Whimsical cube is a creative, watery garden folly

A creative, watery 'cube' at the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show combines outdoor living room and modern garden folly to create a whimsical retreat.

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    This cube's living sedum walls appeared to float on water at the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show.
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Here’s a reason I’m a major fan of flower and garden shows – I find things I’ve never seen before. Like this marriage of living walls and water recently displayed at the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show. Designed by Sean Stout and James Pettigrew of Organic Mechanics, and constructed by Stephen Hosford of Structural Concepts, this cube was a creative take on a garden retreat.

The outer walls of patterned sedum formed a 12-by-12-foot roofless room, and the cube appeared to float on a circle of water. Titled “A Living Room,” the display won a well-deserved gold medal.

“It’s a modern garden folly,” said Sean as he stood in front of his creation on the show floor. Follies can be anything from useless to whimsical to depressing, so I asked for more explanation.

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He added what seemed to be Organic Mechanics’ motto: “Sustainable artistic habitats.” But he also said he wanted the cube to feel “lighthearted and picturesque.”

That was my reaction to the structure. The walls were made up of 20-inch square recycled plastic snap-together panels (49 per side) that held the succulents and enough soil to keep them growing.

Going inside

Planted by artistic Robin Stockwell of Succulent Gardens, the variously colored sedums formed a sweeping tapestry across the walls. Sean pointed out that the panels could also have held grasses – “a meadow cube,” he called it – or, if the square were erected in a shaded spot, begonias and ferns.

A long line of people waited patiently to explore the inside of the cube. Sean controlled the traffic so not too many would crowd in at once. Showgoers crossed over the water on a series of widely spaced millstones. The walk was mildly precarious, but in the three days I visited the show, no one had tipped off into the drink.

When I finally hopped along the rough textured stones, I entered the room through a narrow Gothic-arched doorway. Slit windows in the walls allowed for vistas beyond the interior, which was decorated as a charming dining room, complete with a chandelier, curving chairs and a table laid with antique china.

The walls were draped in woven jute, and the ceiling opened up to what would have been the sky, except in this case we were in the cavernous San Mateo Convention Center, where the San Francisco show has found a home.

The practicality of folly

The design was a pleasing play on the classic circle and square. The water reflected the cube’s dazzling walls and the outdoor room appeared to float in the center. The whole thing became an oversized garden sculpture.

I could see it as the center focus of a sweeping lawn. Really, I wanted it on my lawn.

Beside the aesthetic appeal, the surrounding pool had a practical function – not typically a folly attribute. A pump brought water to the top of the walls, irrigating the panels, with the excess eventually dripping back to the pool below.

Of course, if the display were not on a show floor, you could make the pool deep enough for fish, thus adding a certain aquaculture aspect. The fish waste (which can create extra nitrogen in the water) could be used to sustain the plants on the walls.

I was inspired to think about different configurations:

Perhaps a single wall, planted on both sides could be a garden room divider, with half the circular pool in two separate spaces.

I envisioned opening the cube’s walls up at geometric angles, giving it a more sculptural, less room-enclosure feel. But always with that unusual interplay of living wall and water.

Sean agreed about the importance of the water. “Without a water element in the garden, it feels flat and lifeless,” he told me.

Nothing flat or lifeless about this floating cube. Thank you, SF Flower and Garden Show.

Mary-Kate Mackey is one of nine garden writers who blog regularly at Diggin' It. She is co-author of “Sunset’s Secret Gardens — 153 Design Tips from the Pros” and contributor to the “Sunset Western Garden Book,” writes a monthly column for the Hartley Greenhouse webpage and numerous articles for Fine Gardening, Sunset, and other magazines. She teaches at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism & Communication. She writes about water in the garden for Diggin’ It.

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