A Conversation in the Garden with Alma Hecht

A sustainable landscape artist shares a few secrets.

| May/June 2008

  • Landscape designer Alma Hecht sits in her garden with pal Sabu.
    Photography by Barbara Bourne
  • A wave of yellow and pink yarrow (Achillea spp.)
    Photography by Barbara Bourne
  • A double-helix-motif kinetic sculpture plays off the air element.
    Photography by Barbara Bourne
  • Hecht excavated many areas paved in concrete and replaced them with a variety of pervious materials. The broken concrete pieces were reused throughout; here they form raised vegetable beds.
    Photography by Barbara Bourne
  • A gate with a double-helix “window” is draped with climbing—and edible—nasturtiums.
    Photography by Barbara Bourne
  • When vines cover the chain-link fence, the vegetable bed will be secluded by a “living fence.”
    Photography by Barbara Bourne
  • Viewed from the kitchen, the patio table with a vase of freshly cut garden flowers is a favorite garden-gazing spot any time of day or night.
    Photography by Barbara Bourne
  • Hecht designed this water feature using pebbles, rushes water feature using pebbles, rushes and irises.
    PHOTOGRAPHY BY BARBARA BOURNE
  • Half walls and trellises help add vertical interest and define the individual areas of the garden, such as this “dining room” embraced by flowers with a grape motif table Alma designed and fabricated.
    Photography by Barbara Bourne
  • In what she calls the Garden of Vine and Dine, Hecht emphasized enjoyment of food and wine for a professionally trained chef. She incorporated allium-flower motifs in statuary and a pergola.
    Photography by Barbara Bourne
  • A wall made from old wine bottles captures sunlight.
    Photography by Barbara Bourne
  • Daisies and dahlias thrive in the cutting garden.
    Photography by Barbara Bourne
  • This cozy “den” includes a seating area around a tile fire pit.
    Photography by Barbara Bourne
  • Checkerbloom (Sidalcea malviflora)
    Photography by Barbara Bourne
  • A staircase made from salvaged concrete leads from the lower garden to the meadow-like central garden above.
    Photography by Barbara Bourne
  • De la Mina verbena (Verbena lilacina ‘De La Mina’)
    Photography by Barbara Bourne
  • Monkey flowers and verbenas surround a quiet seat beside the retaining wall.
    Photography by Barbara Bourne
  • California-native flannel bush (Fremontodendron californicum)
    Photography by Barbara Bourne
  • Hecht believes lemon trees are integral to a garden.
    Photography by Barbara Bourne
  • To unite the two houses when the neighbors wanted to join gardens, Hecht broke up a concrete walkway into chunks that are dry-stacked to retain the 2-foot grade change.
    Photography by Barbara Bourne

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?






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