On my second day in the cavernous halls of the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show, I discovered Sproutopia in a generous side room. The folks at the show thoughtfully created a space where the darling munchkins could learn while blowing off a little steam. There were kids jumping on beanbag chairs, a too-cool collection of carnivorous plants, and tables loaded with miniature gardens. It was those little tabletop worlds, created by students around the Bay Area, that lured me in.

I wish I’d been in the classrooms when the projects were taking shape, so I could watch the design process unfold. How did the kids get their creative juices flowing? What methods did they use to select a theme and decide on materials? Did they have a budget?

Sound familiar? These are the same problems everyone grapples with designing their own yard. Garden design is a complex exercise in balancing the conflicting needs of plants and people, while creating beauty and benefit. The kids seemed to have no trouble.

Their gardens fell into three categories:

Theme Garden

One of my clients described their dream theme as “Don Ho Meets Gilligan's Island.” Five words that spoke volumes: bamboo, palms, lush foliage, exotic fragrances. I can just hear the kids brainstorming themes for their own projects: "I'm thinking jungle tree house on the moon surrounded by horse stables and mermaids, and totally edible but not using much water."

Our first garden, below, has a fifth-grade theme written all over it. This dy-no-mite dino diorama has more than just a few houseplants and plastic beasties. These kids did their research and planted ferns and mosses, both of which were dominant flora back in the day. Talk about creating a garden that attracts wildlife.
Dinosaur garden

What kid hasn’t dreamed of living in a tree house? Wishes can come true, as long as you’re willing to rescale them a tad. This garden shows an attention to detail in the construction of the spiral steps and rope ladder that would make any self-respecting contractor stop and look. And the arrangement of plant material follows one of the first rules of garden design—striking a balance between variety and order when selecting plants.

Art for Art's Sake

Some of the gardens looked as if the kids grabbed a stack of paper and a handful of markers, then let their inner artist run free. The perfect geometry of Russian stacking dolls reflects the classic design forms we see in Old World gardens:  bilateral symmetry, repetition and variation in the use of Echeveria in graduated sizes of terra cota pots, and the romantic image of an untamed birch forest at the edge of civilization.

The proverbial question: If the marshmallows are red, yellow and white, what color is the hot chocolate? This is just fun. What feels so right about this little composition is the exercise of proportion: tall, sunny marigold trees, shrub-size sweet alyssum festooned with perfectly proportioned flowers, and the fine textured, not-a-gas-powered-mower-in-sight alternative lawn.


Whether it comes from their parents, popular culture or the curriculum, the current trend is toward young people seeing the connection between their daily lives and the natural environment.

Conserving resources is part of that big picture and the “Little Water Garden” doubly lived up to its name – it wasn’t very big and it emphasized plants that don’t use a lot of water. In the space of that little flat, they planted four arid ecosystems and populated each with appropriate types of vegetation. Right Plant/Right Place is the basis of sustainable landscaping and the kids nailed it.
Little H2O

The sign says “Dirt Made My Lunch.” I have nothing to add.
Little H2O

Sproutopia was one of the highpoints of my San Francisco Flower and Garden Show visit. Seeing how the kids approached garden design reinforced of few of my fundamental beliefs:
• The basic principles of garden design come naturally, so relax and listen to the kid between your ears.
• The best gardens are developed around an underlying theme, whether as bombastic as a herd of dinosaurs, or as subtle as a place for butterflies.
• There’s no downside to having a sustainable garden that is playful, imaginative, beautiful and gentle on the planet.

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