I wouldn’t say gardening is in my blood, but I have always had a fondness for the outdoors, for plants and the natural world. Growing up in a small, rural town I gardened with my mom and dad doing everything from weeding and hunting for tomato worms, to pruning fruit trees. We grew ornamental plants and had quite a large fruit and vegetable garden as well.

Gardening, Art and the Pursuit of Happiness

Finding My Way in a Field of Possibilities


I wouldn’t say gardening is in my blood, but I have always had a fondness for the outdoors, for plants and the natural world. Growing up in a small, rural town I gardened with my mom and dad doing everything from weeding and hunting for tomato worms, to pruning fruit trees. We grew ornamental plants and had quite a large fruit and vegetable garden as well. We canned food, made our own pickles, milked our goats … quite idyllic in some ways. When the fence failed, we fixed it. If we needed a new barn, we built it. When my dad decided he wanted a large custom barbeque, we got a load of bricks and started constructing it from the ground up. It was here in this charming, DIY setting that the seeds were planted for the career I find myself in today—a career 30 years in the making and still evolving to this day.

Those seeds began to germinate with the founding of Paxon Gate. I was fortunate enough to partner up with a creative intellectual and superb plantsman, Peter Kline, for the first three years of Paxton Gate’s journey. It was during this stage that I discovered Tillandsias and Bromeliads and began my long love affair with the family that includes the Pineapple. In the early days, we were closed on Tuesdays. I spent nearly every week walking through the Arboretum in Golden Gate Park or perusing the books there in the Helen Crocker Russel Library, often researching early Paxtonians. This was pre-internet folks. Both are wonderful places for a budding gardener to learn and to be inspired. Also, as a newly minted professional gardener, I was looking for inspiration, for someone or something to reference when talking to prospective clients. Since my degree was in small business, short of a few art classes, I had no creative credentials to reference. I didn’t go to art school where one learns to discuss their craft and how to convey the why’s and how’s of their art. It was during this early exploration that I delved deeply into the works of our namesake, Sir Joseph Paxton, and was mesmerized by the breadth of his talent: Architect, plantsman, inventor, plant collector, gardener, and more. I was also working more and more with stone and honing that craft. I read books such as Dan Snow’s Listening to Stone and Building with Stone by Charles McRaven. Some of these, and other texts, treated the craft as high art and read more like a religious text or philosophical treatise than a how-to manual. I ate it up.

At some point in this search for knowledge and inspiration, I stumbled upon Roberto Burle-Marx. His work embodied everything I was learning about and frankly dreaming about. I wanted to be a skilled stone mason and a learned plantsman. I yearned to go on plant collecting trips (and I did, see Issue #10). And I wanted my work to be more than just gardening. I hoped to create art or in the very least, artful designs and spaces. Burle-Marx worked with tropicals—bromeliads being among his favorites—and when those plants weren’t available in nurseries in his native Brazil, he collected them and cultivated them, even discovering several species that still bear his name. His vast estates and public gardens frequently included inspiring stonework in support of his rich plantings. The work of Burle-Marx was the perfect synthesis of my interests at the time and, as if that weren’t enough, he was also an accomplished painter. As a budding twenty-something gardener-designer-artist, I had found in Burle-Marx my mentor, albeit he didn’t know it and had died a few years prior to me discovering his work.

I spent the next couple years trying to cram Burle-Marx inspired stone monuments topped by Vriesea imperialis into tiny San Francisco plots. I gardened with large swaths of plants grouped together to create washes of color in small SF gardens. 

My stonework got more complex and at times more sculptural than functional. Alongside my progression, Paxton Gate Gardens, a branch of the retail store, was evolving and eventually became an entirely separate firm, RareField Design/Build. The company changed from one that created small gardens to designing and building larger outdoor spaces, heavy in masonry and carpentry. Eventually we moved indoors, designing and building residential interiors and even restaurants and bars with, local favorite, Flour + Water being our first ever hospitality design.

As a designer, I was still trying to find my voice, literally. How do I describe what I do to people other than saying something less than elegant like, “I just try to make it look good?” There’s certainly more to it than that but, for me, putting it into words has always been a challenge. I’ve never been a networker. Never been that guy who goes to events to get in with the right crowd, talk about how great I am, and ultimately build their gardens and design their homes. And—probably more out of reticence than intention—I’ve always let the work speak for itself.

This has meant for a very slow ramping up for RareField which, now in our 30th year, has finally come to fruition. As I write this my team and I have a dozen gardens on the boards at various stages of design, a couple bathrooms in the works, and we’re partway into designing a Sebastopol Winery. That’s a long way from a gardener with a dream.

But, as I sat down to prepare for this Paxtonian and read over my old article about Roberto Burle-Marx, I was reminded of why I gravitated toward him and his work. What I did learn from him and what brings me inspiration is that, not only is the craft import but the vision, is as well. Color and composition usurp structure. Plants are not just the finishing touch on a garden but preeminently important. We may build at times massive, carpentry heavy gardens which feel quite nice until the final days of the project, at which time the plants go in. It’s then that they go from “quite nice” to spectacular. Before discovering Burle-Marx, I used to refer to plants as akin to “paint” with the hardscape, structural work, and carpentry (the “architecture” of the garden) really providing the substance of the design. As it turns out, one does not live without the other. They add more than color; they add depth, texture, life, and growth. A garden without thoughtfully selected plants is not a garden.

Burle-Marx also taught me to view design with an artist’s eye. Although to this day I can’t bring myself to refer to myself as an artist, I still find it helpful to view design from the point of an artist, from that point of freedom that only a true artist inhabits. Of course, form follows function, but I’ve often told myself—and designers I work with here at RareField—to design for beauty, for aesthetics, or for art foremost and then figure out how to build it. Don’t design necessarily around typical materials, sizes or expected configurations. Draw what you want to see, or feel in the garden or the room, and then work backwards and determine how to bring it all together in 3D. A design without art is not a design.

With that dalliance into art and design taking me deeper than I ever expected, I share now my original article written in 1994 about Roberto Burle-Marx from Issue 2, No. 2 of The Paxtonian.   

Read The Original Paxtonian: Issue #2

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