, but they must follow those dimensions and be perfectly stable. Even if it’s a flat path, be sure that you have a paving or planted surface that is maintained. Gravel, decomposed granite, even mulch is fine if it’s properly maintained. If it’s planted, be sure it’s trimmed and filled in. No one wants to walk through mud, sand or scratchy, tall brush to “relax”.
  • DON’T store “stuff” outside in or near your destination room. Whether it’s garden tools, extra pavers, or that broken bike that you plan on fixing yourself as soon as you have a free minute, it should be put neatly away in a storage unit. Home Depot or any hardware store will have Rubbermaid units of various sizes. Even an ugly storage unit is better than no storage unit. Trust me on this. Apart from being unsightly, that broken bike or extra pavers will remind you of what you haven’t had time to do. Every. Single. Time. And not only won’t you go out there but you definitely won’t bring guests.
  • DO make creative storage a challenge. A custom wood bench, with the correct dimensions can store tons of stuff. If you get some sizes of plastic storage containers and make a bench with storage in the seat, and a slow closing hinge for the lid you can hide a lot of sins. Also, built in BBQ’s have a lot of storage, and slim cabinets can be built along perimeter fencing or walls just like inside the house.
  • DON’T make a circuitous path to your destination room. We all know that the quickest distance between two points is a straight line. I’m not suggesting that you cut through your flower garden to make a straight path to the courtyard. Just take care that a person doesn’t have to walk around unsightly areas, narrow pathways, or inconvenient terrain.
  • DON’T put your compost bin in the very back of the yard. Unless your car is parked there, you have some other reason to go there daily, or you are a super avid and daily gardener it will get neglected. Compost is one of my most favorite things about gardening. It’s so rewarding to take waste and magically turn it into food for your plants…for FREE! That said, if not taken care of regularly it will turn into a soupy, smelly mess which you will avoid.
  • DO tuck the compost bin right into the garden. Hide it with your favorite plants and make a beautiful pathway to get to it. You can use mulch or gravel for paving around it so you have somewhere to stand and tend to it.
  • DON’T put a stand alone grill in the back of the garden. If you have a stand alone grill and a dining table, it will become inconvenient and frankly irritating to go back and forth to the house kitchen for supplies. For stand alone grills, the best place is with short, direct access to the kitchen door.
  • DO put a full outdoor kitchen deep into the garden. Fully stocked outdoor kitchens will have cabinets, drawers, a trash can—plenty of room to store dishes, utensils and even food and beverages. This makes it not only convenient, but also an excellent way to be sure draw them in deep.
Complete outdoor kitchen under covered patio in far corner of garden.

When designing a garden the best way to ensure that you draw them in deep and achieve the goal of using all of your available space is to resist the “junk drawer” scenario by working in ample storage space to your design. This way you have the things you need tucked away out of site leaving the usable space ready to be used.

Don’t relinquish precious square footage. Get the most out of your garden design by creating the rooms you most want to enjoy to relax, dine, and play!

Have fun!

Biggest Landscape Designer FAIL

It was about 15 years ago and I had landed my biggest project as an independent landscape designer. I was feeling pretty smug. I wasn’t just doing little flower beds anymore. This was big time, and I was ready! There would be no big landscape designer fails for me!

The property was a sprawling mountainous estate with a recently installed swimming pool and a half acre of the San Gabriel mountains exploding upward into the distant limits of the property.

Gearing up for success, setting up for a fail

The design program was wildly ambitious. My enthusiastic clients had envisioned a babbling brook tumbling down terraces and terminating into a pondless water feature behind the pool. They wanted a generous deck and kitchen for entertaining, private seating areas dotted through the property and hillside, native plants to stabilize the slope, lots of trees and more.

Let’s be frank here. It was a designer’s dream come true. Not only was the design program exciting but the client’s themselves were delightful. We just “got” each other. Spoke the same language. When they’d start to describe something I could practically finish their sentences.

I worked hard on that design. Really hard. I worked in every landscape nuance that I thought would thrill them. And in our first presentation meeting, not to brag, but I totally nailed it.


Everything was going great! So when I arrived with the contractor for our 3rd and final meeting to review the construction cost estimate, I had my calendar ready. The contractors could break ground next week. I was that confident.

They anxiously took the estimate and began to read. As my clients flipped through the pages, with me prattling on about the process of construction, I suddenly felt a chill that was descending upon the room and it was impossible to ignore. When they arrived at the last page I could actually see the blood drain from their faces as they caught sight of that bottom line. $95,000.

They were shocked, angry and disappointed. —stunned that their little project would cost nearly a hundred grand. And I was equally stunned that they would expect otherwise from such an expansive project.

There was a huge mistake in the design process. No, not a mistake, a total FAIL! And although it took a minute for me to get there, I soon realized that the fail was 100% on me. This, in my experience, is the number one Landscape Designer Fail, and I had made it, big time!


***We never established a budget***


As part of my process, I have a form that I fill out in my initial meeting with every client. It allows me to make note of things like large trees, problematic views or drainage situations. It acts as an interviewing tool to discover what the client wants to accomplish. Also, it reminds me to discuss phasing and budget.

That last one is where it gets uncomfortable. A very common conversation back in those days might have sounded like this:

Me: So, do you have a budget in mind for your project?
Client: Well,…we don’t really know how much these things cost.
Me: Costs for landscape can have a very wide range depending on the size and scope of the project; what kind of amenities you want. That sort of thing. Is there a range you’re thinking of?
Client: We really want to do the whole project at once if possible. And we have money set aside for this.
Me: Ok, well, let’s get into these drawings and then get some bids. If we need to make some changes along the way we can certainly do that.

Anyone see a problem with this conversation?

This here is where the Landscape Designer Fail starts: NO ONE wanted to discuss an actual dollar amount. Without that discussion early on in the process it is extremely difficult NOT to fail.

The importance of discussing budget at the beginning of a project, in the middle of the design and throughout the process cannot be understated.


Clients don’t know how much things cost. And why should they? That’s why they hired a designer.

Let’s face it though, talking about money is uncomfortable. There’s even a podcast about it that’s actually called, This Is Uncomfortable, and it’s all about life and how money messes with it which, in this line of work, I can totally relate to.

So, to help you avoid some of my terrible mistakes here are my top 5 Pro-Tips on how to discuss money with a client, and a flow chart to get you going!

  1. Speak with confidence and don’t apologize for pricing. They may be uncomfortable about discussing money and budget but if you are not, you can help steer the conversation to a productive place. It’s better for them to consider this now than once they have a design they’ve fallen in love with but cannot afford.
  2. Don’t get into a game of chicken with the client about who will give up a number first. It’s awkward and unprofessional. The client is worried that if they say they have $50k but the price is only $30k, you’ll take them for a ride. Be prepared to offer a price range, even a wide one, based on the size of their property. Be sure to emphasize that it is just a “ballpark figure” and you need at least a preliminary design to narrow it down.
  3. Take notes about your budget conversation and email it to the client so they have the opportunity to correct any misunderstandings. If the client tells you they want to see the design before deciding how much they want to spend, this is especially important. When presenting designs and estimates, have your notes out clearly on the table and refer back to your agreement to proceed with the design without a budget.
  4. If their budget is wildly low, be prepared with suggestions for phasing or referrals. Sometimes a client’s budget will be so low that you will know immediately they cannot afford their project. For example, a full front and back yard makeover will not be accomplished with $5000. Not ever. However, that $5k will get them a complete design and the new parkway installed. When they have another $5k or $10k they can chip away at another phase. Ultimately the client gets their dream landscape.
  5. Most important tip: Do not lead your client to believe that the cost will be less than you believe it to be. No one wins! If the budget is $25k and you are pretty sure it’ll cost close to $35k, it is not helpful to say, “We’ll find a way to make it work”. It’s better to say, “Let’s itemize these costs and then decide what we can change or do without”.

In conclusion

The best advise I can give to help you avoid the Biggest Landscape Designer Fail is to encourage you to find your own voice in discussing money. It can be humorous, analytical, or any style that suits your personality. When you are totally sure that both parties have the same understanding of budget and services your project will be off to a great start and a spectacular finish!

Good luck!

Boundless Landscape Border Ideas

glass landscape border
Garden in West Seattle with a super-cool idea to separate the front yard from slope out front.

Landscape border ideas? “Boring!” you might be thinking. But wait a sec. Borders are brilliant! Something as simple and straightforward as that border can be the difference between a basic garden and a spectacularly innovative one. Perhaps you think I’m over-selling a bit here, but I assure you, this is exactly the detail that makes a garden stand out.

It’s true, in the most basic terms, borders are just lines in the ground that divide two spaces. But before you draw one of those basic lines in the garden with some bender board you must first ask yourself, What do I want from this design? Do I want a nature-scape where the borders are invisible—grasses, perennials and trailing vines tumbling over one another to make a sea of horticultural communion? Or do I want to separate the garden and the turf to let each region of the garden shine on its own?

Either way, never overlook this oft missed opportunity to insert your own panache into your design.

An aside about Turf

I’m going to break a little blogging rule now and mention turf which is not our main topic of conversation here. It’s related however, and, in my opinion, an important aside. There’s a huge movement for removing lawns, particularly in the hotter, drier regions of the US. The primary goal is to dramatically reduce water usage. There are numerous other angles to explore as well. I have strong opinions about this, and I assure you we will discuss it at length, so I encourage you to stay tuned for our series entitled To Grass or Not to Grass, which will look at these issues and investigate design solutions for turf and turf-free gardens. This post is not that space. Right here, we’re just acknowledging that lawns exist and they often require borders. No judgement! Ok, back to the subject at hand…

FUNCTION: Why Do We Need Borders in the Landscape?

landscape edging with river rock
The edging in front of the stone prevents grass from creeping in.

Separation. A little distance. That’s all we’re trying to do. We want our garden residents—turf, decomposed granite (referred to as dg), shrubs etc.—to stay on their own sides. First let’s look at how things spread.

Grass: By it’s nature, turf grass is a spreader. It either uses underground runners (rhizomes) or above ground runners (stolons) to propagate itself and take over any non paved area within reach. Without a border it’s grass, grass everywhere!

DG: It is strong and inexpensive and if it’s stabilized with a polymer it can be as hard as, well, rock. It’s an excellent choice for walkways and patios. Nonstabilized dg however, has a consistency not much firmer than wet sand. Without a proper border, dg will spill out into the surrounding areas, look messy, alter the soil biology and ultimately cause your space to lose shape.

These are just two factors that make landscape borders so important!

FORM: Why do we need borders in the Landscape?

Because they look great! We now know what can happen if we don’t install physical barriers, but looking beyond that the most important part of garden design is making every item look intentional. The hard objects that help us keep things separate in the garden are just as important and can be just as interesting as the plants they are there to retain.

basic landscape BORDER MATERIALS

Here are the super basic choices for borders. Note I didn’t say bad choices. Every one of them serves a purpose and may be the perfect one for your needs. Here are 7 of the most common ones. I’ll discuss the top three.

  • Benderboard
  • Steel edging
  • River rock
  • Concrete Band
  • Brick
  • Concrete paver
  • Wood
steel edge landscape border
Clean, invisible line of the steel edge

Benderboard vs. Steel Edging
In a battle between the two, steel edging is the clear winner, hands down. It comes in 20’ powder coated 4” sheets of brown, black and sometimes green. You get steel stakes with your purchase to anchor it into the ground, and it is sturdy stuff! The reason I prefer it is that it makes a very clean line—straight or curvy—and it almost never comes popping out of the ground when it’s installed correctly. The cost is typically around $55 per 20′ panel

Benderboard, on the other hand comes in two varieties: one is brown, about 1/4” thick x 5” high, comes in 40’ rolls and is made of HDPE plastic and also comes with plastic stakes, the other is a black edge with a rounded bubble at the top and made of an unspecified plastic. The black one, I never use, ever. It simply looks unprofessional and will often start inching it’s way out of the ground as soon as you turn your back on it. But at a cost of only around $25 for a 40′ roll plus installation, it is an adequate cost effective substitute.

river rock landscape border

River Rock
The third basic edging material is river rock. By this, I’m referring to the white-ish speckled stones that are relatively consistent at about 6”-9” in size, although you can certainly find them somewhat, and even much larger. I often see them used as borders in a garden, marched in a single file row around turf areas. While, I myself often use them in my borders, I assure you that this application (the single row of matching rocks) is not an elegant choice. But we’ll get to design in a moment.

River Rock Pro-Tip: The most important thing to know if you are using river rock is that you must ALSO add edging first! Rocks do not a true border make. These rocks, when laid out, leave holes and openings for sneaky creepy grass to find its way in, or dg to find its way out. If you’re going to be there to maintain the garden and keep the grasses at bay then have at it. But it’s a risky move and extremely frustrating and time consuming to keep that mess managed. I know! I’ve made that mistake exactly 3 times before figuring it out.

Beautiful landscape Border Materials

We know that borders are used to divide spaces, and that’s really all there is to it. No one ever said that it had to be rocks or a straight piece of metal or plastic. Somehow, over time however, that’s just what evolved in most typical gardens. But there are so many interesting materials out there that can be repurposed and used to do the same job.

I have a husband and wife client pair, one is an artist who works with pottery. Along the side of their property lived stacks of cast off bricks, multi-celled cement blocks, and pile upon pile of broken and unused pieces of the artist’s pottery. It was an absolute gold mine!

I started out using some randomly sized rocks and boulders and then interspersed small groups of varying patterns of old bricks and blocks. Finally I selected uncommon and exceptional pieces of pottery from what she referred to as the “chard pile” and voila! We had a border, literally unlike any other!

So many different materials to make a whimsical and unusual border.

unconventional border material ideas

I was lucky with that project. It’s not often that you find such a unique assortment materials all in one place and at no charge. You can however keep your eyes open for all kinds of items that would work well in your border. Here are a few examples of borders I’ve designed and others that I’ve seen and either fallen in love with or been intrigued and amused by.

  • A trench of pea gravel with tumbled glass. Contain it in edging with landscape fabric underneath to prevent weeds from emerging and rocks from sinking.
  • Spanish roof tiles on their ends to create an “S” curve.
  • PVC or metal drain pipe cut to varying sizes. Place on ends in the ground, then add plants into the actual pipes. Cascading plants such as Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’ or a wild strawberry would do the trick.
  • Gabions. Wire frames filled with rocks or any other chunky type of material. In collaboration with another designer, we once made gabions out of broken tiles and tea sets and won an award for it!
  • Dried bamboo poles—anything from 2” to 5” in diameter, cut to varying heights and “planted” on their ends. It makes an interesting natural edging with a twist.
  • Flagstone “planted” vertically to be about 6”-9” high, and irregularly organized: this is a great choice if you’ve had a recent flagstone project because there’s almost always leftover pieces that are too small for paving. Use these smaller pieces to make a low vertical border.
  • Skateboards. They will degrade but that’s part of the charm. I recommend wood decks not plastic. The plastic turns to powder with over exposure to sun and moisture.
  • Metal car rims (avoid plastic. See above). You get the best impact with a variety of designs!
  • Bicycle rims. Unlike with the car rims, bike rims are finer and thiner and look modern and streamlined when you use matching ones. But if you want to avoid the problem of many things marching in a row, it would be interesting to bury them to varying depths to make the border of a varying height.
  • Glass wine or other beverage bottles turned upside down and “planted”. Caution: don’t use clear. They get dirty and moldy inside and it’s unsightly. Darkly colored bottles mask this problem.

Try mixing materials! Bottles, bamboo and drain pipe—all round objects—can be combined to make a dynamically interesting, colorful and extraordinary border. If you’re adding something like rims or skateboards, it’s likely going to be difficult to find enough of them to make a complete border with only that subject. Consider using boulders and river rock to supplement with these special items.

So, what do you think? I hope now that you’ve poured over some of these unconventional landscape border ideas that you’ve come up with some of your own. I find that once you break away from the home improvement or landscape supply center’s choices for border materials, you begin to look around your world and consider everything a possibility. As long as you continue doing that, you are going to create some killer gardens!

Send me photos of your great borders and I’ll happily post them here!

Good luck! -Natalie


the Truth about plant death

I’ve got some cold, hard truths for you today. There’s no point in beating around the bush about it (pun intended) so I’m just going to say it. You ready?…Plants die. That’s right. It’s a grim fact and no one escapes the carnage. If you tend to plants, you will kill plants. If you think that’s rough, keep in mind that when you design or maintain gardens for others, you will kill their plants too.

Ouch! I know. But sometimes you just have to rip the band-aid off.

Who Kills Plants?

Everyone! If you want to know why plants are dying, here’s the thing, plants die for those with the proverbial “green thumb” and those with a “brown thumb”. No matter the color of your digits, no matter how much you pay attention to, or ignore them, they are living entities that have a cycle of life and death. Some impress us with their long liv-ed-ness and others seem to kick the bucket even before we’ve put our tools away after planting them. And others have a little help from the creatures and critters that share the space.

There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Even the best gardeners kill plants although they might make it seem otherwise. Those “plant whisperers”, have probably killed at least as many as they have nurtured to great beauty. In fact, you know what makes them so great at keeping beautiful plants? It’s in fact, because they’ve killed so many. The key is that each time one doesn’t survive, you learn something new about it. Perhaps the Sunset book said sun to part shade and you discover that, whoops! Not so happy with the shade part in that equation. Lesson learned.

My Plant Graveyard

Many years ago, I went to a course for Mediterranean garden design. The instructor was world famous in her field. Yet, of all the information that she shared the thing that really stuck was that she kept a very special planter in her garden. One that contained the markers for each of the plants that she had killed. Hundreds of them! She called it her plant graveyard and said, “If you’re not killing some plants, you’re just not trying hard enough”. She inspired me to be brave. I learned that when I’m not afraid of killing plants, I’m able to be way more creative in trying new ones. What a gift, not just for me but for my clients!

In an effort to embrace the truth, I created my own Plant Graveyard. I even performed a tiny little ceremony. Ok, not a ceremony per se, but when each new tag was placed in my horticultural place of repose, I’d take a moment and reflect on where I may have gone wrong. What signs did I miss that could have prevented this tragic outcome. Was I too neglectful? Did I smother it with too much…water, pruning love etc? It helped.

Understanding the life cycle of plants helped me become a more mindful gardener; also, a more mindful designer. And you can too. Some plants just aren’t meant for longevity. It’s helpful to know that before putting them in a garden.

What else can be learned from dying plants

Ok, now that you’re settling in to the idea of plant mortality, let’s dive into the nitty gritty of why plants die. Here’s the very important, key information about plant death: although we simply cannot prevent them all, we can definitely be vigilantes to defend the gardens we protect. There are a handful of the most pervasive culprits that with knowledge and a good checklist we can guard against.

Some dangers are obvious. Some very sneaky. Here’s what you should look for, and how to defeat the offenders. Having a plant graveyard is fine, but let’s save as many botanical souls as we can*.

Dying plant causes
Dying plant causes
Dying plant causes
Dying plant causes

*I have purposely not included plant diseases and pests in this post. They certainly are villains in the garden, however, they comprise a completely separate and unique topic which extends beyond our scope here. We will discuss in a later post.

LANDSCAPE DESIGN IDEAS: Straight Lines, Voluptuous Curves

Straight lines, voluptuous curves

Which Is Right For Your Garden Design?

When you’re designing a new garden, picking plants may be fun but don’t run off to the nursery just yet! Let’s talk lines. Do you like firm, straight ones or curvy, voluptuous ones? I have great news! You don’t have to choose only one! Sometimes you can have your cake and eat it too—straight lines and voluptuous curves. But there’s a right and a wrong way to do it.

Landscape Design Theory
Way back when I was taking my very first landscape design course, we were taught the two primary approaches to landscape design—rectilinear, with straight lines and precise angles, to create a formal and balanced look, and curvilinear, with free flowing lines to create a fluid and informal landscape. Over my twenty years in the industry these design principles have been reliable foundations to my designs. Early on, however, I discovered that melding the two can make magic!

Choosing only lines or curves when you’ve got a blank slate is easy, but as a designer or a homeowner, we typically start with some non-negotiables. Perhaps there is an existing rectangular, concrete patio, or a kidney shaped pool. Those are fixed objects that need to be preserved but don’t necessarily need to dictate that every other feature must mimic it. The key is to introduce complementary shapes, not necessarily identical ones.

Combine lines and curves
Let’s take a rectangular patio as our example today. One way to incorporate a curved walkway into this fixed element is to apply the rule of thirds. Imagine the rectangle being divided into 3 equal parts. Intersect your new curvy walkway 1/3 of the way from the end, not in the middle or at either end of the patio. This innately creates intrigue and interest as you interact with the landscape.

Next, create your curves. I recommend sweeping, undulating curves. In a walkway, make them uneven so it widens and narrows. This creates an informal and natural path which can be enhanced by plants gently spilling over the edges.

Once you have the design is in place visitors are forced to walk through the patio to get to the walkway, and again, through the garden. In this way they experience the whole garden, not simply zip past it.

Pitfall Warning

  • Avoid perfectly symmetrical curves. They seem unnatural and forced.
  • Avoid subtle curves. They appear to be a installation mistake.
  • Be intentional, always.

The wonderful thing about a curvy walkway or wall that is anchored with firm lines and angles is that it gives you the opportunity to create an informal, maybe even wistful garden, while maintaining a sense of order and structure.

If we then take this idea to the next stage, you can add shrubs, perennials and a tree on one side and a drought tolerant turf or ground cover on the other. Or if you’re going turf-free, plants all around!

If you only want straight lines in your design

Now, circling back to our original design theories we can see what the same patio would look like if we used a purely rectilinear design approach. The drawing below shows that adding straight lines for your walkway is a great solution for a different style garden. In the case of a formal or modern theme it is no doubt the best choice.

Know the rules. Then bend them.

Great design, be it in the landscape, in the home or in any other creative field, has rules. Curvilinear and rectilinear are just two of the foundational ones. As designers you need to first know the rules before breaking or bending them. They serve as guideposts in creating beautiful, accessible and functional gardens. And once you know how to use these important design tools, you will be able to manipulate them just enough to create unexpected and breathtaking results, every single time.

Good luck!


I know what you’re thinking! Natalie, summer is over. The kids are back in school, there’s homework and karate classes to deal with. Work is ramping up and I’m already seeing Halloween decorations in the stores. I can’t possibly think about planning my summer landscape now.

But I’m here to tell you that you can. And you must. I cannot count the number of clients and prospective clients who have contacted me in spring to discuss their landscape ideas which they can’t wait to unveil for a May graduation or June wedding. Unfortunately, unless we’re talking about a super simple plant refresher, spring is way too late to get that ball rolling.

A full landscape project—out with the old, in with the new—simply takes time. How much time? More than most people think.

Let’s break it down.

THE DESIGN 8-16 weeks:
I hate to admit it but this part is a bit squishy on the specifics, mainly because it depends on both the designer’s schedule and the client’s response times. Additionally, if permits are required, it will rely on bureaucracy. Biggest. Time-suck. Ever. But this is why we want to start landscape planning early!

This is what you can plan on:

Site Plan: Most designers will need an accurate drawing of the property, some rare cases will require a survey. So, there’s scheduling the consultant for field work (1-2 weeks), and then drafting the data (1 week).
Site Analysis: Going to the property, interviewing the client, taking copious notes and photos of the site and interpreting them. (Just a matter of scheduling)
Preliminary Plans: Personally, I always give a client 2 design choices and a plant palette. (2 weeks). If needed or requested I may also include 3D renderings (adds 2 weeks)
Client Review Time: Rarely a client will give 100% feedback immediately. Most take 2-3 weeks. Still others I don’t hear from for 2 months or more. (0 days – 8 weeks)
Revised Plans: Taking client comments and making changes to the drawings, plus adding the specifics (2 weeks)
Client Review Time: See above (0 days – 8 weeks)
Final Touches/Final Plan: (1-2 weeks)


  • Consultants (structural or civil engineers, and irrigation designers require extra time because each has to wait for a completed design in order to begin their work
  • Personal challenges can put landscape on a lower priority for the client
  • The designer’s schedule may be loaded and cause delays

BIDDING up to 4 weeks:
Once you have a completed design it will be time to get estimates. Every designer has a magic recipe for this. Some turn the drawings over to the client to find a contractor, others submit their plans to a few trusted contractors and compare bids. Still others are licensed contractors and bid the job themselves.

Apart from Design/Builders, we—designers and clients—rely on the contractor’s schedule. During busy times it can take up to 4 weeks to get estimates. If it’s slow as little as 1 week.

Landscape Planning Insider Tips:

Bidding is super important! I cannot emphasize this enough. Sometimes a contractor will ask to come back 2 or 3 times to check things out. It’s not because they’re incompetent (usually). They just really want to make sure that the information is accurate. If not they may over or under charge. While it may seem like a win for the client if a contractor under-charges, I assure you it is NOT! The client is almost always the loser in that situation, just in unforeseen ways—quality, attention, overcharging on other items—all to make up cost.

  • Any project with special services—mason, carpenter, electrician, metal fabricator, etc—will take longer to get a bid for.
  • During spring and summer contractors are very busy. Their priority is on paying jobs so bidding tends to slide. Getting bids during winter (yes, even in Southern California) will tend to derive rapid results.


This is what you can plan on:

  • If permits are required it can take a very long time. It requires up front research during design and may require changes or additional drawing clarifications down the road. It varies city by city.
  • If the project is planting and irrigation only things will move very quickly. A front or back yard only will likely take only a week or two without any unusual circumstances. If it’s a full property, closer to 3 weeks
  • Adding basic hardscape to the project will add approximately 1-2 weeks if we’re just talking about average walkways, steps, patios etc.
  • Pools take months
  • Outdoor kitchens can take 2-4 weeks
  • Random issues are the real deal-breakers when it comes to schedule. These are the unpredictable things that cause extensions. Here are a few I’ve come across personally:
    • An actual 4’ concrete wall underground ran across an entire property where we were going to plant 36” box trees.
    • A water line directly under the tile we were removing busted the minute we started.
    • A different contractor did “demo” before we started and left the entire root system and stumps of 30 Oleanders that were supposed to be removed.

Landscape Planning Insider Tip:

Keep in mind that, just like in the design process, a smooth construction phase relies on both the contractor and the client. If the contractor is knowledgeable and prepared that’s a great start. Likewise, if the client is efficient in responding to requests, and making choices on materials the project will run more quickly.

If you have a plan for your landscape that involves a full property make over with many moving parts you’re looking at the possibility of needing 8-9 months from site analysis to sipping cool beverages on your deck. And when very momentous events such as weddings or graduations are involved, it is so satisfying to be ahead of the game.

Starting in September or October for for a fantastic summer fling gives you the best shot at having a stress free landscape makeover with plenty of time to spare.


SEASONAL SPECIAL: It’s a zillion degrees! When should I water?

You’ve seen it before at this time of year. Those dry crispy leaves on your favorite plant. The drooping blooms on a Salvia leucantha. Damage from the sun and heat make gorgeous plants look so sad and sorry. In Southern California, the temperatures in July, August and September can soar past the 90’s and into 100’s where there they sit, oppressively, for weeks on end. Without the mercy of our “June Gloom” it’s not hard to see which plants can take the heat.

Regardless, of the plants in the garden, the question I get asked most often at this time of year, is “When can I water my plants in this heat?” It’s a super important question to get right, so let’s dive right in:


Definitely no. This is a terrible time to water when temperatures are high. Even in the 80’s you’re really not getting much bang for your watering buck anyway.

There are 2 main problems with watering during the day. First and foremost, the water will evaporate before any of it gets to it’s destination—the roots. No matter how long you stand there with a hose or run those sprays, the process of absorption simply takes time. Sometimes, people believe that in order to prevent the water from evaporating they should apply extra water. This is like trying to put 2 gallons of water in a 1 gallon jug. The water will simply run off into the street or drains because the soil can’t absorb the water fast enough.

The second reason watering during the day is a poor choice is that plants and all of their parts absorb heat all day long. The leaves get hot, as do the roots and the soil around them. As water is applied and makes contact with the hot leaves or roots, it essentially fries them causing burns which cannot be undone. Think about how you might check to see if a pan is hot enough on the stove. When you sprinkle water on it, what’s the reaction? SIZZLE! Same goes for plants.


Yes, but. There are some who say that evening watering on high heat days is preferred. I consider evening watering the second best of the three options. The reason given for evening watering is that it gives much more time for the soil to absorb the water during the cooler nights making it more effective. This is a valid. The longer the water has to be absorbed deeper and deeper into the soil for the roots to benefit from it the better.

With daytime watering almost no water is absorbed and morning watering offers less time than evening. I find in my climate in Pasadena CA, however that at this time of year, the temperatures stay very high well past sundown. Evening watering therefore, is still applying water to very hot plants in very hot soil which is not optimal for them. The other concern for watering at night, particularly if you’re using a hose or overhead sprays, is that water sits on the plants and gets trapped in leaf joints. If temperatures are cool enough you could be inviting some unwanted disease and mold to take hold.

If you do need to take care of watering in the evening, make it as late as possible once the temperatures have cooled significantly, and try to water low so as not to leave wet plants.


Morning watering—early morning watering—is really the best. Some sources will say that you should water by 10am. Not sure about your particular region, but in the middle of summer, if you’re watering at 10am you might as well be trying to water the sun.

With an automatic controller the ideal time is around 4am. The temps are cool, the plants and soil are cool, and you have several hours before the heat really kicks in, allowing the water to be absorbed into the soil. Also, if you have overhead sprays, you won’t run into trouble with water hanging around on the plants for so long that it starts causing disease.

If you’re a hand waterer, well, set that alarm. I’d say no later than around 6am. Maybe 7, latest. I’m not a morning person myself, but it’s well worth the effort to keep those plants healthy.


Last note about watering in the summer months. Be sure to do an evaluation of your irrigation system. Check for nicks or tears in your drip tubing. It causes lots of water to escape in one area and starve the other areas beyond the cut. Check for broken or bonky spray nozzles that aren’t doing their jobs as well as they should. An undetected problem in your irritation system will invariably lead to excess water waste (and higher bills).

With these tips you will be keeping that garden looking spectacular all summer long!

If you are unsure how well your irrigation is working and live in Pasadena or the surrounding cities, contact my office to schedule a full irrigation analysis.

minanda@mac.com 818-903-5122