Margie Grace describes herself as a garden maker. She says that gardens are vital in life because they connect us to nature.
Grace is also the founding principal of Grace Design Associates based in Santa Barbara, California.
She started out with a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in geology, but during the 80s, there was a major shortage of geology careers.
“With four other geologists in the family and no geology jobs on the horizon, I began to cast around for alternatives,” she says. “Landscaping caught my eye and I’ve never looked back! Turns out biology and geology are the perfect backgrounds for designing and building extraordinary gardens.”
She started her firm when she noticed the disconnect between the landscape design and the finished garden.
“I wanted to install the gardens I designed, so I got my Landscape Contractor license and put together a team of skilled craftspeople, and that’s when we started doing our best work!” Grace says.
More than 35 years later, Grace has now designed over 350 gardens around the world, including Spain, Australia and New Zealand. She has also been named the International Landscape Designer of the Year by the Association of Professional Landscape Designers (ALPD) both in 2009 and 2018.
“It’s humbling,” Grace says. “Being judged by a jury of your peers? Having the utmost respect for other designers’ work? Seeing the large body of excellent work in the pool being judged? Absolutely humbling. I feel humbled, honored and grateful.”
In her travels across the globe, Grace says she has learned inspiration is everywhere. She says it’s important to observe, study and ask questions, as there is always something to learn.
Grace says to make a truly great garden takes listening keenly to the land and to the people who use the space.
“I get to know how our clients live, what they like, what they don’t like, how they intend to use their outdoor space – both now and through time,” Grace says. “Then, taking cues from the site itself and the larger surrounding landscape, I get to work on layering on materials and shaping spaces that will support the clients’ lifestyle.”
One aspect Grace is known for is her ability to incorporate sustainable practices into her unique garden designs.
“Sustainability happens in the methodology – not just in the materials you select,” she says.
Some of that methodology includes creating healthy living soil to eliminate the need for artificial fertilizers, supporting the native biome and selecting local materials.
“Plants from local nurseries are already adapted to local conditions (reducing the amount of failed material, further reducing net environmental footprint),” Grace says. “Local stone tends to look the most ‘at home’ on the site, creating a sense of place, as well as tying the project to the larger landscape within which it is located.”
Grace also says she opts for the lightest footprint practicable when it comes to hardscapes, choosing dry-laid stone versus mortared stone, and using planted screening over built walls.
Based on her location, Grace also keeps firescaping design principles in mind due to the prevalence of wildfires. Additionally, when designing, Grace builds with smart water use and smart maintenance in mind.
“Most of us don’t want to be slaves to our gardens,” she says. “I pick plants for their mature size, space them accordingly when planting and recommend, more or less, leaving them alone other than the occasional cutback.”
Grace’s work has not only earned praise from her peers, but customers also appreciate her beautiful projects, so much so that her firm has had trouble getting its printed portfolio back from those who they loan it to. Grace says people have always asked where they could buy a copy of the printed portfolio.
“I began to observe people with the portfolio and came to realize that our gardens are different from other gardens,” she says. “I think that’s because of my background. Not having been formally trained in landscape design, I came to it through a different door and carry a different set of tools. And as a result, I produce different results. Design grounded in geology, biology, ecology married to the design-build method results in gardens that are well-integrated and responsive to the site and greater surroundings.”
This intense interest in their portfolio caused Grace to realize that people are eager for large garden books full of natural beauty. She says she’s always felt gardens are for sharing and after seeing the demand, she decided the time had come to create a book.
Thus, Private Gardens of Santa Barbara was born. This book features 18 residential gardens throughout the Santa Barbara region that vary greatly in style and size. The book is set to release on March 3, 2020 and is created to provide inspiration to landscape professionals and garden enthusiasts alike.
Grace says the goal of the book is: “To delight. To inspire. To show what’s possible. To get people dreaming of their own best space where they can live their own best life – then to make it so.”
As part of the book’s release, Grace will conduct a nationwide tour with appearances at various home and garden conferences. She will also be speaking at the upcoming APLD International Design Conference in Chicago in July 2020.
This isn’t the only book Grace intends to publish either. She says she has four other books in mind at this time.
“Three bring together design as specific ideas, tips, techniques and templates in an accessible, actionable format that will have homeowners, DIYers and professionals doing their very best work and getting the most out of their landscape projects,” she says. “The fourth one’s a collection of essays – lessons learned from a lifetime of gardening shared in a way that inspires a deeper connection to nature, ourselves and the ones we love.”
As for her advice she would pass on to aspiring landscape designers, Grace encourages them to study nature and natural processes.
“Travel,” she says. “Visit as many gardens as you can. Nature, art, architecture — all these contribute to becoming a great designer.”
She also says that gardening and building for yourself can provide you an intimate knowledge of soil, plants, stone and what it takes to build a garden from the grading and drainage to the soil prep.