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Force of Nature with Molly Sedlacek

At ORCA, the outdoor space is no afterthought. Instead, landscape designer Molly Sedlacek exalts an authentic connection to the earth with artfully undone gardens graced by found materials. This dedication to biophilia extends to her own abode in Los Angeles. Originally built by Michael Tessler of Responsive Homes, the 860 square foot residence is beautifully designed, with scenery that Molly has tended to thoughtfully.

Photography by Austin John

Tell us a bit about your career path. Were you at all influenced by your parents and your upbringing in Oregon?

Growing up on the Oregon coast, I spent my childhood playing in a Bay Laurel hedge my parents planted (and later named their nursery after) and exploring a bamboo forest my dad grew and harvested. The learning of sensory and self while being in the outdoors subconsciously started my journey as a gardener. It was the blueprint to living my family handed down.

Fast forward three decades. I am planting, curating, and exploring use of the outdoor space in my small San Francisco garden – sourcing materials and experimenting with flora, stone and timber. What I wanted the landscape to feel like I couldn’t point to in a picture, it only existed in my imagination. In fact, most of the images I saw on Pinterest were stark, formal, and filled with cold concrete and foreign teak wood. They looked nothing like the garden that raised me, and I couldn’t imagine how a child could learn from them. ORCA was born from this desire to reconnect humans to earth through their gardens.

Are there any principles that guide your philosophy as a landscape designer?

The garden is a reflection of ourselves – let it be wild and always evolving. We also take inspiration from these four human principles from Japanese Gardens for Today, a book that I keep on my desk and our team refers back to constantly:

Logical Unity – We love to look at things that are logical, the reflections of truth, and the realities of our environment and daily lives.

Economic Unity – We tend to select what makes sense and has for us some practical value.

Esthetic Unity – The garden must have a composition that affords pleasure in the beholding because we can immediately appreciate, consciously or unconsciously, harmonious relations in the color, texture, shape, size, attitudes, and intervals of its parts.

Spiritual Unity – This means that in the course of living in our house and garden we become a part of it, and it a part of us.

"I find value in the imperfections surrounding us."

How is this ethos reflected in your own home?

The space between the walls we call home is precious. I feel strongly that protecting space and leaving room for things to come in, and an open hand to let things go, is the symbiotic relationship we have with our home. My home is filled with materials that are raw and objects collected over time both from nature and my artist community. Each piece has a story. I have a “pod” bowl on my table that is filled with found rocks and seed pods. When guests first visit my home, I ask them to choose a piece to put in their home. There’s something very ancestral about exchanging found objects from nature.

When you found the property, the garden was almost untouched. Did you have an immediate vision for what you wanted to create?

When I first found my soon-to-be home, there was no garden. The building was intentionally designed and built using materials and an ethos very similar to ORCA. However, it lacked any sort of garden or connection to its outdoor environment. It felt like the home and land needed me to help complete it.

Being on a high-traffic street, I wanted to create a substantial boundary between the garden and the main road. I used large local boulders to create a leveled front garden and retaining wall that would still allow water from the hillside to flow freely. Then I added in softness, using layers of Bay Laurel under an existing Cork Oak and specimen plants that would thrive in filtered light conditions. Plant nods to my childhood garden include Japanese Honeysuckle and Ebbing’s Silverberry. Every garden needs a plant with a story from when we were first connecting to nature.

How did you ensure the outdoors seamlessly connected with the ambience inside?

The outdoors needed to feel intentional because the cork cladded home has a very unique presence to it. A traditional or modern garden wouldn’t look right.

I used dark greens and earthy clay brick on the patio to make the landscape feel like it was a part of the Cork Oak and home. The main floor opens up onto the outdoor patio, which lends an opportunity to do large sculptural wood pieces for furniture that you can see from the living room. I enlisted Angel City to help with the fabrication and installation of these pieces.

For the front garden, it is a smaller space that is used for the ORCA team to use during work days. I wanted the space to provide shade and different areas to sit, whether on beams or rocks, to take meetings and allow you to feel like you aren’t at an office. The outdoor space needed to feel wild, like you are stepping out of urban east Los Angeles.

Tell us a bit about your general creative process, and how it intersects with any architects and interior designers that might be involved in a project.

It begins with the human. What are they missing in their connection to their landscape – is it physical interaction, rest, community? Understanding what in the natural surroundings needs to be highlighted, incorporated, or restored is the first step in designing a landscape. From there, we dive into materials and layouts that support the garden and are climate appropriate. Because a landscape is only a part of a home, our material languages must work in tandem with an architect’s vision for the structure, and interior designers' goal for the home.

At what stage do any considerations around sustainability come into play?

Homes and gardens should be made of materials that are in proximity to the jobsite. There is a resourcefulness and responsibility when it comes to sourcing materials for construction. This is very important to me because we have a choice of where the materials come from. My motto is [to] keep it local and lighten the building footprint. This includes the hardscape materials such as pavers, rock, and wood, and extends into the plant species selected and where they are grown.

We’re curious to hear if concerns about climate change have influenced your approach to projects.

A biodiverse garden – one designed with plant species native to the site and its ecosystem – honors the cyclical processes found in nature. Healthy, nutrient-dense soil supports plants, which in turn feeds insects. Insects decompose plant and animal waste, returning nutrients to the soil. Plants and insects nourish local birds and other wildlife, who then fertilize the soil. These are gardens that – even if they exist in urban areas – are truly alive, sustaining themselves naturally with minimal human intervention.

Are there any particular materials and plant species that capture your imagination?

I love working with anything that is natural and needs very little human touch. The more organic a material can be, the better it is to me. I’m less inclined and not interested in plastics or very uniform materials. Perfect lines don’t necessarily exist in nature – there’s always a wobble or a story, and I find value in the imperfections surrounding us.

Is there a dream project you would love to bring to life one day?

I’d love to design a public park. My goal is to create gardens that help humans feel innately connected to nature.