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unforling frond of a tree fern - probably cyathea cooperiA garden should be more than just a plot of land that looks pretty. Done the right way a garden should be an invitation to slow down, to take time to notice, to really see the life that is all around. A visit to your garden should leave you renewed and ready to get on the road again.

I design gardens for clients using simple ideas and bold visual elements. I try to pay attention to the wider environment of which the garden is a part. I place a high value on functionality - the hardscaping needs to work well and be safe. I like to look for creative and original solutions to design problems and I enjoy clients who are open to experimentation.


Designing gardens with the clients' needs placed first and foremost leads to successful projects. It is a process, rather than something that can be worked out in a quick meeting. Part of the process will involve my getting to know you - your tastes, your style and your needs so that I can come up with the best possible landscape for you. Your role will be to communicate your needs as well as you can as they arise.


picture of Robin White in Eaton Canyon, Alta Dena, during flood.I have been working in garden design and installation for 18 years. I come from England where my mother and grandmother instilled in me a love of gardens and my father taught me about art and music. I have spent time working as a visual artist and also as an environmental radio journalist. Now my goal is to bring all my talents - for communication, creativity and craftsmanship - to bear in making high quality landscapes.


twisted wisteria stems in winterIt's important to me as the owner of this business that the working conditions be safe, healthy and good for the well-being of myself and the other craftsmen involved in putting together your landscape. I encourage everyone to use protective clothing and masks to prevent injury and respiratory damage. I also encourage people to work carefully and thoughtfully and to be aware of potential hazards in the working environment.


checkerspot butterfly on achillea millefolium 'Anthea'I think of gardens always as a kind of retreat. Whether it is an overgrown rambling jungle behind someone's house or the elegant modern bamboo plantings inside the international terminal at San Francisco International Airport, gardens all seem to work in the same way. They give us moments of peace and they remind us of our connection with the land and with Nature. They remind us that we are not heads alone, but bodies too.

In a world where people are disconnected from the ways of Nature (and most of us are now) this reconnection can involve some surprises. I recently had a client who had had a bare wasteland before I started work on her place. When I had finished giving her a modest garden I received a slightly panicky email telling me that birds had flown in and were eating the plants. She had read that if you put up an effigy of an owl it would scare away smaller birds and she was wondering whether to do this or not. Quietly celebrating the arrival of Nature in the garden we had made I told her the little birds were there not to eat the plants, but to graze on bugs that had flown in to live on her plants. The birds were establishing a natural balance in her new garden. If she scared the birds away the bugs would get worse.

Sometimes in the garden it's best just to stand back and ponder what's going on before you act.

Things will come in and things will go out of your garden and only the worst infestations of pests (both animals, insects and plants) need aggressive treatment. A vast chemical industry has grown up around the idea that gardens should be pristine places both fed and sprayed regularly but my experience is that the healthiest gardens are those where chemicals are used rarely or never.



As an environmental writer I cannot overlook the impact of pesticides and herbicides on the larger environment. Damage can be done to natural ecosystems when people apply chemical sprays in their garden.And spraying pesticides can sometimes make things worse instead of better.

How this works is that when you use pesticides in the garden you kill the beneficial insects (and sometimes birds and animals too) that keep the pests in check. Pests tend to have short reproductive cycles so they recover quickly whereas beneficial insects and animals are slower to recover. Without natural predators the pests bounce right back and you end up with a worse problem than you began with. My approach is to spray very rarely and to prevent pest problems through good initial choices of plants and good preventative maintenance. Snailbait, for example, kills small songbirds who mistake it for food. A better way to deal with snails is to remove dead leaves and damp corners where snails like to hide.

Certain pest problems in the garden can seem intractable. Often the reason is a poor choice of plants. A plant chosen because it looks nice in the nursery, but placed in the wrong situation in the garden, will be unhealthy and may naturally attract pests. The best solution is to change the plants, rather than to apply sprays to try to preserve the plant that is not happy. All that said, there are certain situations where judicious and careful use of chemicals can be helpful. For example if you want to replace a near dead bermuda grass lawn with a wild flowering garden, it's best to kill the lawn first otherwise it will return with a vengeance and wreck your plans. I keep an open mind about this. I use chemicals rarely in the business but I will use them as a last resort.



One measure I use to calculate the health of a garden is to look at how many pollinators are present. People are familiar with honeybees as pollinators, but many don't know that there are literally thousands of other species of bees that come into the garden. They make your flowers set seed and ripen your tomatoes. They feed the birds and some attack the pests in the garden. By my reckoning, in a garden setting, the more the pollinators present the more you know it's a healthy environment.

In the past people have thought that creating native gardens was the best way to support indigenous insect life. But now environmentalists are coming up with new ideas about how to make pollinators and other helpful insects thrive. Studies by researchers at UC Davis have found that there are more pollinators found in diverse environments which include non-native plants, for example, on an organic farm that grows many different exotic crops close to wild native land.

In her book The Ecology of a Garden: The First Fifteen Years English botanist Jennifer Owen found that her garden, with a diverse mix of natives plants and ornamental exotic plants had more diversity of plants and animals than gardens which grew only natives. She had more species of creatures and plants than you find in the same area in tropical rainforests. Owens reported that many species of moths and butterflies actually prefer some exotic plants over native plants that they are traditionally associated with.

What all this means for The Living LAND is that I encourage clients to plant natives because they are beneficial to local wildlife, but not to plant them exclusively. Natives are important as part of the overall palette of plants in your garden, but to increase diversity it's helpful to add other plants into the mix.



close up of acer palmatum 'Sango Kaku'If there is one overarching rule of gardening aesthetics it is that foliage is more important than flowers. What you are going to look at most of the year is the leaves of the plants, not their blossoms. Taking this into consideration I design gardens in which some of the plants are there for the color, shape, texture and size of the leaves rather than the look of their flowers. Some likely will be evergreen so that there is something interesting to look at in the winter (although certain herbaceous shrubs flower magnificently here in the Bay Area all through the winter and some plants such as salix and cornus look good because of their bare branch color). I will be likely to choose some plants with grey or bronze or maroon leaves and some with variegated leaves. And I sometimes use ornamental grasses to give a garden a handsome structure which is more or less year-round.

The other item I pay special attention to is the paving or hardscaping that is put in your garden. The garden path needs to look really good because, like the foliage of plants, it too is there all the time. But more than that a path needs to feel right. Typically I like paths and stairways that slow you down. A winding path will present you with different things to look at as you travel in different directions. The point of the garden path is not in getting there - it should be akin toa wall in England covered with lichen and hedera the mazes that you find in some spiritual places. These are walked to experience the subtle shifts of mood that go along with the turns in the trail - symbols of the larger journey of life that we are all undertaking. The path becomes a way to help you pay attention.

Gardens are looked at in different ways. A homeowner might see all the weeds, while a passerby might see nothing but flowers. Whatever your predisposition, a garden is all about looking. One of the biggest delights of a garden for me is the details - the way a leaf sits over another leaf and makes a sunburned pattern or the way the frond of a fern unfurls, stretching out its arms like a person awakening. Father Peter Filice, who visits our garden at Villa San Lorenzo, once told me, "Sometimes I go out into the garden and just look." To be able to maintain a garden that helps people "just look" is my calling and that I hope that Peter's experience is true for all of our clients.

Robin White, 2006






All images on this website are copyright 2006 Robin White. Please call for permission to reproduce.