The garden selected for the Pacific Horticulture Award at the 2006 San Francisco Flower & Garden Show was unlike most others that have won our award, and, for that matter, unlike most other gardens in the show. Yet, it captivated visitors, as it did our judges. Hazel White offers this interview with the garden’s designer, Beth Mullins, by way of exploring the messages behind the garden’s design.
Hazel White: Could you describe the Pod garden that you created for the San Francisco Flower & Garden show last year?
Beth Mullins: It’s a pocket garden, but I keep calling it a pod garden. On the bottom level is the main garden, where you might stroll, taking your time, looking at different textures and colors; it’s this tiny comfort zone, probably where I would live. Upstairs is a landing pad, where I might wait for friends or ideas to arrive; there were black curtains behind the garden, so I could envision it as being open to the night sky.
HW: The lower garden appeared to be full of pods in various forms.
BM: I wanted the whole garden to be a pod itself. I used a lot of white; for instance, the wall is a soft furry type of material—a white Astroturf. Then within the pod, there are shapes that are reminiscent of pods: the cutout windows in the wall, an egg-shaped one and a round one; light cans that I painted white, one of which is askew because I wanted to invoke the idea that it was hatching—who knows what’s inside, but the glow of the light lets you imagine something. I also made lights from sink strainers to have pods floating, like butterflies or fireflies. The planters holding the trees are round to invoke the idea that the trees came out of pods.
HW: and, upstairs, the seats look like pods.
BM: Yes. And the white rocks I thought might look like dinosaur eggs among the greyer rocks. A young child came by and commented that they looked like dinosaur eggs; I was happy that he picked up on that.
HW: I thought I sensed a journey, maybe into the future in the form of a seed?
BM: Yes, both in the form of a seed and in the form of a garden. If I were going to have to propagate all of this in a world somewhere else, what would I take? When I was thinking about this garden—it’s a strange idea—I felt like I wanted to take people somewhere else.
HW: The opposite then of being in a walled garden, safe and separate from the outside? You are talking about leaving and going into the future?
BM: Yes, exactly. But I also want it to seem safe, safe for you as a visitor to imagine what your pod garden might be or what you might take with you.
HW: Your garden seemed supremely optimistic, like a place where life was forming. I’m not sure that I ever felt I was in such a place before.
BM: Yes, it’s a happy, optimistic garden. Everybody loves pods. We create pods wherever we go: we bring our tents, and our little cars that we drive everywhere. When we were talking about the music that would go with POD at the show, I explained to Brad [Zuchero, the sound artist] that I wanted happy sounds, sounds that would not be identifiable, yet they would be happy, gentle sounds. He made the music interactive for the visitor, using motion detectors, and it wasn’t clear where the sounds were coming from. Even though there’s a touch of the future, there’s a primitive feeling, like everything is new and it’s spring.
HW: Is it a female place?
BM: I don’t know. I think it might be. It seemed to appeal to both men and women. As I sat on the ramp next to it, I could hear people saying, “I’ve never seen anything like this. This is so peaceful.”
HW: What’s your background, before landscape design?
BM: I was a biochemist for a long time; I have a PhD in biochemistry. I studied the architecture of the cell, how things are spatially organized and regulated.
HW: Would I recognize your gardens after seeing this installation?
BM: I have many more versions of POD in my head, but I usually do gardens the way clients want them and need them. I’m picky about textures and colors, so you might recognize that aspect of my gardens.
HW: You did a captivating garden at the show last year called succulent origami.
BM: Yes, that garden was distinctly different from POD. The intent was to reinterpret succulents—to take them out of their expected dry context and, instead, use them as “nature’s origami” in a lush Asian-influenced garden. The succulents reminisce of origami art with their geometric repeats and folds. This garden also used a lot of repurposed objects to recycle materials in unexpected ways.
HW: Most people get exhausted doing these shows. How come you did two in a row?
BM: To get POD out there. I’d been obsessing about pods for so long, and this was the place I could do it. I was sad when we dismantled the garden, but I was thrilled that my garden received the Pacific Horticulture award.