An Eye for Invention

Waste stream materials gain new life in the hands of the Organic Mechanics.. Photo: Organic Mechanics

Waste stream materials gain new life in the hands of the Organic Mechanics. Photo: Organic Mechanics

Sean Stout and James Pettigrew have an eye for invention. Where others see refuse, they see possibility. The resulting one-of-a-kind landscapes they design are resource-friendly, lush with choice plants maintained with organic practices, and filled with wit. Last week I got the chance to peek behind their creative curtain and see how they work.

LEF: What is your muse? You guys—the Organic Mechanics—are known for not just integrating found objects, scrap, and recycled objects into your designs, but creating unique, one-of-a-kind environments crafted from these materials. Where did that start?

OM: We have always been inspired by nature herself. Our designs include habitat plants, curves, berms, and meandering paths. Decay and renewal is a part of nature. We get turned on by rust and discarded items and transforming them into useful things of beauty.

A colorful walkway is surrounded by a planted tapestry of color and textures. Photo: Organic Mechanics

A colorful walkway is surrounded by a richly planted tapestry of color and textures. Photo: Organic Mechanics

How did we start? We blindly jumped right into the business world when we started Organic Mechanics; we had little business savvy but a big “We-can-change-the-world” attitude. We were young and scrappy and our clients expected miraculous things on shoestring budgets. Out of necessity, broken pots and old brick became new hardscape elements, and old broken fountains became fabulous new planters. The rest is history.

Meticulously executed, this garden patio is crafted from memorial waste. Photo: Organic Mechanics

Meticulously executed, this garden patio is crafted from memorial waste. Photo: Organic Mechanics

LEF: Your process involves constant invention and on-your-feet responsiveness to whatever you find. You don’t have to reveal your secret sources, but where do you go looking for materials?

OM: We do have secret sources but we will share the following: some of our go-to sites include memorial and monument dumpsters. They throw away tons of gorgeous marble, granite, and other stone in colors of green, blue, black, red, and grey. Construction sites and salvage yards are also a source. Often times, we come across an object and say “Wow, what a bitch’n thing! What can we do with it?” Thus, the found item is the muse.

Detail of an Organic Mechanic hardscape feature created for a street-side hellstrip garden. Photo: Organic Mechanics

Detail of an Organic Mechanic hardscape feature created for a street-side hellstrip garden. Photo: Organic Mechanics

The Geary Street garden of the Organic Mechanics. Photo: Lorene Edwards Forkner

The Geary Street garden of the Organic Mechanics. Photo: Lorene Edwards Forkner

LEF: A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to visit your personal garden. It was an enchanting laboratory of resourcefulness—part studio space, part trial (play)ground. I was struck by the challenging conditions of the space, a small area walled in on all sides, right in the middle of downtown San Francisco. And yet the garden was filled with plants and very lush and inviting. Tell me a bit about how you two created this urban oasis.

OM: It all started when we moved into our apartment in 1990. The back was nothing but concrete with four square cutouts containing four Pittosporum trees. It was large and bleak with a few plastic plants around. The concrete was buckling and failing badly. Then one day there was this little old man who lived in the basement studio and he was in the “garden” banging away at the concrete with a tiny hammer, trying to plant some plants. We took over from there. We jack hammered the concrete and used it to frame beds and a pond. We had just started Organic Mechanics, and the beds started filling up with orphaned plants from client’s gardens, and we used leftover and discarded materials in the space.

Choice plants, and design leftovers populate Sean and James' personal landscape/creative studio. Photo: Lorene Edwards Forkner

Choice plants, and design leftovers populate Sean and James’ personal landscape/creative studio. Photo: Lorene Edwards Forkner

The garden evolved over time. Rare and unusual plants made it into the garden from arboretum plant sales and other nurseries. The garden got attention when we weren’t too busy—usually hand watering was the only love it got. Bit by bit it expanded. A weekend project produced a sunken path, a lull in work produced a pond, and over the years it became the garden it is today. The garden took on a life of it’s own really, and it is as just as responsible as we are for the space it has become.


The Hummingbird Garden at Hotel Mark Twain, designed by the Organic Mechanics. Photo: Saxon Holt

The Hummingbird Garden at Hotel Mark Twain, designed by the Organic Mechanics. Photo: Saxon Holt

On Saturday, June 25, 2016, James and Sean will share both their personal garden, and the Hummingbird Garden at the Hotel Mark Twain, also designed by the Organic Mechanics, as a part of the Garden Conservancy Open Days program. Complete details here.