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Landscape Designer Shirley Watts on Building Tiny Gardens

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Bay Area landscape designer Shirley Watts is more of a garden artist than anything else, and the jewel box gardens she builds for clients in the Peninsula, East Bay, and San Francisco proper are equal parts installation art, entertaining space, and natural scenes. They're bespoke and intensely personal spaces that are repurposed and rebuilt almost as much they shine with high-gloss aluminum.

"I like to see what's onsite and reuse as much as possible. Revising objects, furniture can be a valuable place to start," Watts says.


For a project in Atherton, Watts "revised" an existing antique brass bed frame by sawing it in half to make two daybed lounges for patio seating. "We finished the daybeds on Friday and came back to work Monday morning and the kids were sleeping on them in sleeping bags. It was summertime, warm enough to sleep outside, and they were obviously waiting for someone to put a daybed there," she says. "Early on in the project, we had to take out some brick walls and that's how we built the fountain and fireplace, with the old bricks, mortared and colored to match the house." A stand of existing redwood and fir trees in the front yard of the Atherton project was sacrosanct, old and beautiful, but there's very little that can't be accessorized with five or six gothic wrought-iron chandeliers—just enough to make Edward Gorey proud. Watts designed and built them herself, and added dripping tillandsia.


For the Rose Grocery courtyard in Berkeley, a space constantly viewed from upper floor windows, Watts had to design to be seen from above. "There are so many projects, especially in San Francisco, where you're looking down on the garden. I tend to start with objects that make a big graphic statement, like the curved steel bench at the Rose Grocery, and then elaborate from there. Like with the metallic letters in the courtyard. They're slightly reflective so they really pop."


A narrow-lot Glen Park property on Congo Street had only 700 square feet of usable garden space with property line fencing sometimes only a foot or two from bedroom windows. So the solution, for Watts, was to create depth where none existed. Industrial laser-cut cast-offs called skeletons were used as permeable fence materials; they provide privacy, but transmit light and glimpses of the world outside. Second-hand billboard advertising vinyl functions as intense forced-perspective; you're brushing your teeth and all of the sudden Big Ben and the houses of Parliament are outside your window, or a five-foot high print of Orlando Bloom's eyes, or fragments of Gandalf leading hobbits to safety. Watts got on the map of Bay Area design with her 2003 installation at
the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show when she walked off with almost every award they were handing out. The installation, which had more moving parts than a Swiss clock, centered on multiple cube-shaped screens rising out of a densely planted landscape of grasses and ferns. The screens, hung at different heights and inclinations like organic objects themselves, played vintage 1950s time-lapse footage of highly saturated flowers opening and closing. "I'm mesmerized by time-lapse footage," Watts says. "Something about it allows us to see what we don't normally see. It teaches us things about natural systems, movement also. And in the Bay Area, the center of innovation, the idea of bringing televisions into the garden was natural."

These days, in addition to her design work, Watts curates and produces Natural Discourse, a series of installations, lectures, and collaborations with a large group of scientists, architects, poets, and artists. The project began in conjunction with the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden, where installations were in residence for over a year (and some still remain: next time you get off the BART at Downtown Berkeley, look up. Photographer Deb O'Grady's enormous images of old roses still live in the rotunda). Natural Discourse moves to Los Angeles later in the year. A public landscape work by Ms. Watts that you can visit today are the grounds of the Haight School on Alameda Island. There you will find an impressive selection of California native plants, planters of unusual shape and size, and her signature metal skeleton cutouts.

· Shirley Alexandra Watts Design [Personal Site]