I want to make it easy for people to be out in nature.
Molly Wood Molly Wood Garden Design
I grew up in southern Oregon. My parents got divorced when I was really young; I was born in Orange County and my dad had always lived here but my mom, being a crunchy hippie, moved us and it was either going to be Santa Cruz or Ashland, Oregon. So we moved to Oregon and camped and played in creeks and streams and were really connected to nature. I think I have a natural propensity to be appreciative and in love with nature. I really do think that this is what I was supposed to do.
In my early 20s, I got the opportunity to go to Europe as a model. I’d been living in Oregon; that’s another long story – my family moved away from there a long time ago and I fought, fought, fought to stay there and finish high school on my own. I had my own apartment my senior year of high school. And it was a college town so I stayed there another year, at the college. Looking back I realize I was just fighting to stay there because that’s what I had been doing for so long. I got that opportunity and travelled and worked in Europe. And that was just groundbreaking, such a beautiful gift in my life for so many reasons but mainly in that, “I can do anything.” I can do anything that I want. If I can land in Milan and look at a map and get on the subway or the bus to get from point A to point B I can probably do anything that I want to do. So that was such a great blessing. I work with a mentor program at Harbor (High School) and I think some of the mothers of some of the girls that I talk to might not love my advice because I’m not like, “College path.” I’m like, “Travel, follow your passion, travel, do what inspires you.” When I was there, I was at this park in Germany. It was a public park around this lake and I would go on my walks and at the end of the day I saw people stacking up chairs – they had public-use chairs and the people that were finished using them, went and put them in a nice stack and put it away. I probably should have realized that that’s the German in them! But I was like, “Oh my gosh, being in nature really brings out the best in people, it makes people be respectful.” That was the seed – no pun intended – that was planted that made me say, “Is this something that I could participate in somehow?” I would go a lot of times to the churches to find peace and quiet when I was travelling around, but then I realized that the parks and the gardens were really where I connected.
I came back and started going to school. I was ready to transfer to Berkeley in landscape architecture, and this was when I was going to school and finally getting As. I was into it. I was into cultural anthropology and in my architecture class we were building models and I was just on fire. And then the idea of going to school for another… how many years? Again, going back to “I can do anything,” I was like, “I think I have enough right now, I think I can figure this out.” I left San Francisco… both times I left Oregon and San Francisco was in conjunction with a boyfriend split and my dad and my stepmom came and picked me up with U-Hauls both times. So we did escape plan 2.0 and we came down here. I was 24 at this point and just so hungry – I’d go to Newport Beach Library and get books on landscape designers and architecture and that would be my nights. I was ravenous.
I got a job at a nursery in Laguna Canyon, Laguna Gardens Nursery, and I worked at a restaurant at night. I learned what plants work best and what I love, and from there I got some maintenance jobs. I would show up and I didn’t do anything that needed a lawn mower because I had my little Honda hatch back. I started with a shovel and a basket and a broom and a rake and just went and did it. Just started doing it. And then people started asking, “Can you change this space?” I’d just use my hands, we’re going to spread out over here, clear this out get rid of that and that and that and bring in this and bring samples… and it organically grew like that.
We incorporated in 1995, and I met my husband around that time. I owe a huge part of the success of Molly Wood Garden Design to him. He’s in the back, in the kitchen, right now, doing all the no-fun stuff. And then in 1998, I hired a gal to do my drafting designs. I started thinking about this place here, and landscape design and having a business, just when I first got the bug. I’m really good – and I’m trying to teach my kids – about manifesting and seeing what you want. Just see it! It sounds so corny and like a Hallmark card but if you want it, you have to see it.
We had a little garage cottage in the back of our house and it people would joke that it was like a sweatshop so we kept growing and growing. As soon as we could draw up plans, then the jobs started coming in. We were literally drawing at a drafting table with a pencil. And then CAD came along. Christine, who started that with me, has gone out on her own. There’s a lot of former employees that have gone out on their own – we call that the school of Molly Wood. Just make sure you come back here and buy your pots and fountains! So we grew and grew and grew and then the kids started getting older and going to school and I had had this vision of having a spot. Before I had the shop, we would tell people where to go to buy the pottery and the fountains and the furniture, and I’m like, “I want a piece of that!”
We looked around and found this place and signed a lease to get this place in 2008. Just right when all the shit hit the fan. And we were going gangbusters before that – that’s why the shit hit the fan. If it would have kept going like that and we would have gotten this place, I wouldn’t have had the time to focus on doing it and making it how I want and making it right. So yeah, it was quiet, but I was busy, building a new foundation and diversifying. I’m really really grateful for the timing of all of that. And kind of the same thing with COVID, just the gratitude of my company being… we’re kind of technically essential and we’re outside so we can still meet with people and everyone wants plants and gardens right now.
It’s all good stuff, but it has grown in little baby steps, very organically. There was never “First we’re going to do this, then we’re going to do that, then we’re going to do that…” We’re kind of like, “Let’s see where it goes!” We’re just river rafting a little bit. And so far, so good.
Getting people connected to nature is just so important to me. I really do think that if people could just look up and be like, “Look at that red berry! How is that even there? And the humming bird is coming to that flower…” It gets people out of their heads and they become a little more thoughtful and tread a little more softly on the planet and on each other. That is the silver lining of the virus right now: people are paying attention to their own homes and their spaces and nature.
What’s so much fun is to get into people’s brains, get their point of view on what they want, and make it happen for them.
We start with a consultation. If people want to work together, they fill out something online. Then we go out and walk their property and talk about what they need to do or want to do, and respond with a proposal to do the work. And then we get together for a conceptual meeting. We call that the conversation starter. Big, broad brushstrokes of what we talked about at the consultation. Another silver lining: zoom calls for conception meetings! I think it helps everyone, to just be more concise. And then they get the plans and the pictures; I use a lot of imagery, too. We don’t do a lot of renderings, but we use photos to get across the vibe and the feel. Luckily, more and more, the inspiration photos are projects that we’ve done, so it’s easy to achieve that goal. Then we go to final plan. Quite honestly, the design part will be the first to go when I start my downshift because I have so much fun buying and selling stuff. The design part – it’s the part that I love about it but it’s so taxing because it’s so personal. It’s a lot of pressure, and I guess it’s because I take it seriously.
So that’s how we do the design. Then we have installation, there’s two parts to installations. The design, when it’s all done, we come and we bring the plants and the pottery and everything and place them, and so the install team would do that. Or, we just show up with an installation: we have a consultation, I say put this here, this here, we’ll send you a proposal, and then we show up and it’s three days to a week and it’s instant gratification. We do balance the full-size with the grow-ins and that’s so much fun to know which ones you need to plant: the slow growers, you need to start bigger and the ones that explode, you just get the teeny tiny ones. Luckily, I have an amazing team.
We do everything, soup to nuts. On the hardscape plans, we put the furniture on there because it’s the intention: How are you going to use the space, is it going to fit, what’s going to go there, are we going to eat here, are we going to lounge there? That was a lesson learned the hard way, we’re all done and we put the furniture in and they were like, “What goes here? What goes there?” And I’m like, “I don’t know!” I learned that we need to do the furniture plan – this thing that seems so obvious. I’ve been doing this for half my life and there’s still things like, “Well, why didn’t I think of that five years ago?”
We can’t photograph it until six months later, depending on the season. That’s the thing that I love and hate about landscape, because you set the stage and then it all does its own thing. You’ll say, let’s trim this, let’s move this, anticipating what you think is going to happen based on what has happened before. We’ll check back in; if they have a question or if there’s a problem, we’ll definitely check back in. That’s why I love to do shoots. We’ll photograph it and check in on it and drive by. It’s how I learned a lot of what works and what doesn’t work, by circling back and getting those calls. Just with any business or creative effort, you have to be willing to say “Oops, that was a mistake. Let’s pull it out and plant something else.” That’s always an option. Luckily, I don’t get a lot of those calls any more because I went back and figured it out. That is the beauty of getting older, I guess! Also, for our design clients we have an annual or biannual check-in. Change the lightbulbs, fertilize, cut the trees. That’s one of my favorite things to do: tending the gardens that we’ve planted and watching them grow in and how they evolve. It’s a must, or else you don’t know what you’re leaving behind, you don’t know how things grow in.
Trends… yes, things have changed. In the very beginning, it was much fluffier, much more English garden, but I don’t know how to say this without sounding… I’m just doing what I like to do, what speaks to me, what’s fun for me. It keeps me authentic in what I do and what I like. For example, having a shop, people are like, “Why don’t you have those cute golden frogs?” And I’m like, “Because they’re hideous and I don’t like them!” I’m not going to buy anything that I don’t love just because everyone wants them, because that’s a recipe for disaster. That’s a recipe for taking a bunch of stuff to Goodwill, I think. I can’t sell anything if I don’t like it.
I love English gardens so much because they just kind of let nature go. The Italians and the French are like “control nature” and lines, but it was so much fun to combine the two. Like, I love a sight line, I’m always doing a grid. So taking a little bit of that, a little bit of this, a little bit of the California – that’s what’s so fun about taking the little bits I love. Waiting… that’s just the passage of time and the seasons and how that all comes together.
It’s not like I know automatically how to do it, but I have an instinct. It kind of comes naturally. But there are mistakes, and you have to remove stuff and cut it out. My plant palette has narrowed over time because I know what works and what doesn’t. Someone shows me a picture of something that they want that I’ve seen take over a garden or never grow, and I’m like, “No. It just doesn’t work here.” It doesn’t work unless you want to cut it every two weeks – that’s your call. The “In my experience…” line usually works!
I want to make it easy for people to be out in nature. A lot of the time, my first questions are, “Are you a gardener?” or “Do you want a garden?” And if they’re like, “No,” then ok, now I know what to plant for you. I don’t want it to be like, “Oh god, I gotta rake or pick up those leaves or change these out.” I really want it to be super easy, from the plants to the furniture to the shade, for people to be out in nature.