Eckbo was born in Cooperstown, New York, in 1910 but was brought up in California. His father was Norwegian. At the age 22, after working in a bank, Eckbo enrolled to study landscape architecture at Berkeley, choosing the subject from the University's prospectus. His third-year student project was 'An estate in the Manner of Louis XIV'. Current teachers of landscape architecture should tremble to think that they may be setting their students comparably inappropriate projects. After graduating he spent a year working on garden designs for a nursery and then won a scholarship, with a picturesque design, to study at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. He made friends with Dan Kiley and James Rose but the three of them were disenchanted with the Beaux-Arts curriculum. But they were influenced by Walter Gropius, admired Fletcher Steele and read Christopher Tunnard.
In 1938 Eckbo returned to California and worked for Thomas Church. After two weeks he took the job with the Farm Security Administration which had attracted him back to California. He designed camps and recreational facilities. During the war years he worked on housing projects and after the war he set up a practice with Royston and Williams. There was a housing boom and numerous opportunities for the young firm. Eckbo designed hundreds of gardens. They owed something to Church but Eckbo was the stronger designer. His first book Landscape for living (1950) showed a fresh new Californian approach to the modern garden. Eckbo became chairman of the Berkeley Department of Landscape Architecture in 1963. The EDAW practice (Eckbo Dean Austin and Williams) was founded in 1964 and undertook a wide range of large-scale landscape architecture projects (campuses, malls, shopping centres, regional plans). Jellicoe described Eckbo as 'a pioneer in modern landscape design, not only in relating it to modern art, but by his concept that gardens are for people, and for each individual in particular'.