She’s run her own landscape design studio since 2015, put in a decade with O2 Planning and Design, Calgary’s most prolific landscaping firm, and has both interior design and landscape architecture degrees under her belt… but María del Sol Galdón’s career in the garden began long before all that.
Photo by Jager and Kokemor“My very first job at age 12 was to go up and down the rows at Eagle Lake nursery and weed all the plants,” she says. “Those were my Saturdays. I got paid $3 an hour and was just thrilled.” Her boss was her own father, who worked at the nursery after the family immigrated to Alberta from their Argentinian ranch in the early ’90s. The family of eight actually lived in a house right on site—a formative environment for a budding gardener.
When her parents went on to start a landscaping business called Planta in Calgary a few years later, she and her siblings found themselves spending summers pruning, planting and softscaping, and ultimately building a rich understanding of plant life along the way. “I became very knowledgeable just by working,” she says. But there were also more formal studies at Mount Royal, UBC and Wageningen University in the Netherlands, then stints at respected design firms like McKinley Dang Burkart and Matrix Landscape. And while she was winning awards for her streetscape research and specializing in green infrastructure design, friends started asking for advice on their gardens; soon, her entrepreneurial drive was in full bloom.
Photo by Elham Kiani. Photo by Elham Kiani.In Calgary’s Meadowland Park neighbourhood, del Sol Galdón created an urban oasis that contrasted a sleek outdoor room with a wilder garden area that features a natural stone patio surrounded by loose vegetation.
In 2015 del Sol Galdón and a brother took over their parents’ landscaping business; in 2015, with the operation having grown from five employees to 25, she left her day job at O2 to run it full time. Her work with Planta this time around is a culmination of the high-concept and the hands-on, and del Sol Galdón has developed a collaborative approach with architects and builders that offers her the chance to be involved from the early stages—sometimes before a pre-existing house has even been torn down. “It’s nice to be involved at a point where people realize it’s more than just ‘put in a tree, throw in some grass,’” she says.
It’s easy to see why the designer’s work has been so embraced. One Meadowlark Park project merges interior and exterior spaces with a privacy-screened, pergola-topped “outdoor room,” while an Auburn Bay landscape utilizes a curvilinear configuration to create a series of lakefront terraces. For one dramatically sloped site in the Britannia neighbourhood, del Sol Galdón used layers of underlit concrete slabs to climb a rolling lawn, alongside lush, organic textures. As judge Susan Herrington, professor at UBC’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, puts it, “del Sol Galdón is a poet of textures, juxtaposing slick concrete surfaces with crushed stone, and coarse-leafed plant material with fine-leafed plant material.”
Photo by Paulina Ramis.
Though she started, quite literally, in the weeds, today del Sol Galdón is all about the big picture. “When I’m at a consultation and the homeowner tells me, ‘This shrub isn’t doing well,’ or ‘I hate this plant,’ I say, who cares? I make them come to the sidewalk and show them: this is what somebody perceives when they come to visit you; what do you want them to feel, how do you want them to react, what kind of essence do you put forward?” she says. “This is a first impression; this transition area is so important. It’s not about the one shrub; it’s about the composition and perspective.”
And while her work is responsive to context (the garden of a modern house might reference the lines of the architecture through protruding planter boxes), there’s a through-line here. “I’m aiming toward order, peacefulness, calm,” says del Sol Galdón, “a space that feels comfortable.” That might mean a linear, repetitive mass planting for some, a lush English garden for others. “In landscape we say, it’s not the space, it’s a place… and the reaction you have. It’s not about what it looks like, it’s about how it feels.”
For this lakeside project, del Sol Galdón gave each curved terrace its own use: there’s the putting green, an open area for trampolines and soccer practices, an informal firepit by the water and a synthetic green space for watersports gear.
Q&A with Maria del Sol Galdon
What was your first design project?
Redesigning and arranging furniture in my Barbie doll’s playhouse.
Who do you admire most as a designer?
Ian McHarg, author of Design With Nature.
What’s your go-to material of choice?
For landscape… local materials. Natural rock, wood and metal: natural materials in the landscape are a must.
What books are on your nightstand right now?
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson.
What do you think is the most perfectly designed object?
The paper clip.
What do people often get wrong about design?
Jorge Luis Borges says, “For me beauty is a physical sensation, something we feel with our whole body. It is not the result of judgement. We do not arrive at it by way of rules. We either feel beauty or we don’t.”
I completely agree with Borges on this—beauty being the same as design. I think most people think of design as a pure aesthetic, but I believe that design is really about a sensation. How do we feel in that space, whether it’s an interior or a landscape or sitting on a piece of furniture or wearing a particular dress? What emotions are brought out of us from the experience of place? Design is about that.
What’s your dream project?
My next project. I try to make every project, large or small, a great one.