Philosophy: “Inspirit the heart, imbue the senses, and inspire the eye of the beholder”

The best landscape designs are as much a science as they are works of art. Those fundamentals are given equal weight in the gorgeous gardens designed by professional landscaper Michelle Derviss of Michelle Derviss Landscape Design in Novato, Calif. “If you were to imagine a person wearing a paint-splattered shirt with a pocket protector, that would be me,” Michelle says.

Garden Design
Calimesa, CA

For a seaside heather garden in Mendocino County, Michelle Derviss Landscape Design created a tapestry of color for the owners to look upon as they gazed west toward the Pacific Ocean. Paths weaving through the drifts of heather down to the ocean lead to a gazebo that sits out over a point.

While her landscapes look anything but scientific, they are carefully engineered and crafted to express the client’s vision while addressing all the nitty-gritty site challenges such as drainage, exposure conditions, and climate.

Garden Design
Calimesa, CA

Overlooking the Pacific Ocean beyond the pine trees, a pair of bronze sea lions looks out toward the surf. They are surrounded by undulating waves of blue festuca grass.

Michelle’s design firm has been sculpting gardens in Northern California for more than 25 years. She strongly believes that the most successful gardens are those that capture the spirit of the individual and the essence of the site. For this reason, she collaborates closely with both the client and the craftspeople that carry out her design plans.

“When seeing a piece of land for the first time, I view it as both a painting canvas and a sculpting medium,” she says, explaining her design approach. “It's important to me to engage all the senses and provoke an emotional response within the garden design, whether it be meditative, dramatic, or somewhere in between.”

Garden Design
Calimesa, CA

This landscape design celebrates a Mediterranean climate, with olive trees, lavender, and roses framing a rustic terra-cotta fountain. Classic crushed stone paths crunch lightly underfoot as the fragrant scent of roses and lavender fills the air.

Michelle’s landscape designs run the gamut from the modern, to the whimsical, to the pastoral. To decide the best approach to take on each project, she balances her client’s desires with the unique challenges of each site. “I hope to provide creative solutions that express the unique personality of the client. Simultaneously, I am responsive to the needs of the site by weighing the engineering and technical challenges.”

Garden Design
Calimesa, CA

This brilliantly-colored garden overlooking the Pacific Ocean is populated with drought-adaptive plants from South Africa, Australia and California.

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Of all the challenges that Michelle faces when designing a landscape, she says that planning for proper drainage is the most difficult. “Drainage is the bane of my existence. Without proper drainage engineering and proper grading, the best-laid gardens will fail. Get the drainage and the grading right, and everything else will fall into place. That is why I always start the technical aspect of every job with attention to proper site engineering before I even set one petunia into the ground,” she explains.

Garden Design
Calimesa, CA

Set in Napa Valley, this terraced swimming pool offers a bit of refreshment on a warm summer afternoon. Rosa 'About Face' adds fragrance and color behind the terrace, while pots of Pennisetum Rubra, Glechoma and Lismachia line the coping of the pool.

The seeds for Michelle’s love of landscape design were planted at an early age. “It was an innate progression from making mud pies to sculpting the earth. In essence, I have never outgrown my childhood of crafting conceptual montages from natural, found objects in the landscape,” she says. To fertilize her emerging artistic talent, she attended the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, the California College of Arts and Crafts, and the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. After serving a number of horticultural internships, she was ready to launch her landscape design career. Over the years, her work has received numerous awards and her garden designs have appeared in many popular magazines including Garden Design, Fine Gardening, Country Living Gardener, Better Homes and Gardens, Sunset, Alfresco, and Rodale’s Home Garden.

Garden Design
Calimesa, CA

This all-season outdoor entertainment room overlooks the Squaw Valley Ski resort in Lake Tahoe. The sturdy hand-forged metal arbor provides privacy from the neighbors while acting as a buffer from strong winds and blowing snow. The scene on the screen, which is crafted from copper and forged iron, is of the adjacent Sierra Mountains. A wrought iron sculpture also enhances the fire ring. Native granite stone was used to create the bench, patio and hand-carved water basin at the edge of the patio.

In this photo montage, you can see the diverse ways Michelle has applied her personal philosophies about landscape creation. To learn more about her work, visit the Michelle Derviss Design website at

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