Sonoma County, California, residents spend lots of time outside when they're at home. What makes their gardens work so beautifully for outdoor living and entertaining? Mixing roomy gathering spaces with smaller ones, "intimate for family, larger for friends," says landscape architect Paul Harris. Plus, the rooms are furnished for casual comfort. See how they do it -- and how to get the look yourself.
When two transplants from New York planned their dream house on the western slope of the Sonoma Valley, they wanted it to resemble a walled village in Italy, with a front courtyard, patios for lounging and dining, and room for parties. Susan Skinner and Bob Heisterberg looked forward to frequent alfresco gatherings in this mild Mediterranean climate; now they can often be found laughing and chatting with friends beneath their vine-covered arbor. The garden plantings are simple, with lots of lavender. A fountain accented with potted phormiums burbles in the entry courtyard.
What do Skinner and Heisterberg like best about their garden? "It's easy," Skinner says. "It looks right, feels right." And no passport is required. A grove of fruitless 'Swan Hill' olive trees leads to a backyard with a series of pocket patios, a dunking pool, and bocce court. Because crushed stone covers the ground right up to the foliage, the planting areas have no defined edges. "The Japanese call this technique kansei, meaning 'peaceful simplicity'," says designer Harris. Adds Skinner: "My husband doesn't want to cut grass, and I'm not a gardener. We got the idea for crushed-stone mulch in Italy." SOURCE:Landscape Design: Paul Harris, Imagine Sonoma, Sonoma, CA
A shapely citrus tree in a large terra-cotta pot is a Mediterranean classic, and this one fits perfectly in Skinner and Heisterberg's garden. To get the look yourself, try 'Improved Meyer' lemon or 'Washington' navel orange grown on dwarfing 'Flying Dragon' rootstock.
Here, Boston ivy cloaks Skinner and Heistenberg's courtyard wall. Ornamental grasses, such as purple fountain grass, accent a back border, along with English lavender, Gaura lindheimeri, Santa Barbara daisy, and sea lavender.
While Skinner and Heisterberg sip chilled chardonnay behind their Tuscan-style home, Elizabeth Minigan gathers fragrant basil and ripe tomatoes in her family's kitchen garden to serve with fresh mozzarella cheese, while her kids leap into the pool for one last swim. Above all, Mike and Elizabeth Minigan wanted space for a growing brood when they moved west from Virginia. They found it on a three-acre property once owned by a nursery. "There were no lawns, no patios, no places for the kids to play," says Elizabeth, whose family goes back five generations in Sonoma County. "Just a big house in need of work, a small barn, and a garden shed." Now, the property is heaven for the Minigans' four children. See why...
On the north side of Minigans' house, a swimming pool with an adjacent deck, lawn, and outdoor kitchen becomes a bustling hub in summer. A barn-style door slides closed to shut out street noise. "Our parties are casual," says Elizabeth. "Guests show up in bathing suits." Outdoor meals are simple -- barbecued meats, fresh salads, locally made bread, and big bottles of wine. SOURCE:Poolhouse and arbor design by Mark Creedon, M2 Studio, St. Helena, CA
"The garden captures the down-home ambience we like about Sonoma," Elizabeth says. To define the garden's various "rooms," designer Paul Harris chose simple lines and shapes, and materials that would appear natural. A small patio on the sunny, south-facing side of the property creates a space for intimate family gatherings. A gnarled California pepper tree and wispy ornamental grass frame the view. The paving is crushed stone from a local quarry. SOURCE:Landscape Design: Paul Harris, Imagine Sonoma, Sonoma, CA
A wall of corrugated steel surrounds the Minigans' pool area. To give it the patina of age, the designer applied a liquid spray that hastens rusting. The gate is a weathered wood door.
A little creativity easily turns rusted farm equipment into a garden sculpture. Scour antiques shops for similar finds to use in your own garden.
Mediterranean fan palms, cactus, multicolored Phormium 'Maori Sunrise,' yuccas, and ornamental grasses make wonderful accents and borders. They provide the perfect finishing touches to the Minigans' garden.
What defines Sonoma garden style? "It's all about rustic elegance," says Bruce Needleman, who co-owns Salsa Trading Company, an upscale home and garden store in Sonoma, with his wife, Edna Hayes-Needleman. "This is a place of oaks, grasses, vineyards, and old wood fences. We let things grow naturally. Wild." The store's merchandise reflects this aesthetic, he adds -- big rounded pots, displayed either empty or holding dried grasses, and comfortable but durable furnishings. Here are some more Sonoma-style stores we love:
Aged and contemporary garden art, furnishings, and pots (both round and square) of ceramic, terra-cotta, and cement. Also, portable firepits, fountains, birdbaths, and more are displayed in a field that's scattered with sunflowers in summer. 516 Dry Creek Rd., Healdsburg, CA; thegardener.com.
Artefact Design & Salvage
Owner Dave Allen sells garden furnishings, pots, and architectural elements that are rugged and timeless. 23562 State 121, Sonoma, CA; artefactdesignsalvage.com or 707/933-0660.
Salsa Trading Company
Look for handmade olive jars, Tarahumara pots from Mexico, iron equipale chairs, and weathered hacienda doors to use as gates, as well as Southwest-style indoor furnishings. 20490 Broadway, Sonoma, CA; salsatrading.com or 707/939-1710.