Stylish Tips from a Plant Trend-Setter’s Garden

Find out what Flora Grubb, the West’s modern plant maven, does when it comes to her own yard

Mike Irvine
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Personal Refuge

“My garden is this tiny, controlled environment,” says Flora Grubb, the much-lauded owner of Flora Grubb Gardens (floragrubb.com), the groundbreaking nursery in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood. The chance to organize chaos was a big motivation for Grubb when she moved into her cottage home in 2014 with her son Greyson. She was recently divorced and grieving the death of her father. To cope, she turned to the simple lawn and concrete that covered her front yard. “My life was in a lot of upheaval. All I wanted was an antidote to the intense stress I was feeling,” says the self-taught nurserywoman.

Grubb’s plot begins at the front with a courtyard entry that gives a sense of enclosure and privacy. Within its confines are layered, subtle gradations of green foliage, including mounds of Buxus ‘Green Mountain’ poking through feathery groupings of Acacia cognata ‘Cousin Itt’. Also included are dense plantings of low-water Australian natives such as weeping acacia trees, cone-flowered banksias, and hummingbird-magnet grevilleas that thrive in the Bay Area.

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Status Specimen

Grubb’s new favorite palm is Brahea armata var. clara, a fast- growing variety that reaches 20 feet tall. Drought-tolerant once established, its silver foliage provides privacy from the street and creates a beautiful ceiling for the garden.

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Luminous Layers

Red-hot pokers and a fast-growing Cotinus coggygria ‘Old Fashioned’ emerge from behind shimmering Westringia ‘Wynyabbie Highlight’.

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Tips for Walkways

  • For an organic look, use terra-cotta pots that fade and weather as they age.
  • Heavy pavers are worth the investment--they won’t slide with use.
  • Finish walkways with an inexpensive and easy-to-find pea gravel.
  • Mix succulents and leafy shrubs for added visual interest.
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Group Effort

From placing the heavy basalt pavers to moving the boxwood globes around until they looked just right, Grubb and her then 5-year-old son installed the front yard garden together. “At that age he was much more amenable as a work partner,” she says. Here, Ceanothus ‘Diamond Heights’ and Dymondia margaretae ‘Silver Carpet’ creep through succulents.

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Order and Experimentation

The front yard is all carefully manicured—Grubb spends at least 15 minutes
 a day pruning and adjusting—and hand-watered, a place for perfection. The backyard, however, is her space for experimenting with new varieties—including several bromeliad, variegated Westringia ‘Wynyabbie Highlight’, and Melaleuca—that come into the store or are gifts from fellow nursery owners.

One thing you won’t find in such a foliage-forward design: plentiful pops of color, though Grubb’s first Grevillea ‘Peaches and Cream’ in the front yard recently bloomed with a soft coral flower. It’s somewhat of a symbol for the garden’s new era, she says—her landscape having transformed from a place of healing to a space where even a legendary plant goddess can get lost in the simple act of gardening.

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Beat the Heat

Beneath a shelter of cedar and twin-wall polycarbonate (a clear greenhouse material), an elegant concrete tub feels private and protected. Post-bath gray water feeds the surrounding low-water plants. Grubb’s friend Alexis Iliinsky, a carpenter, built the structure.

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