An Interview with Betsy Flack

An Interview with Betsy Flack

Betsy Flack feels her landscape practice has come full circle. She says: My early study of biology, native plants, horticulture, garden design and preservation, and landscape architecture led me to a three-prong career in professional gardening and contracting, landscape architecture, and public garden education. Today, I feel that I am back where I am supposed to be after many years of preparation— and that is back in the dirt, beginning a 20-year plan for restoring a California grassland/prairie in Sonoma County.

By Melissa Erikson 


How did you first get involved in landscape architecture?

As a child, I was surrounded by art and theater and by adults who talked about their work. My University of Texas professor parents introduced me to mountains, cemeteries, limestone riverbeds, camping, hiking, and small Texas towns; summers were spent on my Wisconsin grandmother’s farm (now a public historic property). These vernacular landscapes served as a backdrop for my play-directing father who was fascinated by people and landscape. As a teenager, I loved to draw, make maps, and act in plays. My father encouraged me not to choose theater as a profession – he thought I would starve as an actor! In a writing seminar my last year in college, I was intrigued by the rising perception of the connection between artists and the Texas landscape. I struggled to articulate the idea and never completed the paper; Dr. Bennett challenged me to continue exploring the question, which I have over the last 40 years. My BA degree in biology is probably one of the few, but I think I could not have had a better launch into landscape architecture.

How long have you been working in the landscape architectural field?

44 years and counting! Beginning in San Francisco in 1970 with a five-year apprenticeship with Osborne & Stewart, architects and landscape architects. In 1983 I entered the Certificate Program in Landscape Architecture at UC Berkeley Extension in San Francisco; and in 1990 obtained my license in landscape architecture, along with four other new graduates of that program.

What type of work have you done and what do you do now?

At Osborne & Stewart I participated in site and plant surveys; observed the relationship between architecture, landscape architecture, and civil engineering; learned about project management and cost estimating; and engendered curiosity in myself and others – I ran a master builders forum and lecture series. I continued to take courses in horticulture and botany; volunteered in native plant propagation at the SF Botanical Garden; and was associated with both the Berkeley and San Francisco Ecology Centers. My two sons were born in 1976 and 1980. I spent several years at Western Hills Rare Plant Nursery in Sonoma County propagating unusual plants and having remarkable conversations with plant people from all over the world.

During the five years I was enrolled in the UC program in landscape architecture, I continued my gardening and landscape contracting business, and had a brief exposure to cemeteries and gabions in the office of Carlisle Becker. After I had my license, I rejoined Daniel R. Osborne and worked primarily on residential projects, golf courses (with native plant and vernal pool restorations), and outdoor theater landscapes.

Education has always been my “theatre in the round” and in 1994 I became the education director for the SF Botanical Garden (Strybing Arboretum), and in 2003 for the Garden Conservancy, a national organization focused on public garden preservation. For 18 years I had the privilege to engage in dynamic conversations about botany, ecology, gardening, landscape design, garden history, preservation, and natural and cultural resources with all sorts of garden amateurs, City gardeners, and other professionals; and produced training courses, newsletters, signage, seminars, lectures, and conferences about horticulture and design. As staff at the Botanical Garden, I participated in the master planning process.

Now in 2014, I’ve come full circle and my husband and I are restoring a California grassland/prairie and coastal shrub community on 10 acres in western Sonoma County, along with an organic dairy farmer, and other locals who care about a healthy landscape. I figure this will occupy my focus for the next twenty years and hopefully provide thoughtful results for the next hundred years (we have the stumps of about ten full-sized chestnut trees that were planted by Luther Burbank on the property). My goal is to learn by doing, working with and reintroducing natural systems on a property, protected by a conservation easement and bordered by orchards, vineyards, and a wild section of a regional park. Whatever I do will continue way past my time, and I look forward to sharing what I learn with others – beginning with students at the local high school.

What has surprised you most about working in landscape architecture?

That it is a philosophy and a life work – it is my lens for viewing and understanding the world. It is about capturing peoples’ imaginations, making a place for them to leave their everyday consciousness (mentally and physically), to return with a new understanding of their reality. I believe this is a partial answer to my proverbial question of the relationship between art and landscape – and there has been the continued discovery that I am, in fact, making theater as my father did. I am always finding something new or seeing something differently; I strive to articulate what I am learning and thinking.  Whatever we do is a progression and builds on the past. Life is never boring!

What do you find most challenging about the field/practice?

I came to this field through horticulture; I knew plants, plant communities, and ecological systems, but had to learn to draw and to understand the built environment. I struggled with the concepts of calculus, Fibonacci, and drawing in perspective. I made heavy weather out of retaining walls, and grading and drainage. Conceptually I understood but I tried to make it all exact (and drove Carlisle Becker crazy). It took years to relax and understand how drainage systems really work – most beautifully illustrated by the historic road culverts and ditches in Hawaii Volcano National Park, which I analyzed on a Park Service project with Architectural Resources Group.

Becoming facile with math sometimes takes time but when science and design come together, real creativity can begin. With an extra twenty years, I would have pursued civil engineering licensure as well in order to exercise some control over infrastructure as well as design.

What might someone be surprised to know about you?

Since most of my public “practice” has been in landscape education, people might be surprised to learn that I am a licensed landscape architect (and that is why I can ask the questions). On another note, while I never considered myself a risk taker, I am a hiker and was held at gunpoint at 15,000 feet on a remote mountain in northern Peru, celebrating my 60th birthday. When I was 30, we hiked across glacial crevasses in Austria and visited the site of Otzi the iceman (it was my mother-in-law who was 60 then!)

How do you think landscape architecture practice will change over the next five years? Over the next 20 years?

I have been watching our evolution and think we have a better understanding of our connections to natural systems – plants/water/people/ecology. We are attempting to repair and re-create, or imitate, and continue to improve. To allow natural systems to take over we may have to build substructures. The restoration of the LA River channel is a good example. New focus is a response to the education and questions we have been asking. Pay attention to what was there. Develop long-range plans. Build lighter. If I plant a tree here, what will it do over a hundred years?  We need to think and act long term and continue the dialog between our public, clients, other professionals, and the bureaucracies.

Many brilliant landscape architects, garden designers, botanists, artists, horticulturists, architects, and historians have supported and participated in the programs I generated at SF Botanical Garden and the Garden Conservancy – Thomas Woltz, Andrea Cochran, Susan Van Atta, Christy Ten Eyck, Mia Lehrer, William Fain, Ken Smith, Topher Delany, Bernard Trainor, Sheila Brady, Mark Simmons, Dan Pearson, Andy Cao, and Patrick Hunt. They see the importance of sharing their ideas in a conversational way with young people and others engaged in their profession. They were never too busy to participate. And in the real world, they are working together.

If you weren’t working in landscape architecture, what would you be doing instead, or what would your life be like?

I would probably be a farmer or surveyor. I wouldn’t be far from the soil and I would definitely be outside. I would have hiked both the Appalachian and the Pacific Crest Trails.

What words of wisdom do you have for landscape architectural practitioners or for why landscape architecture is important? 

As you know, I grew up in a theater family – my father was a professor in academic theater, my mother was in educational television – both of whom shaped my desire to listen, tell stories, ask questions and share ideas. So I guess the advice is to relax, have fun, and share ideas – you’ve got a lifetime to do this.

Ruth Bancroft planted her cactus and succulent garden in Walnut Creek when she was in her 60s. She is now 105 years old. She only stopped active gardening when she was 100. Her “intellectual life” (as my father used to say) is just fine. Her garden is preserved for future generations. Ruth and her horticultural contemporaries had a major affect on gardens and gardening in the Bay Area (and nationally). Go visit Ruth’s garden.

If you could go back and meet yourself when you first got out of landscape architecture school (or your first day on the first job), what words of advice would you give yourself?

Be patient. Give yourself time to mature in the profession. Pursue apprenticeships – they are invaluable. Curb your ego. Design is important but creating functional, beautifully working systems will generate good design.  Collaborate and seek multi-perspectives on projects. Learn about related professions. Participate in professional organizations with your peers (the American Public Gardens Association, Historic American Landscape Survey, ASLA, and the Bay Area Public Gardens Network were all important teachers for me). Travel and look at landscapes, gardens, buildings, roads – understand the rise and fall of civilizations, study culture. Share what you know.  Trust your intuition – just go for a walk, it will all make sense.

Perspectives is a recurring series of interviews with a variety of Bay Area landscape architects, planners, and designers to capture the wealth and range of experience within our profession.  If you have suggestions for interviewees, please feel free to contact

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