One Foot in the Tropics

A south-facing Marin garden borrows freely from the east.

LANDSCAPE DESIGNER DAVIS DALBOK’S lush half-acre garden in Fairfax, half an hour north of Mill Valley, is in an atypically warm neighborhood he affectionately calls a banana belt.

Its Thai and Balinese influences epitomize the central theme of the designer’s imminent monograph, which he says will be called “One Foot in the Tropics.”

“I discovered my home accidentally during the dot-com boom when I could not afford even a tiny lot in San Francisco,” Dalbok recalls. “I began to look in Marin and the first time I peered through the old wooden gate to this property, I just knew it would be mine.”

The garden was in disrepair, but through its dilapidated front gate Dalbok could see beautiful old oak trees. “There was a sizable plateau for the old house and swimming pool, and the rest slid south toward views of great open spaces,” he says. “Its boundaries were invisible and the garden seemed to stretch across Cascade Canyon, which it abuts.”

Moreover, it was rumored that the famed horticulturist and arborist John McLaren of Golden Gate Park fame used to vacation there, and Dalbok was convinced that a beautiful stand of Himalayan deodar cedars he could see two properties away were part of McLaren’s legacy.

A giant magnolia grandiflora, an enormous Atlantic blue cedar and an odd “monkey puzzle tree” all had to be McLaren’s, Dalbok thought. Their nestled location, which was warmer than other spots on the property, was clearly just right for it.

Over the next two decades, the area proved ideal for a palette of temperate and tropical flora Dalbok loves, because cold coastal winds simply flit past the property. “I never lose cycads and palms to frost,” he says.

His passion for tropical species began before he graduated from Cal Poly, where he was studying landscape architecture. Part-time work tending fancy gardens in Montecito during summer breaks led eventually to a job at a nursery, where the young unlicensed landscape architect really got to know his favorite plants.

“That’s when I also got turned on to the landscapes of Brazilian designer Roberto Burle Marx, who always has ponds and running water in his gardens,” Dalbok says. At Living Green, a garden showroom he co-founded in 1980 at the San Francisco Design Center, he stocked the largest, most exotic plants and the most beautiful containers, pots and fountains he could find.

Lucky for Dalbok and his partner Michael Postl, their choices caught the eye of legendary interior designer Michael Taylor, and they were soon filling the fashionable living rooms Taylor designed with large-leaved hothouse plants.

Now in Fairfax, a carved Bali-style gate inset with Chinese wood doors offers a clue to what’s within the garden. Orchids, lilies, tillandsia, bromeliads and succulents all thrive outdoors amid a collection of subtropical rhododendrons.

Before planting all these, Dalbok pushed the terraced area out farther toward the view because it was too small, then tackled the restoration of his saltwater swimming pool, which is lined with pea-green plaster that turns aquamarine when the pool is full of water. Flagstone coping and slate tiles all around it have replaced ugly concrete pavers and, using Burle Marx’s example, Dalbok removed rows of pines that had been planted by the previous owner to make room for a lotus pond and new beds and paths that are more curvilinear, for a less formal look.

Dalbok’s living room that once looked like a Western dance hall is also exotic by design. Artifacts from India, Bali and the Far East, where Dalbok sources his wares, spill out from the interior onto a veranda where he has set up a divan near a de rigueur water garden and artificial pond.

Various Buddha statues Dalbok finds during his travels sit for a while within the tranquil bamboo and grass-filled vignettes, reminiscent of Thai and Balinese gardens he has seen. They soothe the mind, while the buoyant solar-heated pool is suitable for aquatic bodywork that Dalbok’s friend Vivi Macedo, a water therapist, uses to advantage.

When he is not designing for himself, Dalbok has a varied opus, including small desert gardens in Las Vegas and Palm Springs, gardens in lush Hawaiian enclaves, and other projects in the temperate regions of the Bay Area. Some were for equally varied clients such as Lars Ulrich, the drummer for Metallica; actor Jimmy Stewart’s family; Walt Disney’s daughter Diane Miller; and Matthew Mullenweg of Word-Press, for whom he recently created a vertical garden outside a penthouse bedroom. A 2,000-square-foot indoor garden is in the works at the new Salesforce office, up on the 30th floor of a building in downtown San Francisco.

Bringing palms and cycads together in these locations is fun, but the work that moves him most lately is the restoration of eight gardens in ancient Buddhist locations such as Bodh Gaya, now a UNESCO World Heritage site in India.

“I am not a Buddhist, but I am definitely drawn to gardens in the tropics,” he says.

View the gallery below for more photos.

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