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Meet Toni Pogue of Physis Design

Today we’d like to introduce you to Toni Pogue.

Toni, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
I was a very scruffy child. My mother likes to say that all the playing in the dirt I did paid off. My childhood is full of stories of me getting lost wandering around outside, climbing trees to visit with hundreds of bees at a time and hiking with a pad of paper to sketch what I saw. I’ve always found peace in being outdoors that I just can’t get anywhere else.

My first career as a writer and designer for science-based nonprofits had nothing to do with the outdoors or gardens. I loved bringing scientific ideas to life and making them understandable for a lay audience. But when that career drifted into more marketing, something that had me coming home feeling stressed and sick every night, I decided to take a chance and go back to school to find something that suited me better. When you take a scientist and communicator and add a dose of art and the outdoors, you get a landscape architect! It was a chancy thing to do as a mid-career professional. I have never been so scared or so satisfied.

I studied big ideas, like environmental justice, how to restore polluted areas with plants and microbes, and the huge potential of the “soil web” to revitalize tired agricultural soils and store carbon. Originally, I dreamed of another nonprofit job where I could help to bring back post-industrial, toxic landscapes. But I kept thinking of one of my favorite quotes, from the author Howard Zinn: “Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.” I liked the idea of bringing these big ideas into the small scale of a residential landscape, to someone’s home or school or local park.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
For me, the biggest struggle has been learning to be a business person. Owning a business means a whole lot of bookkeeping, equipment management and other tasks I would honestly be happy to never do again. I seem to be a very slow learner when it comes to things like record-keeping!

As a single proprietor, I also struggle with working alone most of the time. It can be difficult, being used to a fast-paced environment with a lot of back and forth, to work effectively without feedback along the way. Luckily there are some great professional organizations for landscape designers and affiliated industries, and the members have lively discussions and advice sessions on- and off-line.

So far, the difficulties have been worth it, and I love what I do.

So let’s switch gears a bit and go into the Physis Design story. Tell us more about the business.
I am a landscape designer and owner of Physis Design. I specialize in joyful, resilient landscape designs that are place-appropriate. Resiliency is one of my favorite concepts. I’ve had people tell me I shouldn’t use the word, that it suggests scarcity, but I love it. Getting knocked down is inevitable in life, but a resilient person gets back up. A resilient landscape can cope with current uncertainties around climate change and extreme weather and still survive. In practice, this means designing with your climate in mind, and a view to projections for the next 50 years. It means using materials that are long-lasting and easy on the earth in their harvesting, manufacture, and use. It means being part of the plant and animal communities of that place.

Using less water in the landscape is a big driver of my designs. Look at a satellite image of the U.S. online sometime. The entire western half of the U.S. is brownish. We have a dry climate almost everywhere west of the Missouri River, but we certainly don’t act like it. I’m not saying that we all must live with rock and a few cacti in southern California. Most places here are not deserts. There are so many flowering plants that use a fraction of the water that many garden standards imported from wetter climates do. If you get a landscape design from me, you can be certain that I have given a lot of thought to saving water, plants that work in your area without a lot of labor, and gardens that attract bees, butterflies and birds.

I am really proud of the education I provide to clients. While we work together to bring a joyful space to life, hopefully, you will also gain an environmental education along the way about things like pollinator gardens, stormwater capture and soil building. And nothing is better than the feeling I get when a client tells me how much they love their garden and that they are spending more time in it.

One thing that has helped along the way is being able to practice in Southern California. Feeling part of a physical place is essential to landscape design and SoCal is where I was born and have lived for most of my life. I feel it gives me an edge to have a lifetime of observing what sorts of plants and trees do well here and how the seasons flow.

What quality or characteristic do you feel is most important to your success?
It is essential for any designer to be open to criticism and change. The outdoor experiences of joy, relaxation and mystery I am creating for people are collaborative, and something that my clients will live with for a very long time (I hope). The engagement of my clients and the perspectives they bring – and the differences between their vision and mine – is part of what makes the design process so layered and robust. I discover things I probably wouldn’t have uncovered on my own.

The willingness to learn and to continue being educated is essential. The architecture, landscape and construction industries are already impacted because of climate change, and the next 50 years will bring even more challenge and change to these professions. I expect landscape design will look quite different in even 20 years, and I look forward to being at the forefront of that.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Photo of Toni is by Terri Bell

Getting in touch: VoyageLA is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.


  1. Sue Stamberger

    July 18, 2019 at 23:34

    Great article on Toni! I am proud that our backyard is pictured in the article! We are delighted with Toni’s work!

    • kaseja wilder

      July 25, 2019 at 02:01

      Wonderful! Had the pleasure of seeing some of these gardens in person. Lovely lovely work!

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