California Native Plant Society… Todd Gilens. A moment in the arc of change.

I had the pleasure of listening to Todd Gilens (who describes himself as a visual artist and designer working with people, places, and ideas) at the October 2019 California Native Plant Society Meeting at the Orinda Library.  It was packed.  Even as the presentation began, meeting organizers were sliding in extra chairs and hushedly pointing to the few seats left in the middle of rows.  They seemed pleased yet surprised at the turnout.

The desire to landscape with California natives is burgeoning.


As Todd took us through his presentation, Wildness and Design in the Urban Garden, my pencil skittered across the gridded paper in my lap, capturing his ideas about the role of design in communicating ideas between landscapers and clients.  He flipped back and forth through slides of nature and architecture, making comparisons between the seemingly random nature of nature and man’s desire for form and order.  

When he pointed out that any time spent in a garden is merely “a moment in the arc of change,” I latched onto this idea with an enthusiastic, if silent, Yes!

IMG_5185I often think, as I survey clients’ yard, Yes, I will do my work here, bring in hardscape, defining walking paths, boundaries, sitting areas… but what will this all look like in six months?  A year?  Five years?  Twenty?  How do I meet this moment in time while coordinating our design with a landscape’s natural inclinations? The sun and the shade and the wind and the seasons and the rain and the soil… these are the true masters of the terrain.

So my work is to capture this moment in time — frame it.   With the client, I develop hardscapes — patios, walkways, and driveways — that welcome and embrace.  These pathways guide movement and define areas where trees and bushes will reach to meet air and sky.  There will be nooks and niches that suggest where to stop, rest, feel, and become restored.  Through engaging with the cycle of life and the seasons, peace and joy arise.  My purpose in design is to think in the present tense with an eye toward future utilization.

IMG_5188Todd unrolled more landscape-speak that kept me scribbling in the dark.  Transitions must be choreographed; thresholds announced; experience of movement between spaces, ritualized.  He pointed out, “Design steps into an existing process.  How many years of accumulated choices and conditions meet every designer?”  Murmurs of recognition rolled through the crowd.  People leaned forward in their chairs, bumping knees against knees.

After he closed his slideshow, Todd took questions from the audience.  Everyone laughed when his response to “What do you ask every client before beginning a landscape project?” was “What do you imagine here?”  Of course asking the client to imagine would be his beginning!  He explained that he uses that imagining to convert a feeling (happiness, comfort, relaxation, intimacy) into his designs.  At the conclusion, he summarized that “design is like a vase.  it’s the thing that holds up the thing you want to see.”

Am I correct to imagine that “the thing you want to see” in your landscape is your life’s successes and joys reflected throughout your home?  Do you want to create a life-filled, beautifully conceived outdoor environment you can enjoy in solitude and also when filled with friends and family?