November 30, 2019
Breaking away from a family tradition in the geological sciences, Margie Grace supplemented her UCSC coursework in earth and life sciences with classes in landscape architecture. That early interest forged a career. With close to 40 years in the business, Grace’s work honors her appreciation of her native Southern California. At the same time, work trips to Spain, Australia, and New Zealand, among other faraway places, have informed her projects here at home, where she’s considered an expert in combining the natural beauty and design of the Santa Barbara region. She has been honored with numerous design awards, including the prestigious International Landscape Designer of the Year award from the Association of Professional Landscape Designers — twice. In the following Q&A, Grace reflects on dirt, deadlines, the joy of a granddaughter, and her first book, due out early next year.
G&C: What drew you to landscape design early on?
Grace: I was studying geology. At the time there were no jobs in geology and we were a family of geologists — my mother, brother-in-law, future husband, and future father-in-law were all geologists, the first three only just newly out of school. The whole family had all our eggs in one basket, so to speak. I thought it prudent to diversify, so I looked around for what else I could do outside and get paid for. I’d always loved gardening and gardens, so I jumped into landscape maintenance, which led to landscape design, which led to getting my landscape-contractor license, which brought me to landscape design-build. It’s been 37 amazing years now – I’ve never looked back.
What has been your favorite work-related field trip or vacation?
Travelling in southern Spain – the Moorish gardens and architecture!
What is your favorite public landscape design in Santa Barbara?
I’m not sure Lotusland is technically a public landscape, but it is open to the public — so I’m picking it as my answer. (Going with a stricter definition of public, it’s the Santa Barbara Courthouse.)
Where do you find design inspiration outside of landscape architecture?
Nature — the master teacher and the wellspring of all inspiration, hands down.
What do you like most about your job?
What’s not to love? Dirt, rocks, plants. Dreaming, designing, drawing. Interesting people. Tremendous variety. It’s like being a kid in the sandbox every single day!
What do you dislike most about your job?
Time pressure. Deadlines. So many gardens, so little time! So many ideas — how to execute them all?!?
If you had to go back to pick another profession, what would it be?
Restoring old homes.
What is your current state of mind?
Lit up! I’m inspired. It’s a great big, wonderful, exciting world! I’ve got a grandbaby, a daughter-in-law and two grown sons I’m crazy about, a brilliant partner who amazes me every day, fabulous projects in the works and a book coming out in February — it doesn’t get better than that!
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Time spent with my granddaughter.
What is your greatest fear?
Hmmmm. I fear the loss of civility/empathy/compassion/humanity. We may be on the brink of losing it now. Society will break down without it.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Travel. We’ve got a great big, long list of places to go and things to see. Oh, and I splurge every year at the Lotusland plant auction.
What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
(Big question. And a lot of ways to approach the question. I’ll go with the traditional seven virtues that oppose the seven deadly sins.) The most overrated virtue has to be temperance. You should definitely overdo from time to time — drink in all the beauty you can hold; play hooky on a gorgeous day; open the last bottle of wine even though it’s already late; dance all night; say yes to dessert. You get the gist.
Which talent would you most like to have?
I’d love to be fabulous dancer.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I’d be fearless.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Besides two amazing offspring, Grace Design Associates is my greatest achievement. I’ve had the honor and the pleasure to create beauty that will last for lifetimes — gardens that bring joy every day to those who use them.
What is your most treasured possession?
My mother’s geology textbooks. Her notes in the margins. Her handwriting brings her memory close enough to touch.
Which living person do you most admire?
My big sis. She’s not afraid of nothin’.
What do you most value in your friends?
Humor and intelligence – they go together.
Who is your favorite fictional character?
Glenda the Good Witch (in the Wizard of Oz).
Who are your heroes in real life?
The heroes of my youth, those incredibly courageous civil rights leaders: Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi. And my mom. She is the smartest and the most courageous person I have ever known.
What is your most marked characteristic?
What word or phase do you most overuse?
I’m afraid it’s vulgar – I can sound like a sailor with Tourette’s.
What is your motto?
If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing to excess.
Any specific goals for 2020?
You bet! I always set goals for both GDA and life. We’ll continue to do the great design-build projects we’re known for.
However, the big, hairy audacious goals this year are around my first book — Private Gardens of Santa Barbara: The Art of Outdoor Living — which is coming out in February. It’s a gorgeous coffee table book that brings you inside 18 of my favorite residential gardens designed and built for some of our very special clients. I have a ton of goals around that — where the book will be stocked; number of sales; who I’d like to review the book; lots of talks, book signings, open garden days, and more! It’s available for preorder on Amazon.
For more on Margie and her projects, visit: