What a Wonderful Decade by Nicole Bemboom

Congratulations to Natasha on her 10 year anniversary at Arterra!

It has truly been an honor to work with you. Cheers to the past, and to the future!

Thank you for sharing your wisdom and creativity.


A Visit to Succulent Gardens by Nicole Bemboom

We love when our designer Alyssa Erickson goes on an adventure and brings back plant photos for us. Here are some great shots from Succulent Gardens in Castroville. (Don't miss her trip to The UCSC Arboretum!) 


Sketchy Tuesday at Heath Ceramics by Nicole Bemboom

Thank you very much to Heath Ceramics and the Boiler Room for hosting the final Sketchy Tuesday of Architecture and the City. If you would like to join us for future Sketchy Tuesdays, sign up for our newsletter, and you won't miss a thing.

We met at Heath Ceramics in the Mission District and sketched in their gallery space, the Boiler Room. The iron boilers were a challenge, but fun. (The boilers were used to produce steam for the industrial laundry that installed them in the building after WWI, when they were no longer needed for ships.)


Geek in the Garden: Understanding the nuances of sustainable wood by Nicole Bemboom

By Dani J. Winston

Using sustainable materials in a landscape results in a long-term decrease of energy consumption, conserves water, and serves to bolster ecological function by reducing environmental strain. This ultimately contributes to increased environmental services, and healthier, enduring landscapes. 

In Designing the Sustainable Site, Heather Venhaus describes a series of benefits supported by sustainable sites. They include ecosystem services, such as regulating temperature and precipitation, sequestering greenhouse gasses, cleansing air and water, providing habitat, maintaining soil health and fertility, retaining and storing fresh water, controlling erosion, and mitigating natural hazards such as flooding, wildfire, and drought. Sustainable sites may  also provide social benefits, such as providing recreation, producing food and other raw materials such as timber, medicine, and fuel, providing inspiration and cultural enhancement, and enhancing opportunities for mental respite. 


Many factors must be considered when deciding if a material is sustainable. At the minimum, it needs to be long lasting and non-toxic, and created and transported with minimal energy. The material’s entire lifecycle must be considered, from the resources used in production, to the cost of energy and amount of maintenance required, as well as the options for eventually reusing, recycling or discarding. Additionally, consider if a material could improve site health, help repair damaged and disturbed sites, or manage the flow of water.

It is not always evident which products are the most sustainable options for a project and it is important to weigh all the above criteria on a case-by-case basis.


When wood is produced through well-managed, thoughtful, sustainable practices, it could potentially bolster all the aforementioned criteria.

As an example, wood is one of the primary materials in construction and each of these factors must be considered during the decision making process. There are no perfect solutions, but research and planning can help identify the best option.


In the case of wood, there are a number of products types and certifications to consider. The two major certifications for wood are FSC and SFI. FSC is the Forest Stewardship council.  FSC’s objectives seek to protect at risk ecosystems, honor native cultures and economies, avert illegal logging, curtail clear cutting and pesticide use and monitor “the chain of custody” in order to ensure that the wood product purchased has actually met all the above criteria.

SFI is the Sustainable Forestry Initiative. SFI’s criteria have become more stringent in recent years and basically mirror those of FSC. Nevertheless, SFI only certifies harvesting operations in the United States and Canada. For wood products sourced outside North America, SFI relies on foreign governments to set the benchmark. Even though SFI benchmarks have become more stringent in recent years, SFI certification practices continue to be less transparent than those of FSC. Hence, it is important to research the sourcing practices of foreign nations before choosing a product.
While certifications are a good starting point, it is important to consider the entire range of relevant factors when trying to determine the most sustainable wood option. For example, it would be better to choose wood derived from locally recycled street trees rather than a certified wood product that was cut and milled in a different state or country. Though the local source might not carry the FSC or SFI certification, the processes and practices related to its production are easier to verify. The energy and resources consumed in transport of a local product are much lower than a product harvested and milled elsewhere.


Thermally treated wood is quickly becoming a viable alternative to exotic hardwoods. Viewed through the lens of sustainability, the choice between thermally treated wood and exotic hardwoods seems obvious. Thermally treated wood is a domestic product that is both durable, beautiful and easier to work with then exotic hardwoods. Surprisingly, thermally treated wood, though sustainably harvested in the United States, is often shipped to Eastern Europe for the thermal process and then shipped back to the U.S., wasting energy and creating pollution through the shipping process. As demand for thermally treated wood increases, it is likely that more domestic processing facilities will be constructed, eventually yielding a viable alternative to exotic hardwoods. 

Composite materials are another option fraught with contradiction. Composites are primarily composed of recycled plastics and mill waste, are highly durable, and require minimal maintenance. Unfortunately, there is a downside to most composites. At the end of their lifecycle most readily available composites fall short because in the process of creating a product made from both plastic (which is recyclable), and wood waste (which is compostable), the resulting combination is a product that is neither recyclable nor compostable.

There has been a lot of interest in composite materials lately, and we’re looking forward to seeing where the research and development takes us.

Here are a few products we’ll be keeping an eye on:


Modified wood resources:

Wood certification resources:

Additional  sources:
Designing The Sustainable Site- Heather Venhaus
Sustainable Landscape Construction-J. William Thompson and Kim Sorvig
Beronio Lumber, San Francisco
Truit and White,  Berkeley


Happy Birthday, National Park Service by Nicole Bemboom

To celebrate the National Park Centennial, our team pulled together some favorite photos from the parks.

Happy birthday, National Park Service! Thank you for making all of this possible! Here's to hundreds of years more!

Garden Geometries: Rhythm by Nicole Bemboom

By Vera Gates

With the use of rhythm, we pull many variable aspects together and a design begins to vibrate and move. Through design, we compose a synchronized experience of movement through space, with greater and lesser moments of time. 

We achieve rhythm through a thoughtful combination of geometric forms which are repeated and articulated. The effect is transformative and memorable as we, the viewer, perceive these rhythms and are engaged by them.

  Floating Planes  by Arterra Landscape Architects. Photography by  Michele Lee Willson

Floating Planes by Arterra Landscape Architects. Photography by Michele Lee Willson

Garden rhythm can be playful, quiet, spicy, meditative or operatic.  Many gardens are a combination of rhythmic themes, interwoven throughout the site.

For a small garden, a simple repetitive form, with perhaps just a beat of contrast will work well. A thoughtful precision of tempo, with an articulation and punctuation at just the right moment(s) will engage and delight.

For larger gardens, there is typically an overriding rhythmic order, which can be replicated to greater and lesser degree, throughout the garden. Momentum builds along a quiet journey and explodes in a crescendo, before finally letting go into the wild edges of the land.

  Literary Inspiration  by Arterra Landscape Architects. Photo by Rebecca Ford

Literary Inspiration by Arterra Landscape Architects. Photo by Rebecca Ford

  Literary Inspiration  by Arterra Landscape Architects. Photo by  David Livingston

Literary Inspiration by Arterra Landscape Architects. Photo by David Livingston

It is helpful to establish the desired rhythm of a garden early in the design process. Such rhythm can be seen in early conceptual design studies, throughout the design process, and into the built garden.

Good garden design provides an orchestrated rhythm that is visually compelling, fully functional and memorable.

  Sunset Idea House  by Arterra Landscape Architects. Photo by Thomas J. Story for  Sunset

Sunset Idea House by Arterra Landscape Architects. Photo by Thomas J. Story for Sunset


Garden Geometries: Asymmetry by Nicole Bemboom

By Vera Gates

Asymmetrical design can be a very dynamic and responsive solution to real site conditions and natural aspects. This ordering system allows the design to respond to the site as it exists and balance existing features with new, proposed features. It is easy to incorporate focal elements where needed either functionally or visually, while maintaining a measurable overall form. 

 Master plan for the  Sunset Idea House , by Arterra Landscape Architects

Master plan for the Sunset Idea House, by Arterra Landscape Architects

An asymmetrical design offers greater flexibility in response to the site and the program. It is well suited to a site that is odd or irregularly shaped. It allows the design to develop with features going where they work best. Over time, as plants mature, an asymmetrical design is much more forgiving of the whims of nature, and the fact that no two plants grow exactly alike. 

 Conceptual plan by Arterra Landscape Architects

Conceptual plan by Arterra Landscape Architects

The aspect of asymmetrical design is creating a balanced, harmonious whole. We are composing space.

  Garden as Sculpture  by Arterra Landscape Architects

Garden as Sculpture by Arterra Landscape Architects


Garden Geometries: Symmetry by Nicole Bemboom

By Vera Gates

There are two basic options: symmetrical and asymmetrical. The site itself, the architecture and the design intentions will inform which you will choose.

 Photo by  David Wakely

Photo by David Wakely

A symmetrical design is created around a central axis line, with everything on one side of the axis being mirrored exactly on the other. This works great if you have a symmetrical space and the architecture of the house is laid out in a symmetrical way. It can also work well if there is one great natural feature of the site, for example a perfectly matched pair of trees, that can be the central, ordering focus of the design.

  Garden Vignette  by Arterra Landscape Architects  Photo by  Michele Lee Willson

Garden Vignette by Arterra Landscape Architects

Photo by Michele Lee Willson

Symmetrical design is the easiest to draw on paper and the most difficult to maintain long term in the garden. While it works very well for buildings, it can very difficult to mirror plantings from one side of a garden space to another, especially if sun and shade vary, the plants on one side will perform very differently than the other and throw off the planned symmetrical design. Because of this it is best to rely on built elements to maintain the symmetry, versus plantings.


The site will either lend itself to a symmetrical design or it won't. If the space is very regular and aligned to key site lines, a symmetrical design can work well. 

It can be very difficult to incorporate existing natural features and often a symmetrical garden design requires removing just about everything on the site. This is not a problem if the site has already been cleared, but can be very costly otherwise. 

 Conceptual Sketch by Arterra Landscape Architects

Conceptual Sketch by Arterra Landscape Architects

The rhythm of a symmetrical garden is easily recognized and understood, but can quickly become repetitive and boring, especially if it goes on for too long. A better approach is to incorporate some symmetrical aspects, where they make the most sense and then interweave that symmetry with other aspects, as shown below.

Master Plan by Arterra Landscape Architects


Garden Geometries: Centering and Site Lines by Vera Gates

By Vera Gates

The hardest part about designing a garden is knowing how and where to begin. The first steps for us are picking up a pencil and sketching on trace (tracing paper). All our design evolves from here.

We begin by generating a series of organizing site lines — sort of thought lines. These lines are gestural, and both straight and curving. They help us organize our thoughts and start drawing in a meaningful way. 

 A preliminary exploration for  Talk of the Neighborhood

A preliminary exploration for Talk of the Neighborhood

These lines emerge from the site itself, for example: a curving ring of trees, a native creek or the angle of natural topography. 

We also generate organizing lines out from the buildings and consider lines of sight, as well as circulation and connection from doors and points of entry.

These gestural line drawings are a starting place but not necessarily the ending place. It is a means of strategically plotting a series of ideas and exploring how those ideas might work. These studies get us loosened up and ready to dig into the design possibilities.

Sketch by Arterra Landscape Architects

Once we have our bearings, we then start to look at the overall geometric form and whether we are going to do something highly symmetrical, crazy abstract or somewhere in between. 

No matter the design intention or direction, from traditional to contemporary, design begins with drawing lines and organizing space with these lines.

Conceptual plan by Arterra Landscape Architects

Some of our gardens are symmetrical, at least in part. More often, we design asymmetrically, with a balance of features and elements, evolving along a series of site lines. The overall design is an orchestrated blend of ordering systems.


Garden Geometries: Ordering Principles by Nicole Bemboom

By Vera Gates

We have explored basic geometric form generation and shown how these forms manifest within garden design. We have looked at very simple forms and also more complex combinations. But now that we know how to begin, how do we know where to end? A foundational understanding of basic ordering principles allows us to design freely and create sophisticated geometric forms that work.

Plan by Arterra Landscape Architects

We know when we see and experience good design. It is beautiful, the space works well and we are inspired. How is such beauty of proportion and harmony achieved? We "know it when we see it" but how is "it" quantified? We perceive something as beautiful if the proportions are pleasing, the ordering system is comprehensible and the details enrich the whole.  

A sketch overlaying a snapshot of the site

Our ultimate goal in garden design is the creation of memorable place. To achieve this, we provide visual, physical and emotional movement through space, and create moments in time where one can linger and reflect.

In order for this journey through time and space to occur and the garden experience to be meaningful, the design methodology and ordering systems must be comprehensible. If we are comfortable and at our ease within a garden space, we can fully appreciate the experience and we will remember it. 

 In construction

In construction

Factors such as scale and proportion, rhythm and repetition, positive vs. negative space, balance and hierarchy all come into play. The resulting orchestration of form and volume is richly creative, within the bounds of basic organizational principles.  

Garden design evolves in response to actual site conditions and the desire for beautiful, usable space. The form possibilities are limitless, especially because each site is unique, with both opportunities and constraints.

The following weeks will be a series of studies on combined geometric forms and the application of basic ordering systems that help organize our thinking and ultimately inform our design form. We will explore how we change the perception of space.


Garden Geometries: Combining Forms by Nicole Bemboom

By Vera Gates

Throughout this series, we have been exploring garden design through the singular prism of one geometric form at a time, as discrete moments. Yet, great garden designs are a thoughtful orchestration of multiple geometric forms.


Conceptual Sketches by Kate Stickley


We are trying to create rhythm, interest, contrast and beauty amidst a highly ordered space. The varying geometries can be physically connected or dis-connected, interwoven or distinctly separate, according to our intentions.

Master Plan by Arterra Landscape Architects

Master Plan by Arterra Landscape Architects

Typically, the choices are made in response to some site or architectural consideration. We are often trying to either solve a problem, define a usable purpose or create an experiential moment. 

As with basic geometric forms, the combinations have rules of engagement. Governed by perceptions of order and beauty, the design is an effort to interrelate and unify the whole into a comprehensible and beautiful sequence of space.


We know when we see and experience good design. It is beautiful, the space works well and we are inspired. The thoughtful combinations of geometric forms, and basic rules of ordering space help define beauty, proportion and harmony. 

Master Plan By Arterra Landscape Architects


Garden Geometries: The Spiral by Nicole Bemboom

By Vera Gates

The spiral is one of the most amazing geometric design forms to work with, in all dimensions. It’s a mesmerizing and endlessly variable form. It is always so fun to stand at the eye of the spiral and comprehend the form, and for that moment, the magic. You can feel the generative movement of the shape.

Conceptual Sketch by Arterra Landscape Architects

In The Power of Limits, György Doczi introduced me to the spiral and to its naturally evolving, generative form. He talks of Dinergy as the pattern-forming process of the union of complimentary opposites and explores spiral patterning in depth.

Conceptual Plan by Arterra Landscape Architects

In our garden design, we have proposed many spiral forms over the years, but built only a few. It’s a challenging form to work with, certainly, and in combination with the typical rectilinear architecture, it can be very hard to imagine such an organic form so near our homes.

But we come back to the spiral, again and again.

Plan by Arterra Landscape Architects

Floating Plans by Arterra Landscape Architects

Photo by Michele Lee Willson

  Menlo Park Family Home  by Arterra Landscape Architects  Photo by  Michele Lee Willson

Menlo Park Family Home by Arterra Landscape Architects

Photo by Michele Lee Willson

Often we combine the spiral with other forms, finding that these combinations make for some fascinating design forms. Straight lines, radiating out from the center of the spiral allow us to intercept, bisect and offset the spiral, effectively jogging it around site constraints. This creates a wonderful rhythm and playful tension that is comprehensible, engaging and interesting.

Master Plan by Arterra Landscape Architects

Alternately we work in combination with an arcing form, as it emerges from the spiral. This opens the form up and expands its reach. The effect is very much of an enfolding form, like the opening of a flower petal.

 Sketch by Vera Gates

Sketch by Vera Gates

Plan by Vera Gates

We often use the spiral as the basis of a design, without actually ever inscribing it on the site. It is there as an ordering principle, invisible but perceptible.

The Furl Planter by Arterra-Art

Photo by Michele Lee Willson


Garden Dialogues by Nicole Bemboom

We'd like to say thank you to everyone who joined us on our garden tour on Saturday, and a very special thank you to our clients, who graciously opened up their homes and talked about the design process.

Our tour kicked off this year's Garden Dialogues series, a nationwide program that recognizes great landscape architecture and supports the educational programs of The Cultural Landscape Foundation. We were honored to participate and help the foundation in their mission.


Garden Geometries: The Circle by Nicole Bemboom

By Vera Gates

 Master Plan by Arterra Landscape Architects

Master Plan by Arterra Landscape Architects

The circular form is a geometric whole, arising from one point and one radius line, inscribing a visual volume. Seldom used, playful and magical, the circular form is pure pleasure to design with.


Master Plan by Arterra Landscape Architects

Of all the geometric forms, the circle holds the most embedded power. There is something primal in this form, with reference to mandalas, Native American circle dance and The Sanctuary of Athena in ancient Delphi. The circle has traditionally been used in the marking of time and creation of monuments to celebrate the seasons. Think Stonehenge, the Mayan calendar, sundials and your wrist watch.


The circle is a challenge to design with. It is perfection in closed loop, the eye and the mind tend to remain within, so it can be fairly static. We use the circle sparingly and quite intentionally, either at a grand scale for ordering space, or a design aspect where we playfully repeat the form or combine the circle with other forms to activate it. 

For example, we often design using a series of concentric circles, bisected by lines and offset in their start and stop. This creates a dynamic but still very comprehensible form with a lot of play and movement. This gives an expanded sense of space and time.

In plan, we inscribe a circle as a design form. Lifting this form up and giving it volume, we create a sphere. The circle can also be one of the most playful of forms, as there is such whimsy in the reference to bubbles and big rubber balls. 

  62 Degrees  by Arterra Landscape Architects  Photo by  Michele Lee Willson

62 Degrees by Arterra Landscape Architects

Photo by Michele Lee Willson


Garden Geometries: Grid/Offset Grid by Nicole Bemboom

By Vera Gates

Master Plan by Arterra Landscape Architects

The grid is one of the simplest of design methodologies and a great way to get a design started.  Most gardens are laid out over an underlying grid. This is a great ordering system for organizing space and circulation. It is easily measurable and manageable as a design tool.

  Garden Vignette  by Arterra Landscape Architects  Photo by  Michele Lee Willson

Garden Vignette by Arterra Landscape Architects

Photo by Michele Lee Willson

The grid is most interesting when not entirely visible and when it is articulated at varying scales. It can emerge and disappear throughout the garden. The form is comprehensible and interesting, but not boring. The design can take on an additive or subtractive quality, depending upon how the grid is interpreted.

Typically, the grid is offset and parallel with the house. We love it when there are structures set at various angles, as this creates opportunity for an offset grid and a dynamic shift in perception of the site. A shifted grid creates the illusion of a more expansive space.

 Master Plan by Arterra Landscape Architects

Master Plan by Arterra Landscape Architects


The grid pattern gets very interesting when you take it into three dimensions. Forms become a  study in ascending and descending forms. Such a design works well where there are grade changes to be made and connections to the interior space need to be made on a number of elevational levels. The forms can literally descend into the earth as a negative space and arise from the earth as articulated terraces and monumental planters.

  Floating Planes  by Arterra Landscape Architects  Photos by  Michele Lee Willson

Floating Planes by Arterra Landscape Architects

Photos by Michele Lee Willson


Bouquets to Art by Nicole Bemboom

Bouquets to Art 2016 is now on display at the de Young Museum, through April 10th.

Vera stopped by and took some photos of her favorite arrangements for us, including this spectacular piece by Asiel Design, which was inspired by the photo of Ruth Asawa working.

Check out the show before Sunday to see some of these great pieces in person, as well as the works from the permanent collection that inspired the bouquets. (If that's not motivation enough, while you're there, you can check out the Oscar de la Renta Retrospective.)

We were not able to grab all of the artists names, unfortunately, but here's a list of what we have. Let us know if you can fill in any gaps!

1: Twigs and Stems. Reg Merritt, Rebecca Merritt
2 + 3: Emil Yanos
4: Kiwi DeVoy
6: Orinda Garden Club. Heather Dunne, Mari Tischenko
7: Belle Flora. Hiromi Nomura
10: Chestnut and Vine Floral Design. Svenja Brotz, Linnea Brotz, Leander Brotz
11 + 12: Katharina Stuart Floral Art and Design


Garden Geometries: Rectangular Forms by Nicole Bemboom

By Vera Gates

At Arterra we frequently design with rectangular forms, inspired by the golden rectangle and the desire to create harmonious proportions. This geometric form is infinitely workable and easily repeated in endlessly interesting patterns. Our clients are drawn towards rectilinear designs, as they feel calm, quiet and Zen-like. It is a familiar, visually comprehensible form, which makes it soothing.

The idea here is that the perfectly proportioned rectangle will be infinitely pleasing to the human eye.  

 The Golden Rectangle

The Golden Rectangle

We are big fans of the humble rectangle and we use it a lot, both horizontally as a plane and vertically as a shape and form.

     Sunset Idea House  by Arterra Landscape Architects  Photo by Thomas J. Story for  Sunset


Sunset Idea House by Arterra Landscape Architects

Photo by Thomas J. Story for Sunset

Master Plan by Arterra Landscape Architects

A series of rectangles can be stacked, offset, shifted and rotated. They can be rendered in varying materials of vary sizes. This is an infinitely workable form and easily reinforced with pre-fabricated elements like planters.

Master Plan by Arterra Landscape Architects

In garden design today, the rectangle appears to be having its moment. It is by far the most popular geometric form requested and for good reason. Our contemporary design lexicon emanates from computer drawings, and rectangles are easy to draw, replicate and repeat on the computer. It is readily available in many materials, and it is easy to build straight, rectangular shapes.

However, the rectangle does not necessarily play well with others. The curving forms, in particular seem to have fallen out of favor, because they tend to not work well with the rectangle. Occasionally we merge the two, and the results are powerful.

Conceptual Master Plan by Arterra Landscape Architects

  The Gathering Table  by Arterra Landscape Architects  Photo by  Michele Lee Willson

The Gathering Table by Arterra Landscape Architects

Photo by Michele Lee Willson

In a primarily rectilinear design, the challenge is creating complexity and design interest with such a simple shape.

We respond by manipulating the form in scale and dimension, lifting it up at times and replicating it at varying sizes, to create a sophisticated composition of forms. 

California Modern by Arterra Landscape Architects

Photo by Mariko Reed