Interview: John Black of Verdance Design

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Recently we had the opportunity to interview blogger and principal of Verdance Design, John Black. John has been doing residential landscaping for eight years, and he runs a blog that bring great information to his readers. We asked him some questions about landscaping and some tips to help you out. Check out the interview below.

Make sure you get a chance to check out his landscaping blog! =)

John BlackJohn's studio web site:

John's blog:

On Facebook: /verdancedesign

On Twitter: @johncblack

Favorite plant: Today it's Carpenteria californica; ask me tomorrow!

Hi John, thank you very much for taking the time to do this interview. Can you tell my readers a little about yourself?

You're welcome, and thank you for inviting me. I am a landscape designer and the owner of Verdance Fine Garden Design in Palo Alto, California. I started the business in 2003, focusing on residential landscapes throughout the San Francisco Bay Area (i.e. Palo Alto, Stanford, Menlo Park, Atherton, etc.). When I began my practice, a lot of my work was the rumpled, cottage garden style that I really enjoy. Since then, I've become a lot more proficient in contemporary, efficient designs that use fewer species to greater effect. I tend to focus a lot on the structure of the spaces I create, not just the plants. As a LEED Green Associate, my designs also use a lot of drought-resistant plants, as well as species whose foliage, rather than flowers, is the main attraction. I teach classes on gardening and landscape design, and I've been fortunate enough to be featured a few times on HGTV's "Landscape Smart," and to have won an episode of "Landscapers' Challenge." But don't get the wrong idea: I'm not a "gardener" or a "plant geek" by any stretch, and my own yard is horribly out of shape.

How did you get started in writing about garden and landscaping?

I've always had a love affair with communication in general, and writing in particular. In my first career, advertising, I spent as much time crafting memos as the creatives spent writing copy, and ultimately I went on to own a marketing communications agency myself. On the other hand, landscaping wasn't very significant to me until I moved into a new house about a dozen years ago and began gardening there. After advertising lost its allure, I pursued my landscape architecture education, but never left the writing behind. Blogging and tweeting have been great outlets for the little observations and questions that pile up in my head as I move through the world.

What is one thing that you see people are doing wrong with their landscaping?

Although it's getting better, I think people simply forget that their landscape is part of a much bigger system. We don't stop to think that if our sprinklers spray the sidewalk and flood the gutter, that's less water available to someone else. That if we use synthetic fertilizers and broad-spectrum herbicides to make our planting beds lush and weed-free, we're destroying the soil for the next generation. That if we plant a non-native variety that reseeds freely, it's probably going to escape into the local ecosystem with a cascade of consequences. That if our landscape lighting points up into the sky, someone else won't be able to see the stars. We don't mean to do anything wrong; we just don't stop to think about it. I find that most successful gardeners possess an insatiable curiosity what's the best strain of seed? how warm should the soil be? how do I propagate this specimen? and if we allow ourselves to wonder whether there's a better way of landscaping, we'll probably find it.

What is something that easy and inexpensive you can suggest to homeowners to spruce up their yards?

Hire a professional designer. I'm not trying to be glib or self-serving; there just are so many variables to landscape design from climate to aesthetics to safety to budget that there simply is simply no one-size-fits-all solution. Sure, it's easy and inexpensive to scatter a packet of seeds or lay down some sod. But is that any different, fundamentally, from plunking down a pink plastic flamingo? Unless it's integral to a larger plan, neither one is much more than decoration. You should have a reason for everything you do with your landscape. There's no shortage of advice and inspiration in books and magazines, but you've got to know your site well enough to adapt those plans to your own property. The landscape designer is trained to assess all of these variables and apply a deep knowledge of plants, materials and the principles of placemaking, all tailored specifically to the homeowner's desires. Obviously a designer costs more than a packet of seeds, but the results are exponentially more rewarding.

What resources (blogs, books, websites) would you recommend to someone who's new to the landscaping arena?

The great thing about landscaping and design is that there are so many right answers, and everyone brings a unique perspective to it. Unfortunately, this makes the list of helpful resources incredibly long! For an introduction to the field, Chip Sullivan's Illustrated History of Landscape Design is as fun to read as it is educational. Almost anything by John Brookes makes for an excellent reference on the design process, and Paradise By Design by Kathryn Phillips is a wonderful peek into the work of one landscape architect. For plant reference and basic gardening information, I can't be without my Sunset Western Garden Book (folks outside of the western U.S. can look for the National version). I also rely heavily on nursery websites such as Monrovia (, San Marcos Growers ( and Las Pilitas Nursery ( There are too many excellent designers online to count, but some of my favorites include Susan Cohan (, Rochelle Greayer (, Michelle Derviss (, and the compendium Designers on Design (, authored by my colleagues in the Association of Professional Landscape Designers.