A Virginia native, Andrea took up a passion for gardening when learning the fine art from her parents. A tech industry expert, the garden designer worked for a few Fortune 500 companies before realising her true preference to be in the garden rather than in the office. Obtaining her certificate in Landscape Design from the New York Botanical Garden, Andrea returned to Los Angeles in 2001 and started own landscape firm. Specialising in custom residential and commercial landscape design, Andrea Scharff Landscape Design’s services include Schematic Landscape Plans, Design Development and Construction Observation. As Andrea notes herself, she brings ‘an unsurpassed degree of professionalism, a keen eye on budgets and an experienced approach to balancing project costs and benefits.’ With her designs featured in editorial pieces such as The Los Angeles Times Homes Styles Section and Luxe Magazine, we took the opportunity to sit down with Andrea who dished all there was to know about the life of a luxury garden and landscape designer.
Please could you introduce yourself, tell us a bit about your story and what has been your inspiration for landscape design?
My name is Andrea Scharff, I have been in the landscape design business since my late 20’s and have been a gardener since I was a little girl. I was four when my parents divorced. My father, a physicist, took my grandmother, sister and me with him on sabbatical while our mother moved out of our family home in Virginia and set up out new life in Southern California. Our first stop was Oxford, England. We lived in a lovely little house with rhubarb in the garden and a creek that ran behind the house. We made a lot of rhubarb pie and my sister ‘fell’ into the creek once a week. We loved our time in that English garden. Our next stop was Los Alamos, New Mexico. I thought I had died and gone to hell. The landscape was barren and lunar, there was no housing to speak of and we had to live in a trailer park. I missed the green landscape of England and Virginia desperately, and it was this longing for green gardens that has informed my designs ever since.
How did you initially gain an interest in working with outdoor spaces?
We did chores in Virginia where we would spend our summers. We’d pick up sticks, tend our vegetables, water, weed and haul brush. You can pick up a lot of sticks when you’re really little. Flash forward to when I was 15, my boyfriend broke up with me and my step-mother got bored of my moping around. She thrust a rake into my hands and told me to go outside and rake leaves. As much as I hated raking those leaves, I feel better afterwards. As I grew up I seized upon opportunities to plant and care for flowers when they presented themselves, most notably glorious red geraniums outside the window of my Parisian chambre de bonne (literally my whole apartment was once a maid’s room) in Pigalle, the red-light district, and as a young woman in my rent-controlled apartment in Santa Monica. Designing beautiful outdoor spaces, working with plants, planting and preserving trees is a tremendous source of comfort for me. As I have grown older, I find that gardening and taking pleasure in the immediacy of the natural world around me has a grounding effect that keeps me anchored in the present. Gardening has equipped me to better able to weather life’s inevitable storms when they come.
What about a garden space, whether private or public, do you find most important?
The most effective outdoor spaces are those that draw one outdoors using all of the senses. They need to function well from a design perspective and satisfy the eye and all of the other senses for that matter as well as the soul. By way of example, I always like to incorporate scent into my designs. Flowers are beautiful, and fragrant on the plant and inside the home, they also bring an added layer of butterfly and bird life into the story. Trees provide shade for outdoor dining or a bench. The music from a water feature can temper the vibration of adjacent urban spaces and be soothing. As a designer it’s important to orchestrate all of these elements to create an environment that is as pleasing to the eye as it is to the heart.
What is the biggest misconception about landscape and garden design?
That garden maintenance should cost far less than it does. If you want your garden to look good, or optimally better and better every year, protect your investment and hire professionals to do the maintenance. We install 500,000 dollar projects and homeowners wants to have their gardener do the maintenance for 350 dollars per month. I have some clients who really understand the value of garden maintenance and invest and others who don’t and are ultimately unhappy with their gardens in three to five years. It takes your time to prune, mulch, plant and care for a garden. If your maintenance person isn’t working in your garden long enough every week, you’ll lose trees, irrigation will be broken and so on. It’s a conversation you need to have with clients over and over, you reap what you show when it comes to maintenance.
How would you describe the style and aesthetic of your designs / creations?
It is important that the garden reflect the architecture of the house and the spirit of the people who live there. Each of my projects is different for this reason. You’d never design a Tuscan garden for a traditional home, the outdoor spaces must reference the home’s architecture otherwise it looks confused and it’s hard to relax amid confusion. Creating soothing, comfortable spaces that invite you outdoors when the weather permits or to look upon when it doesn’t, means it can be enjoyed day or night throughout the year.
Could you share with us your creative process and how you look at bringing a space to life?
I like to assess how the indoor spaces connect with the outdoors and create relevant garden spaces around this. Where are the windows and doors, how do you go outside? From there I will look at the axis of the property and try to create spaces off that axis. It’s simple, Palladian principles that help me create spaces that interconnect in appealing, sensible ways. After we layout the garden by placing dining, outdoor living, pools and areas for play. I like to activate those spaces or moments in the garden by creating moments with a water feature, sculptural element, tree or bench. The grace notes come in with beautiful year-round planting, furnishings, lighting and music.
What’s your best tip to elevate an outdoor space?
Invest in comfortable outdoor furniture. Most outdoor furniture these days has quickly dry foam cushion inserts with solution dyed acrylic outdoor fabric. It’s virtually indestructible. You can instantly amp up an outdoor living area by adding cushions, pretty candles, a vase with flowers and a throw. It doesn’t need to be fancy but it should be comfortable and pleasing to the eye. You can always cheat (which I do all the time) by bringing things from inside your house outdoors – just don’t leave them there for long periods. Create your palette by picking a base colour and an accent colour, stick to it. if it’s cool, add outdoor throws or a fire element. Bringing your music outdoors, activate your outdoor space – it will feel like your own in no time.
What has been your favourite project to date? Why?
I love working on my own home and garden. It took us a long time to find our house, it was a total wreck when we bought it so much so that we actually had squatters. Renovating it has been a delight. I was in the business for almost 15 years before we moved to a house with a proper garden and we have been renovating it for five years. It is nice to have a space that is completely my own, designed for my family. I am changing things all the time, adding plants and removing them. I love to thrift shop, go to auctions etc. so I am continually adding ‘new’ furnishings (almost always vintage), planters and sculptural elements. Now with Covid-19 we use our space more than ever. An old paddle tennis court has become our very own al fresco gym, before he went to college my son would take his keyboard outside and practice piano around the fire pit. We invested in beautiful lighting and the swimming pool has no cover so the view at night is just as pretty as it is during the day.
Lockdown has caused everyone to spend more time at home than ever, which renewed everyone’s interest in their outdoor space(s). what design changes did you make to your outdoor pocket or wish you could have made to improve your home’s environment?
I leaned in hard and embraced imperfection. As beautiful as I want things to look, sometimes it’s not practical. Covid has been a great teacher to bring this point home more than ever. Practicality has to win sometimes and it may not be pretty but it’s also okay. Life is messy and imperfect, if we are rowing against this all the time trying to create a beautiful, Instagrammable moment then we’re bound to end up disappointed. We have an old, very ugly, paddle tennis court that nobody uses so it’s now an outdoor gym that looks like Venice Beach, not in a good way. But, seriously who care. We’re using the space and it makes us happy and ultimately that is what really matters. I look forward to the day it is carted off and we can build a pond with ducks, have children coop and have a beautiful covered dining space in an olive grove and vegetable garden. That’s all great but for now, we’re using it as a gym.
We’ve embraced this chaos to the point that we’re actually using our spaces now more than ever and it brings me great joy to see the lawn torn up from where my son does his push ups. Askew cushions, wet bathing suits and towels adorn outdoor furniture, perpetually wet dogs abound… generally mayhem where there would normally be order.
On a more practical side I started a small vegetable garden. I grew tomatoes from seed much to my delight, and we’re about to harvest them. I also added a second outdoor dining table so we can have friends over to dine, social distance style. We socialise a lot around the fire pit. To make more seating area more comfortable I’ll always add cushions from inside, bring out plenty of candles for additional light and turn on the music. We can it out there for hours. When autumn comes, I’ll add throws and outdoor heaters to keep us nice and warm and hopefully we’ll be able to sit comfortably through January if we’d like. This is our new normal, we’re adapting and embracing it.
How would you describe your outdoor space in three words?
Beautiful, comfortable spaces that draw and keep you outside. That’s more than three but it’s close!
What exciting projects are you currently working on and what can we expect to see from you in the future?
There are so many. We have two fire rebuilds in Malibu, where both houses and garden were wiped out by the Woolsey Fire. Malibu is now, and rightly so, very restrictive about how gardens are landscaped and we had had to be very creative in what we are allowed to design. We have two extensive remodelling projects that have taken well over two years to build and plan, and we get to start on both gardens in the next couple of months. I also have smaller projects where clients cannot take quarantine any longer and need to refresh their space. I prefer to take these projects for families with little children. It’s a delight to see them experience the little things like a butterfly garden. In a way I love these projects the most because you can do your work quietly and your clients tend to be most appreciative. New flowers uplift the spirits like nothing else.