Real Estate

Instant help for garden design

'30 Minutes for $30' design booth offers access to landscape professionals

People come to garden shows looking for inspiration, ideas and sometimes solutions to a nagging problem.

Last year, the local chapter of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers (APLD) recruited members to staff a design-consultation booth dubbed "Ask a Designer: 30 Minutes for $30" at the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show. The booth was to "give show-goers an opportunity to get a sample of what it's like to work with a designer," said Cynthia Tanyan of Mozaic Landscapes, Sunol, show coordinator.

It was so successful they're repeating the experience at this year's show from March 18 to 22.

Debby Ruskin, APLD, of Ruskin Gardens Co., Palo Alto, brought "lots of handouts, mostly with plant lists and ideas -- things you might want to include in your garden."

"Some people came very well prepared," she said, and others were content to bounce ideas off a designer to see if her ideas might work.

One person even brought in a plan of her yard drawn to scale.

"She was pretty clear about what she wanted. I put a trace over her base and did a little design" on the spot, Ruskin said.

Others were interested in getting cost estimates.

"I have an idea of square-foot costs; a gravel path might cost $3 to $6 per square foot, depending on edging, gravel. Same for brick, flagstone, Connecticut blue stone," said Ruskin, who started her landscape business in the 1980s.

"It was very fun. Some people were very green, just beginning to think about gardening, and some more experienced," she added.

Patricia Larenas, of Urban Artichoke Garden Designs, Mountain View, encountered people with troublesome spots in their yards, such as a sloping lot with drainage issues; others were concerned about gardening in the drought.

"I was a little bit shocked when one woman said there won't be a drought in a while, we'll be back to normal. She didn't get that we live in a Mediterranean climate.

"Look at this year: With our very early spring, we haven't had normally cold weather, hardly any frost. The concern there is fruit trees that need 'chill' hours. The home fruit trees are very confused, they're starting to blossom early. If we get a rain, it will knock off blossoms, and we'll get no fruit," she said.

Larenas, who started her business in 2013 after working as a garden blogger, hopes to educate people not only about the drought, but about lawn-replacement rebates in Santa Clara County.

Ruskin too is hoping to inform the gardening public about the drought, with information on watering, irrigation systems and "all the plants that do well with less water," she said.

For Ruskin, consulting in the booth was often similar to interviewing new clients. She began with a basic questionnaire to get people thinking about how they use their outdoor spaces: How often do they entertain? And for how big a group? What materials do they like? Would they like an arbor, and if yes, which way should it face?

"In most cases, everybody walked out with something tangible that they could move to the next step with. Some were clearly going to call us again," she said.

And for those who don't make an appointment at the design booth, there will be a stack of books to peruse while waiting for an open slot.

"For beginners it provides a starting place," Ruskin said. "It also opened people's eyes to the world of professionals. A lot can't imagine that people actually pay to design a garden."

In addition to the "Ask a Designer" booth, the flower and garden show will present full-sized designer showcase gardens, hundreds of floral designs, tens of thousands of plants and garden-related products for sale, and free seminars, exhibits and demonstrations throughout the five-day show. Associate Editor

What: San Francisco Flower and Garden Show

When: March 18-22, 10 a.m.-7 p.m., Wednesday-Saturday; 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Sunday

Where: San Mateo Event Center, 1346 Saratoga Drive, San Mateo

Cost: All show pass, $40; Opening Night Gala, $75; daily pass, $22; workshops, $50 each

Info: San Francisco Flower and Garden Show

Carol Blitzer can be emailed at

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