Garden art that rocks

Landscape designer Cevan Forristt uses old stonework to give character to his garden.

Big rocks: Landscape designer Cevan Forristt used stonework from all over the world to design his garden in San Jose, Calif. Above, a wall featuring a bust of Buddha separates the entryway from Mr. Forristt’s front garden. Top, a path winds through another section of the garden.
Photos by David McDonald

If you think Cevan Forristt has an altered take on gardening, consider his horticultural beginnings:

“When did I start gardening?” he says. “When I was 3 years old. I had a fascination with sprinklers. I went out in my diapers and stole a neighbor’s sprinklers. There’s a picture of me in my diapers with my sprinkler collection. I had a vegetable garden by the time I was 4 or 5 – me eating everything before it was ripe.”

Those in the know may think of Cevan Forristt (pronounce it “Kevin Forest”) as an extremely talented professional landscape designer. But he doesn’t think of himself that way.

“I am an ambiential engineer,” he says. “A spatial dramatist. Or I can be an ambiential facilitator.”

What he also is is a guy madly in love with rocks. Big ones. And lots of them.
The garden that surrounds his 1870 house in downtown San Jose, Calif., is peopled by maybe the greatest collection of architectural and ethnological stone this side of, oh, Easter Island.

“I got some [pre-1906]-earthquake stone – some Italian people in San Francisco five generations ago had piles of this stone. I got 800 tons from the old Grace Cathedral rectory. I brought back 100 tons from China. Some stuff I buy is ethnically anonymous: You wouldn’t know where it came from,” he says.

“I build walls and stack ’em up. And clients can’t come into my garden and say, ‘I want that and that and that.’ Most of it I hoard myself. I collect it because before long it’s going to be gone. It won’t be there anymore.”

Historical salvation aside, there’s this: “It’s so permanent. If my garden died, there’d still be a ‘there’ there.”

So, yes, there is a sense of drama at work in Mr. Forristt’s garden, also by way of his skewed background.

“I took stage-set design when I was working on my degree because landscapers are all so boring,” he says. “I had to do something crazy before going back to my taxonomy classes. I took ceramics. It had to be kooky.”

So when Forristt takes on a commission, he doesn’t just design a garden. “I make a country,” he says. “My house is more of an archaeological site. The garden is kind of an Indiana Jones film set without the big ball rolling at you.”

Growing up in nearby Menlo Park also opened young Forristt’s eyes.
“I had a Japanese neighbor and a Chinese neighbor, and going into their houses intrigued the heck out of me.”

So today you will see a bust of Buddha inset into a stone wall, a 13-foot-long horse trough from China, and gates and urns and statuary from his travels in Thailand and the rest of southeast Asia.

“You want to place statuary so it isn’t in the middle of the gardens like the Europeans do – like, ‘ta-da!’ I do it so it looks unearthed, so it’s more of a surprise.”

His garden, too, is a living portfolio, something to show prospective clients.
“I use the garden as a kind of test pad. It will either scare them off or they say, ‘You’re the guy.’

“I like working vicariously through other people, to do things I’d never do for myself. Most designers will put in a bench and a table and an umbrella. So what? You need a reason to linger.”

His favorite project involved the creation of “aquaports.”

“We had this big keyhole doorway with water going across the top – an aqueduct – and the water dropped into a pond. The eagles and hawks would come down and scope out the client’s koi.”

His favorite part of his own garden also is a water feature.

“It’s my lotus pond – the seating under an old persimmon tree.”

He pauses.

“Someone said my gardens are very dense – a lot of layers. It’s about being creative, my own trip. But my yard’s for me,” he says. “I’ve got to have fun.”

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