Mother Earth Living

A Conversation in the Garden with Alma Hecht

A sustainable landscape artist shares a few secrets.
By Jennifer Jewell
May/June 2008
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Landscape designer Alma Hecht sits in her garden with pal Sabu.
Photography by Barbara Bourne
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For Alma Hecht—the owner of Second Nature Design, a San Francisco landscape company—site-appropriate gardening is a no-brainer. Hecht spent her childhood in Los Angeles and New York City and attended a Waldorf High School, where she was introduced to biodynamic gardening. A born designer, Hecht has a background in fine arts, culinary arts and horticulture. She settled in San Francisco in the late 1980s and worked as a certified arborist for Friends of the Urban Forest, where she says she became "fairy godmother to 22,000 street trees, many of which are doing well today." Hecht later earned a Master of Arts degree from the Conway School of Landscape Design in Conway, Massachusetts.

Recently Natural Home toured several of Hecht’s favorite projects in the San Francisco area and talked with her about her work.

NH: Alma Hecht, how does your garden grow?

Alma Hecht: In San Francisco, because space is so intimate, I garden in pockets—actually, by the square inch. Often I begin with an anchor plant—naturally, one suited to its location of sun, shade, upslope or down, clay or sandy soil—and then build up the area as it would grow in the wild. For a garden in sunny Sonoma clay soil, I might start with a Ceanothus ‘Ray Hartman’—a California lilac tree—and move out to a fuchsia-flowering gooseberry, fill in with red fescues and hummingbird sage drifts, and sow California poppy seeds in late winter.

NH: What’s your creation process?

Hecht: When I first work with clients, I familiarize myself with them as well as with their site. I want to understand what they hope for from their garden—fruit, flowers, entertaining, solitude? But most importantly, I need to ascertain what will thrive, how they will get to it, where they want to stop along the way. It’s a long and worthwhile process that almost always results in a garden I’m proud of and one that the client is happy living in. Of course, it’s much more than plants. I design the hardscape—paths, pergolas, pools—using many unconventional, but beautiful, sustainable and recycled or recyclable materials.

NH: Once your intentions and the design are more or less determined, how do you prepare a site for planting?

Hecht: I rarely amend the soil unless it’s terribly depleted or compacted from construction. My approach is to choose what will thrive in the given conditions—the wind, the somewhat anaerobic but nutrient-rich qualities in clay, or the sharp drainage of sand. I prefer using small plants; they establish more quickly and readily.

NH: What advice would you give to someone starting a garden or a garden renovation?

Hecht: Ask yourself what you want to do with the space. What gardens have you seen that you like? Go to a local arboretum to see how the space is arranged. Visit your local nursery to see what appeals. Walk around your neighborhood. Look at paths, gates, fences, walls, materials and the plants that are healthy. Start collecting materials. The next time it rains, go stand outside and see how the runoff moves; observe the drainage. Transform a runoff area into a streambed with a rain garden at the foot. Take lots of photographs. Get ideas from magazines. Clip out articles and photos.

Remember to be realistic—don’t fight nature. Get dirty. Keep your nose to the ground.

Elemental Fun

Hecht designed this Oakland garden for a chemistry doctoral candidate and an ecological restorationist. A pergola, which will eventually be laced with grapes and roses, shades the small deck outside the kitchen’s sliding doors. Hecht used "urbanite"—pieces of broken concrete found on the property—to expand the deck, build dry-stacked vegetable beds and make a bench for the new front garden. She replaced a rotting wooden fence with black chain link, which disappears beneath the evergreen clematis, passion fruit, Lady Banks rose and native grapevines that transform the space into a private green island. Native yarrows, reed grasses, silktassel trees, toyons, Pacific Coast hybrid irises, checkerblooms, hummingbird sages and de la Mina verbenas thrive here.

Wool Street Commons

When the fence between their yards blew down in a storm, these neighbors called upon Hecht to help eliminate the fence and create a common garden with enough room for relaxation and sports. The two families’ yards back up to one another with a 2-foot elevation difference; Hecht linked the spaces with wide, easy steps and a retaining wall that offers seating. Both homes now open onto a meadowlike commons. Hecht managed to pull the basketball hoop and the boxing ring together with the reading nook, the wandering path, the fernery and the snack table, largely through common plantings of fescue bunch grasses, native wildflowers and a screen of Pacific wax myrtles. A "silver" garden shines in the moonlight.

Vine & Dine

This large, urban garden behind an Italianate Victorian house once had a clipped-boxwood-and-central-fountain landscape. The home-owner wanted anything but boxwoods. He wanted a space where he could entertain and relax, and a cutting and vegetable patch he could putter around in. Hecht designed the garden on an offset diagonal to improve the flow and visually increase the size. Custom-made arbors and sentry posts are embellished with allium-head finials. A wall of recycled wine bottles defines the space around the mosaic dining table that Hecht designed and built with Erin Maxwell. The "den" with fire pit and plush chairs focuses toward the water wall, which acts as a privacy screen, a windbreak and as shade for the herb garden on the other side. The cutting garden provides in all seasons.

Alma’s Favorite Plants 

• Pacific wax myrtle (Morella californica). "The species is evergreen, accepts half- to full-sun and thrives in sandy or clay soil."

• Vine maple (Acer circinatum). "They stay under 20 feet tall, don’t like hot sun and are fine in clay or sandy loam."

• Douglas iris (Iris douglasiana). "Grasslike leaves throughout the growing season and white, deep violet flowers; they’re a must for slightly moist, dappled-light places."

• Sticky monkeyflower (Mimulus aurantiacus). "It will grow to 4 feet, best to prune prewinter to avoid legginess."

• Bush anemone (Carpenteria californica). "Evergreen shrub for its new purple stems and scented white flowers that bloom from late spring into early summer."

• California coffeeberry (Frangula californica). "It grows 3 to 15 feet tall and wide. Coffeeberries are drought tolerant."

• Beaked hazelnut (Corylus cornuta). "An open, multitrunked small tree or shrub, it provides habitat for wildlife and produces edible nuts."

• Dutchman’s pipe (Aristolochia californica). "This deciduous vine prefers moist semishade and has the craziest-shaped flowers."


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