The “Jewel Box” Trade: Thoughts on Our Wonderful Profession
by Monica Mroz, ASLA

At the ASLA conference in October, the woman was handing out round green pins with “Ask Me About Landscape Architecture” printed on them. She asked if I would wear one to talk with people about what we do, and help promote our profession. Oh yes!! I love being a landscape architect and (with the possible exception of doing irrigation calculations) enjoy every aspect about it.

The Creativity

John Steinbeck said that, “Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.” It seems that creativity works pretty much the same way. I love how ideas I get while doing a concept plan for a work project can somehow translate to ideas for the Environmental Art lesson I have volunteered to teach in my 4th graders’ class, or thoughts of an interesting treatment for the dresser I’m about to refinish at home. It’s a pretty cool thing that focusing on a business challenge can give creative inspiration for life’s other activities.

Of course, creative ideas don’t always pop up that easily, but fortunately we have books and the Internet. I used to think you could never have too many books. Then my bookshelves filled up and I ran out of room for all the new publications, so I started doing more of my research on-line. The Internet is an incredible and horrible place all at once. It’s incredible for quickly locating an abundance of facts and photos—often more than you could possibly need. It’s horrible when I get glued to it for hours past bedtime searching for the best method to rid black spots from my prized Aloe plant. While it can make me feel quite obsessive, it beats watching late night TV, and it increases my ability to provide clients with a wealth of information.

Client Collaboration

Some of my best work comes from the ability to collaborate. A shared passion for plants and beautiful spaces creates a sense of excitement when the landscape architect and client(s) can work together to find the right balance.

A client once commented that he admired my “Coco-like” style. He was referring to Coco Chanel, and not to her clothing line (of which I own none), but to her legendary less-is-more philosophy, and noted habit of removing one accessory before going out the door. As I developed a design with this particular client, Coco became our code word. We used it for “don’t even think about adding that” to the plan. The process was really fun and resulted in a San Diego Home and Garden Magazine 2011 “Garden of the Year” award. We call it the “Jewel Box.”

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Jewel box front garden “Before.” Image courtesy Shelley Metcalf.

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Jewel box front garden “After.” Image courtesy Shelley Metcalf.

The Importance of Restraint

Sometimes it’s hard to choose “less” when you feel like a kid in a candy-shop of options. For the planting palette alone, there are so many beautiful species available that it’s easy to go overboard and end up with too much of the many good things.

It also doesn’t help that almost any plant can grow in San Diego, where I live and work. Our imported water supply, combined with the warm weather, create a seemingly endless array of choices. Residents and visitors alike often fall in love with a landscape vision that requires species that have no business growing permanently in our dry climate.

But this brings up another aspect I enjoy about our profession: I get to be both the educator and the orchestrator—teaching my clients about regionalized plants and explaining why certain options are more ecologically appropriate than others, while at the same time advising them on the best place to site their barbeque. 

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Fun, colorful, low maintenance, and low water use plants. Image courtesy Shelley Metcalf.

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Fun, colorful, low maintenance, and low water use plants. Image courtesy Shelley Metcalf. 

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Fun, colorful, low maintenance, and low water use plants. Image courtesy Shelley Metcalf. 

Having it All

For me the toughest thing about being a landscape architect specializing in residential design, is settling on a particular style for my own garden. Travels to South America and Mexico have spawned a love of bright colors, rustic materials, and Spanish haciendas. My studies of architecture in Greece and Italy have cultivated an appreciation of mosaics and formal gardens in the Mediterranean style. More travels through Europe strengthened my interest in European classic formality, and that rivals my infatuation with the American Mid-Century Modern. I also crave the clean elegance and industrial materials of a more Contemporary style. And underlying all of these influences is my experience of growing up in a very organic hand-made adobe home built with salvaged materials and surrounded by southern California natives.

With so many influences, it feels impossible to choose just one or even a few of these styles for myself. So, I have accepted the fact that I am completely eclectic. The reality is that my own landscape has evolved under an allocated budget, and with the premise that, if it requires more maintenance than my kids, it’s on its own. What you will find growing in my garden are plants that are either tough as nails, or serve the dual purpose of being edible and can then fit into the category of things my husband will happily care for because they are no longer decorative, but practical.

So I often live vicariously through the designs I create. When I’m working, I can focus my attention on a particular style that the client wants, and miraculously, through the design and construction process, satisfy the desire to own it for myself. In the end, I enjoy the work, my clients enjoy their finished project, and it feels like I have it all!

I love creating jewel boxes of every size and style; beautiful, livable, garden spaces that are both functional and magical, that bring joy to their owners and elicit an appreciation of living in the outdoor environment, rather than being separated from it. Oh yes, landscape architecture is a wonderful profession; you can ask me more about it any time!

Monica Mroz, ASLA, is a landscape architect in San Diego, California who specializes in residential design. She can be reached at or

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