For most of his young life, Joseph Marek grew up rootless, in plant speak. With a military dad, the family moved every three years or so, from regions as varied as South Texas and Alaska to the German Rhineland and Tidewater, Virginia. “I grew plants in whatever place we lived: nasturtiums and beans in the short Alaska summers, African violets on our apartment window sills in Germany, and roses in Mississippi.” These botanical experiences eventually informed his vocation—he studied architecture at Yale, then went on to receive a master’s in landscape architecture at the University of Virginia. Today, he runs an eponymous practice in Southern California, with his work recognized in magazines, including Martha Stewart Living, House Beautiful, and the Los Angeles Times. Although rooted in Santa Monica, he continues to collect botanical experiences within his own “lab,” aka his backyard. “When I latch onto a new plant I get a lot of them—many varieties/species/cultivars—more than I ever have room for.” The telltale sign of a plant nut.
Janet Mavec: What’s your favorite season?
Joseph Marek: Fall. Before moving in 1994 from Connecticut to California I hated fall because I never liked knowing that winter was coming. When I moved to L.A., I still wasn’t crazy about it but for a different reason. The sun angle and its silver light is so in your face. But what fall brings here in California is rain! And when the rains come, our gardens come alive. Once I started to see how magnificent certain plants are here in the fall I began to appreciate how truly blessed we are to live in this climate. Fall gardens here rival spring gardens in unexpected and truly breathtaking ways. For example, we have an abundance of Hypoestes aristata (Ribbon Bush) that has seeded itself in our back garden and it puts on an incredible show of its magenta ribbon blossoms in early November. Combined with our pink sunsets at that time of year it’s a spectacular moment.
JM: What are your top 3 favorite plants and why?
Joseph M.: (1) Strong hedges. City gardens require good strong definition whether via architecture, garden walls, or good solid hedges. I use a lot of bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), Japanese blueberry (Elaeocarpus decipiens) for the 6-foot to 12-foot high hedge, and black acacia (Acacia melanoxylon) when I need a really tall fast hedge. (Yes, I know the last one can be invasive but that’s what good garden maintenance is for!)
(2) Big succulents. I like big aloes and agaves for major garden accents. They draw the eye and look good 24/7/365. Coral, tangerine, and gold-spired blooms on the aloes in our fall and winter are added bonuses.
(3) Roses. I can’t live without roses. They’re not for every garden, but, if I can, I try to work at least one into every garden. For no-fuss climbers, our most bulletproof one here is the yellow Lady Banks (Rosa banksiae lutea). And David Austin’s English roses grow incredibly well here.
JM: What plant gets no love and why should we pay more attention to it?
Joseph M.: Native wildflowers. There’s almost always a way to work them into a cultivated garden. On my way out of a finished garden project I often throw California poppy seeds about. They sprout and fill in the space between new plants until the garden matures. And if the plants bloom and scatter seeds in subsequent seasons it’s a win-win.
JM: What’s the aesthetic of your personal garden?
Joseph M.: My personal garden is that of a collector. One of my favorite garden rooms is the one directly outside my studio doors. My desk faces the garden and I keep the doors open almost every day. It’s a small space (11’ x 17’) that I walk through dozens of times a day. When certain plant collections come in and out of bloom, it’s a perfect place to show them off and enjoy them. Australian dendrobiums in late winter/early spring; epiphyllum orchid cacti in late spring; and cane and tuberous begonias and coleus in summer. Being a landscape architect and a plant nut though don’t always go hand in hand. My garden is not for everyone and I’ve even forbidden certain clients from visiting knowing they couldn’t handle the variety and abundance. So when creating gardens for clients I base my design on a number of factors: the architecture of their house, their personal style and lifestyle, their own gardening level and interest, and the amount of time and money they’re willing to invest in the garden’s upkeep. Some of my most successful gardens have only a few plants but very strong garden architecture. And as much as I’d love to have a stripped down palette in my own garden I know myself well enough to know that won’t happen. I’ll always find a new plant I need.
JM: How’s your love affair going with herbs/vegetables? Any new paramours?
Joseph M.: Our garden is small so I devote as much of the sunny ground here to my roses. A few years ago I was able to get a small plot in a local community garden where I now grow most of our vegetables. It’s a small plot, but it pumps out more than enough produce for the two of us with some to spare for neighbors and friends. I grow a lot of tomatoes in summer and lots of green leafies in winter. My new favorite is Portuguese kale (Couve tronchuda) that I saw growing all over the countryside on a Garden Conservancy trip to Portugal three years ago. It looks beautiful in the garden and it’s so delicious.
JM: What’s the one (outdoors/garden) tool you can’t live without.
Joseph M.: My TWO favorites are my Japanese Hand Hoe (DeWit makes a good one) for weeding, and a Corona drain spade for digging. Sometimes a shovel is too wide for a tight garden space so a spade is your friend.
JM: What’s one or two of your favorite resourceful/inspirational books on gardening?
Joseph M.: So many classic design books to choose from and too many to name ... but from a strictly botanical (and West Coast-centric) standpoint, you can’t beat the “Sunset Western Garden Book.” And, although I don’t often include annuals in gardens for clients, seed catalogs give me a lot of inspiration. They remind me of the abundance of plants to choose from and inevitably lead me down another rabbit hole of plant combinations to try.
JM: What is your favorite garden in L.A.?
Joseph M.: My favorite garden in Southern California, hands-down, is Lotusland. I first visited Lotusland soon after I moved to L.A. and never realized how much it influenced the design of my own garden until nearly 25 years later when a consultant visited and said my garden was like a mini-Lotusland. That made me so happy.
JM: When is the last time you hugged a tree?
Joseph M.: There’s a particular Chilean wine palm (Jubea chilensis) at Lotusland that I’ve hugged many times over the last 27 years. Many garden visitors are often photographed hugging it too. The last time I had the chance to hug it was October 2019. I’ll finally be back there next month and will be sure to give my old friend a big hug again.
JM: What’s new or coming up for you in 2020 that you’d like to mention?
Joseph M.: Well, in 2021 I’m slowly re-entering the world after the horrific events and tragedies of 2020. I still haven’t traveled but I’ve begun to see local friends again and I just had my parents out from Virginia for a much needed reunion. I look forward to traveling in general again soon.
JM: As tragic as 2020 has been, did the lockdown have any silver lining for you?
Joseph M.: One good thing that came out of the spring 2020 lockdown was that I got to spend those months on my favorite hobby: hybridizing roses. I’ve been ‘playing bee’ for over a decade spreading pollen around to my roses in hopes of making something new and beautiful. I’ve had fun with it for sure, but last year I made a LOT of crosses. Those labors are now bearing fruit in the form of hundreds of rosebuds making their first appearances. Hopefully, one or two will be something worth keeping and sharing. Drop a follow on my Instagram and see what you think. Who knows, maybe someday you’ll have one of my roses in your garden.
Joseph wearing Janet Mavec Sunflower Pin.