A Conversation in the Garden with Alma Hecht

A sustainable landscape artist shares a few secrets.

| May/June 2008

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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