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An Ethereal and Otherworldly Garden ... A San Francisco Courtyard is Transformed

Updated: Dec 18, 2020

A few weeks ago, Napa Valley Register feature's editor, Sasha Paulsen, and I ventured down to the 2013 San Francisco Decorator Showcase. This year’s featured house was an 8000 square-foot Georgian mansion known as “Herbst Manor”. Built in 1899 atop a hill in Pacific Heights, this majestic lady challenged West Coast designers to transform its 24 rooms and three exterior areas.

One of the most impressive of these transformations occurred in the courtyard at the hands of garden designers Davis Dalbok and Brandon Pruett of San Francisco’s Living Green Design, Inc. Stepping into the space was like being transported into another dimension – an otherworldly, exotic, and tropical one at that. In an instant, Paulsen and I had exited the urban world and entered a paradisal oasis.

The inspiration for Dalbok’s and Pruett’s design came from Dalbok’s own original Japanese screen paintings that, in essence, conveyed a mythical habitat of wild birds of prey. To help bring their fantastical concept to life, they enlisted the talents of artist, Jane Richardson Mack and vertical garden innovator, Chris Bribach.

Mack, a diverse Bay Area artist whose clientele includes guitar-great Carlos Santana, devised a careful plan in using Dalbok’s old and world-class Japanese paintings. With her specialized skill as a verre eglomise artist, she embedded the images in real silver leaf applied to panels of glass. “Vehr-ray eee-glow-mee-zay” is a pre-Roman technique of painting and gilding the backside of glass. Richardson Mack then burnished the silver away to reveal the images within an ethereal and mysterious silvery cloud-like aura.

The panels were then hermetically sealed into bronze powder-coated frames and hung as a focal point on one of the courtyard’s neglected, 12-foot high brick walls. Dalbok and Pruett further enhanced the space with painterly strokes of greenery including potted Japanese maple trees, a rare Baobab-type miniature tree, dwarf conifers, grasses, and a cohesive woodland understory – all of which came from their San Francisco Living Green showroom.

Their poetic imagination carried over to the adjacent brick wall. Since the courtyard was a challengingly small 400 square-feet, the designers employed a tradition used by the French in their own small gardens. “Espallier” is a technique that trains plants to vertically grow on walls. To actualize this idea, they turned to the genius behind vertical garden planters and self-watering systems, CEO and founder of Plants on Walls, Chris Bribach.

Bribach converted this bleak and harsh brick eyesore into a lush and mesmerizing showstopper using his 2010 patented creation, Vertical Garden Panel, Florafelt Vertical Garden Planters and Wire Systems, and Recirc self-watering systems. The hand-made planters are designed to use micro fibers in P.E.T. (polyethylene terephthalate) felt so that all plants are watered equally. The felt is made from non-toxic and durable fibers from recycled plastic bottles. The material has been proven to be so safe, pH neutral and non-reactive that one can freely plant an organic fruit and vegetable garden. Over 1500 felt root-wrapped plants were used to fill the planter pockets with species reflecting the habitat of birds of prey -such as an assortment of ferns.

In addition to the brick walls, Dalbok and Pruett treated the courtyard’s once drab concrete ground. With a multiple-layered application of a reactive stain, the concrete turned into an old Roman stone floor with a mélange of warm sunset hues.

To make the space people-friendly and functional, they added a dining table with an inlaid semi-precious stone mosaic top, iconic Michael Taylor garden chairs, and a Verona marble console table. They accessorized with potted succulents, a partially hidden and sinister ceramic serpent, and a copper bird of prey from Burma.

With such attention to detail in this courtyard, the imaginations of Showcase visitors could not help but be swept away by this beguiling, fairytale design.

As Paulsen and I stepped back into reality, we were comforted to know that such magical spaces could be created anywhere. You can enlist the help of Dalbok and Pruett, use your own designer, or take this on as a do-it-yourself project. Whatever the strategy, start by enjoying the most awe-inducing, sumptuous, and magnificent garden portfolio - found on Living Green’s website. And, no matter your theme, inspiration, or garden design goal, incorporating a living wall is easier than you may think. Bribach’s Plants on Walls website has an abundance of detailed and helpful information, simple step-by-step instructions, and pictures that say a thousand words.

Treat yourself with a visit to the websites of these uniquely gifted artists.

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