Create Storybook Vibes

Succulent Container Gardens and Sculptures Amp Up the Charm

January 2024. By Isara Ongwiseth: We look forward to engaging The Garden Conservancy for its LA Open Days again this year – this time in Studio City! Clients Michael Solberg and Khoi Pham have generously agreed to open their Sustainable Storybook Garden for the event (Thank you!).

I caught up with Michael to ask about the distinctively charming additions he and Khoi made to the garden. Here’s what I learned.

You create extraordinary container gardens that amplify the storybook feel of your space. What inspired you? Do you have tips you’d like to share?
I’ve always loved succulents and have learned over the years how to put together combinations that I think look great. Inspiration for succulent containers comes from a few different places… the first being the plants themselves! They come in so many different colors, shapes, and sizes that it’s really fun to mix and match. They’re also so easy to care for which makes it stress free.
I’m a big fan of @lauralovessucculents on Instagram. She has a YouTube channel where she shares all the landscaping projects she works on using succulents and drought tolerant plants. Love her!
I also love getting inspiration from creative pots/pottery. Sometimes you see a pot and instantly know the right plant combo to go in it… like it was meant to be.
When it comes to container planting 2 tips come to mind. Do what looks good to you – it’s your garden for you to enjoy so create what you like. Also, PACK it in… really fill in the pots. I always end up needing more than I think to make a nice looking full arrangement.
The Dustin Gimbel sculptures in your back garden amplify the through-the-looking-glass aesthetic. Can you tell us how they came to be?
I saw one of his pieces at a garden shop in Atwater Village (Potted) that I loved so I started looking into his work from there. I never really had the space to display one so I just admired his work from pictures online.
When we were putting this garden together, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to showcase some interesting art and thought of his work immediately. I contacted Dustin Gimbel and we sort of went back and forth on a few different options. The one we ended up with was a first for him and the purple whorls are inspired by a salvia calyx.
We’re so happy with how they turned out and everyone that walks through our backyard always points them out and wants to know more! FormLA Team Note: Watch our Instagram for photos of these fanciful structures!

We set the expectation that smartly planted native plant gardens take 3 years to fill in. Your experience was a bit different… When was your garden planted? What did you do to bring it to its present state?
Our garden was planted in mid-February 2022, I remember thinking when the crew was putting the plants in that it would be years before it would look like a full grown landscape. I was wrong BIG TIME!.
A couple months in there was some noticeable growth, but by the end of 6 months, it was hard to find open ground/mulch space. It’s hard to believe that 1 gallon plants could grow so quickly, but they did. FormLA Team Note: We got lucky with the garden’s growth! Michael’s garden was planted in an exceptionally high rain year.
We have two swales in the front that catch rain from the roof and those were almost completely filled in with neighboring plants. I think it’s a real testament to “the right plant in the right place.” Plus, the amazing work the FormLA team did to choose the right plants and set them up for a healthy life. I did nothing, but stand back and admire! There have been a couple adjustments from the original installation, but 90% of what you see now is still in place.

You’ve made your front garden an educational resource with botanical markers and native plant signage. What inspired you in that direction?
My own curiosity I think. When I see a plant I like on a walk or out on hikes, I always wonder what it is. So I thought it would be fun for neighbors and anyone that happens to walk by our house to learn what kind of plants they were enjoying. I also think it’s really important to share as much as possible about planting native. The more information we can put out there, the better off our gardens, neighborhoods, city, and environment will be.
Michael’s Sustainable Storybook Garden will be featured on The Garden Conservancy’s LA Open Days April 28, 2024. Watch our Instagram for more photos, our newsletters for an upcoming before+after tour, and our home page for the link to ticket sales.