Foreign Gardeners: Andrés, from Madrid to San Francisco

A few months ago on LinkedIn I received an email from an unknown contact that turned out to be a surprise, that wasn’t spam.  It was a message from a landscape architect named Andrés, who recently moved from Spain to California and saw that we had similar interests regarding our professions. We had both made our long distance moves to our current countries roughly around the same time and found ourselves in the same boat regarding the difficulty of finding work in our fields in our new environments.  Emails were soon sent back and forth exchanging advice and addresses to helpful websites, organizations and professional contacts and over that time a friendship was fostered. Thank you for reaching out, Andrés. – James


Blending among the tall spires of Echium wildpretii in Tenerife, Spain

Hello Andrés. Thank you for allowing us the opportunity to interview you for the ‘Foreign Gardener’ series. Can you share with us at Plinth et al. what country were you born, where you moved to and your occupation?

Hello, I am Andrés and I moved from Madrid, Spain to the San Francisco Bay Area in the USA..  I define myself as a Landscape+Architect; it is the shortest way I have found to explain my backgrounds and interests.

Chapiner°a (Madrid)
The tan fields of summer, known in Spain as the agostado effect, in Chapinería, Madrid

When was it that you moved and why California?

Almost a year ago, the opportunity to move arose, so I decided to take my chances to develop my landscape half, as in Spain it is not a recognized profession yet. Besides, California’s climate is Mediterranean as well; I was expecting to learn some new plants and techniques I could use in my home country.


Chapiner°a (Madrid) 2
another time, another season showcasing a tapestry of blooms in Chapinería


Madrid R°o 2013-04-10 14.04.42
The flower clouds of Prunus avium, Madrid Río park

What is your current job and what does it entail?

I work as a Landscape Architect for a medium size Landscape Architecture company in San Francisco, where I am involved in varied and interesting residential projects right now, although the scope of the company is much wider. On the side, I try to keep my own blog going (, where I write about the things I am learning every day or I am interested in. Writing them helps me to acquire that knowledge.

Earlier you mentioned landscape architecture is not really a recognized profession in Spain yet, so how has moving to California been beneficial to your profession?

First of all, architects, landowners and administrations take a landscape architect’s job as seriously as any other technical profession with public liability and the main public know what a Landscape Architect is, or at least that it is a profession. Besides, the real estate market is still growing crazy here; However, Spain was struck by a huge real estate crisis very recently, and hasn’t yet recovered, so I take this whole boom situation with caution, as I have experienced it before, which means I am trying to grow professionally and personally instead. Building much is easy but short-term, building good takes more effort, but will remain over booms and cracks.

San Francisco
a different view of home: San Francisco, California

As with any type of change, there’s always an adjustment period, be it good or bad. What have been some of the difficulties  encountered while getting settled in San Francisco, your new home?

Sprawl, with its two sides: the good one brings more residential projects to work for, the bad one: long journeys every day to get into the city, because the transit system is so bad, also because sprawl makes it unaffordable for public stakeholders. Also, public commissions and public spaces aren’t as common as in Europe.

Coastal California
With Madrid centrally located in Spain an upswing is being so close to the California coast

On the flip side tell us some surprising changes that you have welcomed and enjoyed in California?

The climate, it is just perfect. In the Bay Area there are several micro-climates, but is almost never too hot or freezing, and the summer nights are chill enough not to have to use the A/C the whole day. This means, outdoors is widely enjoyed, although more in private, rather than in public spaces as opposed to the Mediterranean basin. Many plants thrive here too, but the drought is a big concern and limitation for the species you can use. San Francisco´s micro-climate is one of its own, with significant differences among neighborhoods. I have seen Zantedeschia thriving on neglected yards without irrigation, just because of the condensation of the very common fogs that cover the city almost every night.

A cross section of life in a big city

What have some of the struggles to adjust to the U.S. been during the transition?

Lots of paperwork for the visa, building a ‘credit history’, which is almost mandatory in the U.S. to be able to have a normal life without spending thousands of dollars in deposits, the whole sprawl thing, the technical vocabulary at work. Most of it is solved after a couple of months though, but the price of things is something very important to take into account before moving or accepting an offer, the Bay Area can be unaffordable for many.

rendering for Devenir Animal, Chaumont-sur-Loire garden festival (co-author: Violeta Ferrero)

How did you find your job at the Landscape Architecture company in San Francisco?

I used several ways.  I sent my cover letter, résumé and portfolio to the offices I liked most, disregarding if they were hiring or not; I got a couple interviews that way. For the company I am working for now, I found an open position at, which seems to be the main job search site on the Bay Area.

For other people who are thinking of moving or are about to experience a similar situation, what advice would you give to them to be better prepared for the transition?

Send your CV in advance before moving. From my experience, you don’t start hearing from the companies at least until one month later from the time of applying. Avoid sending résumés before long vacation periods, as it is the easiest way to fall into oblivion. It is better to have a job before moving, otherwise, be prepared to spend a good amount of money on settling. I would also recommend to join the ASLA NCC Emerging Professionals group. They meet once a month in SF or Oakland and it is a good way to get in touch with people, learn about the job market, or just do some fun stuff; they are well organized and very active. Least but not last, do your research on LinkedIn, and contact anyone you are interested in. I have come to know people that I have shared my passion about landscape and gardening with.

Was there anything else you did to prepare yourself for this change?

I stayed in touch with the landscape field in the area and followed as many blogs or social profiles from persons, companies and non-profits I found relevant for me as possible, staying in tune with the trends, needs, and technical words. That way, not everything was new to me.

Yosemite_2015_ - 3
Sierra Nevada mountains in Yosemite National Park, California
Yosemite_2015_ - 5
Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View

What is the greatest memory you have had so far in your new environment?

The nature is awesome, from Yosemite to the the foothills around Santa Clara Valley (aka Silicon Valley), which remind me of home in its own way.

Yosemite_2015_ - 6
A view of a granite dome, known as Half Dome, can be seen at the eastern end of Yosemite Valley


If you could give your younger self advice for this change, what would it be?

I would send myself this survey and its answers. Many things are different than expected, although I might still make the same choice.

2015-06-20 13.30.48
A shrubby species of wild buckwheat in Southern California

Do you have a new favorite plant now that you weren’t able to grow before?

Lately I am obsessed with a native: St. Catherine’s Lace, Eriogonum giganteum. As the weather is Mediterranean here, it would probably grow in many places in Spain, but not in Madrid, where the winter is maybe too cold for this plant. I will give it a try though!

2015-08-16 20.02.15
The giant umbels eventually fade to a rust color before being eaten by birds.

Thank Andrés for sharing your story with us. With your talent and passion I am sure you will be met with great experiences and success in California.  If anyone would like to ask Andrés a question, or reach out, please leave a comment below and we will gladly pass it on to him.  Please click on the links provided below for further reading.   Thank you- Plinth et al.


Andrés Website: Quincunx

American Society of Landscape Architects Northern California Chapter

ASLA NCC Bay Area Emerging Professionals Group Facebook Group: Facebook Group



A study of detail: El Escorial, Madrid


North of Madrid, standing at the foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama, is the enormous complex known as the Escorial Monastery, which was built at the end of the 1500’s. Originally created as the retreat of King Philip II, the historical Spanish site includes a monastery and is surrounded on two sides with formal gardens.  These gardens, which were built on a large terrace, hug right up against the vast and impressive building, softening the transition into the open mountainous landscape just beyond the reaches of the palace. Scale and proportion are functions in unity between the building and the garden, with perspective playing a key part to the success of its layout.

The finer the view, the simpler the garden should be and this holds true here as the formal gardens are largely made up of clipped hedges, save for the white roses grown against the foundation of the immense building. In the past, the beds between the hedges were filled with bedding plants to look like beautiful carpets when viewed from the windows above, though this type of planting is no longer executed.  All is not lost on the design though, as the long unbroken walks used throughout are perfect for strolling and philosophizing, which was probably the purpose this garden served when the king walked these gardens during his time..


“There is no “The End”…


“There is no “The End” to be written, neither can you, like an architect, engrave in stone the day the garden was finished; a painter can frame his picture, a composer notate his coda, but a garden is always on the move.”     –   Mirabel Osler, English writer and garden designer

Tuesday’s Terrace: Spain

Spain, Plinth et al., Tuesday's Terrace, Terraces of Madrid, Madrid Terraces

Setting itself apart from the rest of it’s neighbors, this Tuesday’s Terrace proudly displays a colorful collection of potted plants which includes a mix of geraniums, petunias and pelargoniums. The terraces in Madrid can be a mixed bag with some neighbors taking full advantage of the available growing space, while others seem to not even take notice of their outdoor space.  – James


moving up


In reading your last letter (Frosty Nights and Tropical Warmth), I left 2014 feeling good and with a smile on my face and I agree with you regarding Plinth et al. and how far it has come.  We have encountered a lot of interesting people and opportunities since starting this project and I hope this year will be just as good, with more interviews and projects in the works already. We seem to be off to a good start though and I am eager to hear about and see images of your trip to Taiwan, a place I have never been but always dreamed of traveling to.  The change in weather, food and people must have been a welcome change from the freezing cold temperatures of Pennsylvania.  But while you were off exploring beautiful places, I was having an adventure of my own.  Somewhere between the 25th of December and the 1st of January, I changed apartments in Madrid and  I will never think, again in my life, that this is an appropriate time of year to change houses…  My biggest concern with moving had to do with my plants and it pleases me to say that no plant was left behind and there was only one broken pot of Sansevieria cylindrica upon arrival, now safely replanted and recovering. IMG_4307IMG_4309

There was not enough space (or light) for all of my plants in the last apartment but I am ecstatic about having a larger terrace at my new place. My mind is already racing with ideas and my sketchbook has become active again.  Of course I decided it is a must to grow some of the standard Mediterranean fare, such as a fig tree, a lemon tree, rosemary and Punica granatum. In my mind the terrace is already running out of space with all the other things I will acquire at the nurseries too as the list in my notebook grows much longer each time I step outside to ponder ideas. IMG_4346IMG_4354

The terrace (with attached apartment) is on the 10th floor, the highest I’ve ever lived, and it has unobstructed views over the city towards the Sierra mountains, which are currently snow capped. Seeing this view is like having one foot in the city and one foot in the countryside, which works well for me. While there is not much to see out there on the terrace yet, except for green tips of emerging bulbs in containers, I did find a gecko living on the terrace, whom I am now trying to over winter with some of my plants in a protected spot, my first official pet. Seeing the city from this vantage point up high puts it into perspective for me how different things were when I arrived a little over a year ago.  Never did I think I would be in this situation, living among palms and working in a flower shop, and speaking spanish, but it is a treat, a real pleasure now that I have adjusted. Spain and I are an odd pair but one that works, similar to this combination of cyperus and Colorado blue spruce I recently saw in a courtyard garden.  I just might try this one out on the terrace too….  Speak soon my friend.  – JIMG_4243

next stop, Atocha


In the modern age of travel, where speed and efficiency is a necessity, it is far and few between that a large public transportation hub beckons you with its beauty to stay and linger for a while. Sure, there are some beauties such as Grand Central Station that offer up visual delights in its main hall, but this place, Atocha Station, breaks all the normal rules of a train station. Rather than rushing through, governed by the need to reach your final destination, this station offers the chance to slow down and disconnect from the surrounding hustle and bustle, amidst a true urban jungle.


Atocha station is the largest operator of trains in Madrid, and due to the capital city’s central location , it is responsible for connecting some of the major cities throughout Spain. By way of high-speed trains, it is credited with getting commuters to and from places throughout the country, such as Seville, Zaragazova, and Barcelona and Valencia, the second and third largest cities respectively.


The original station was declared open during the winter of 1851 but forty years later it was destroyed by fire, rebuilt again by a man named Alberto de Palacio Elissagne.  Fast forward to 1992, and the Atocha terminal saw itself undergoing a new renovation project, the installation of an indoor tropical garden that sits within the main concourse, of an expansive size of 4,0000 square meters (13, 123 sq.ft).

Living amidst the hustle are plants like the Sabal palmetto
some plants offer the passing public a sheltered refuge, on the right is Ravenala madagascariensis (also known as the Traveler’s Palm, ironic?)

IMG_5949 Overhead, glass skylights provide enough sufficient light to help over 7,000 plants tropical plants (and a fully stocked turtle pond) grow and live within this mesmerizing lush urban space.  -James


train of thought

Dear Eric,

     Recently I rode to Valencia via high-speed train from Madrid, and what’s normally a journey of a few hours, is now completed in just under two. Trains will always be the preferred mode of transportation for me; they get you deep in thought, with your mind easily shifting from nostalgic thoughts to pondering the future.

James McGrath Spanish Landscape       Looking out the window, the past crept in, as the landscape I was seeing before me is different from what I was used to, gone now are the green, lush rolling hills that surround Gravetye, and a new alien landscape unfolded before me. Now, there is soil that is rich in color with mountains and rocky outcrops that continually appear on the horizon, while the farmland plays out its carved patterns in the earth, it was fascinating to take in.

        Sorolla once said, “Nature, the sun itself, produces color effects… instantaneously.” He was right and as I continued watching, your words about light played in my mind too, especially when you said, “Light is perhaps the most misunderstood and poorly considered element in gardens. Yet it is light that noticeably alters the mood and atmosphere of the garden – the silhouettes of trees and shrubs, the long shadows cast onto the walls, and the reflections in water features.  Landscapes became more sculptural, abstract, and wilder.”  It was always a rule of mine that gardens should not be exclusively beautiful to look at but also full of fleeting moments, incorporating more elements than just flowers. Light, water, ground level and the shadows created are just as essential in bringing a garden or landscape to life.  You have a way with writing and your words were music to my ears.

         Seeing the farms and fields whizzing by turned my mind to plants. It got me thinking about how Spain is a huge exporter of carnations, and exports them in large numbers to help supply the demand required by the world flower market.  Saffron is another successful crop grown here, with majority of the harvest happening in the end of October in Toledo where they grow fields of Crocus sativus.  I look forward to witnessing this next autumn.

Spain is a huge producer of rice, specifically Arborio, the main ingredient of Paella, with it mostly growing in fields on the outskirts of Valencia.

       These thoughts of plants, coupled with living in a city again, made me miss the kitchen garden at Gravetye. Again I will not dwell, and even though I have two small terraces, I need to have a garden in soil; pots are not enough for me. Currently I am looking for an allotment to call my own and am searching to see if something like this exists in Madrid.  Having a small plot to grow some food and cut flowers are high on my list so, please, keep your fingers crossed.

       The autumnal show here in Madrid is nothing like the ones I used to see in New York, but I forgive Spain, because she is beautiful in her own way. That would be the same as comparing apples to oranges, right? Hope this finds you well and smiling…         James

Master of Light

Skipping, 1907, Oil

    Think of a famous painter from Spain and I guarantee there are other artists that first come to mind, such as Picasso, Miro, Velazquez…  But of the most important Spanish painters, it is Joaquim Sorolla that I knew the least about, having only first seen his work just over a year ago while visiting Valencia.  His paintings left an impression,  realistic observations involving soft color palettes, and always captured full of fleeting moments and emotion.

DSC02954     Joaquim Sorolla y Bastida was  part of the most important artistic movement of the 19th Century, the 1st of the Modern Movements, known as Impressionism.   The painters of this period preferred to work out of doors where they could easily focus on the play of light, catching fleeting impressions of the environment around them.  One belief of the Impressionists, including Monet, Renoir, Degas, et al., was that any object regardless of color usually casts a shadow with its complimentary color. These painters loved color and light and working out of doors proved to be the perfect solution rather than working in a studio indoors. Sorolla was once quoted as saying, “I do not care to paint portraits indoors. I cannot feel sympathetic.”

DSC02938   Sorolla, born in Valencia in 1863, started painting early, around 9 years of age. As he got older and his skills strengthened, he turned to painting portraits, landscapes and pieces that incorporated social and historical themes. At 18 he moved to Madrid, where his home and studio remain, open as a museum to this day. He was well traveled; he spent time studying throughout Europe and achieved success with his painting style while in the United States.  He loved painting out of doors and his particular style, regarding the immense emphasis he placed on light, was referred to as ‘luminism’, and his preference was for painting the landscape under the sunlight of his native land.



  Surrounding his home and studio, on two sides, is the garden that Sorolla had created, a place where he often sought refuge whenever he could. Inspired by gardens in Seville and Granada, he mixed marble with Andalusian tile and often painted in here, where he could enjoy the effect of light on architecture, vegetation and the fountain. The painting of the fountain was a favorite area to work due to its involvement of light on water, and his fondness for the distortion of images reflected in it.

    At one point the surrounding buildings were much lower,  thus providing a garden full of more light, flowers and colors. Now the plantings are more vegetation focused, and with the sounds of the fountain, still provide a nice quiet and relaxing atmosphere.


DSC02939      Sorolla, who was very close with his family, often used them as his models, involving his three children and his wife, Clotilde, who was his muse.  The bond between him and his wife was strong, with Clotilde once stating in a letter, “…you know that my greatest pleasure is to be by your side, that I don’t go or like to go anywhere if it is without you, and even at home if bothers me when people visit because they deprive me of being at your side in the studio.” Beautiful.

My Children, 1904, Oil

     In the year of 1923, Sorolla passed away due to complications from a stroke he had earlier on, he left behind a large body of work and his legacy of being one of Spain’s most phenomenal painters, often referred to today as the “Master of light”.

DSC02933“I hate darkness. Claude Monet once said that painting in general did not have light enough in it. I agree with him. We painters, however, can never reproduce sunlight as it really is. I can only approach the truth of it.”- Sorolla

–  James

Into the Unknown

Bow-tie Gentleman- InkSelf Portrait- James McGrath

The desire to be productive and create is always there and to not do either would be to suffocate. As an artist, it’s always easiest to draw or paint what is in front of my face, given that there was never any other way for me. Feeling the need to push myself out of my comfort zone I sometimes do an exercise of sketching quickly, moving my hand before my mind can decide where to place my pen. By letting the brain flow free and creating marks on paper I take my drawings to some very interesting places and some of my stronger drawings have appeared this way, with each of these being finished under two minutes.

Casa de Campo, Madrid

Life is no different, and there are times where the unknown can be daunting and exciting, forging a new perspective that pushes you forward creatively, sparking new experiences. Soon I will be pushing myself out of my comfort zone again..  In the past year I have often traveled to Madrid, getting to know the city and its beauty, because in a few months it will be my new home and Spain is a country I have always loved for many reasons.  A recent visit took me on a cable car ride above Casa de Campo,  situated just behind the Royal Palace and the largest park west of Central Madrid. Spreading out across 4,200 acres, it used to be royal hunting grounds.

Casa de Campo wildflowers

I didn’t know where I was going once I boarded and what I was going to see on this ride but was relieved at what I found. When I think of Madrid,  it is not usually gardens and plants that comes to mind.  The past has seen me working in display gardens, botanical gardens, urban gardens in NYC and London, and as a kitchen gardener, but what does a gardener do in Spain?! The views that unfolded from above were completely unexpected, with meadows of wildflowers in brilliant bloom stretching out before my eyes, dancing across the landscape and even lighting up the dark shadows created by the Stone Pine, Pinus pinea.

Casa de Campo, Madrid

It was a relief to witness such a wonderful floral display easily rivaling the paintings that hang in the city’s rich collections.

Casa de Campo, Madrid

The brilliant yellow hues soon mingled with regal purples, showing the intensity of color that Echium vulgare can possess adding more depth to the landscape.

Echium vulgare Casa de Campo, Madrid

I could imagine the Impressionists having a field day surrounded by such light, textures and shadows, and it got me excited, very excited.  The flora presented itself to me in the way a canvas presents a painting, filling my mind and thoughts with brilliant emotion, making me hungry for more.

 Casa de Campo, Madrid

It will be tough leaving the beauty of the green English countryside but Spain has its wonders to share. I have only glanced down into the colorful kaleidoscope for a short while, but it made my head spin. Realizing the unknown will be exciting and there is a whole new palette of plants to explore and get excited about.

James McGrath - UntitledJames McGrath Flapper Girl

And as my pen dances across the paper quickly, I know where I am going, I am going forward into the unknown, excited,  and that is always the best way possible..