Gar­den­ers at play on the west coast

Cal­i­for­nia’s Sonoma re­gion of­fers more than just vine­yards and cel­lar doors

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - CHRISTINE MCCABE

BAROSSA Val­ley old timers re­ferred to their vine­yards as gar­dens. In Cal­i­for­nia’s Sonoma wine district the two have been brought to­gether in an ac­claimed cen­tre blend­ing wine, gar­dens, food and art.

Lo­cated just 35 min­utes by road north of the Golden Gate Bridge, on High­way 121 at the south­ern gateway to Sonoma and the Napa Val­ley, the in­trigu­ing Cor­ner­Stone (fea­tured in the book 1001 Gar­dens to See Be­fore You Die) is an es­sen­tial first stop for any­one vis­it­ing the re­gion, par­tic­u­larly keen gar­den­ers.

Laid out like a mini Chelsea Flower Show and fea­tur­ing about 25 in­stal­la­tions de­signed by lead­ing US and in­ter­na­tional land­scape ar­chi­tects, Cor­ner­Stone chal­lenges tra­di­tional no­tions of the gar­den.

Each de­signer has been given about 165sq mto play with and left en­tirely to their own de­vices. The re­sults are as var­ied as they are di­vert­ing; at turns whim­si­cal, sur­real and amus­ing, some­times po­lit­i­cal. There’s a fly­ing fence, an enor­mous blue Adiron­dack chair and the rusted spine of a gi­ant metal ser­pent slith­er­ing over a grassy knoll. Fields of pink, plas­tic whirligig (or pinwheel) flow­ers con­trast with a tree trunk daubed in blue ping-pong balls and a gar­den of red poles.

More tra­di­tional spaces are filled with bulbs and borders or large agaves lapped by whis­per­ing grasses.

Mex­i­can land­scape ar­chi­tect Mario Sch­jet­nan has de­signed a beau­ti­ful veg­etable gar­den as A Small Tribute to Im­mi­grant Work­ers. It’s set be­hind a strik­ing red plas­ter wall in­set with sta­tis­tics that un­der­score the re­al­ity of Cal­i­for­nia’s food in­dus­try: 82 per cent of agri­cul­tural labour in Cal­i­for­nia is Mex­i­can and 409 mi­grants, mostly Mex­i­cans, died in 2003 try­ing to en­ter the US. Half of them per­ished in the Ari­zona desert of heat and de­hy­dra­tion.

One of my favourite gar­dens, Eu­ca­lyp­tus So­lil­o­quy, de­signed by Oak­land-based Wal­ter Hood and Alma DuSolier, is a med­i­ta­tive tribute to the gum tree, fea­tur­ing gabions filled with bark and leaves, and fences twined from twisted stems.

‘‘Cal­i­for­nia is a land where ev­ery­one seems to come from some­where else,’’ the gar­den’s plaque reads. ‘‘This in­stal­la­tion cel­e­brates one of the most beau­ti­ful of all im­mi­grants — the eu­ca­lyp­tus tree.’’

As an Aus­tralian I ap­pre­ci­ate this chance to pause and con­sider the gum tree’s in­cred­i­ble global jour­ney (it was brought to Cal­i­for­nia to pro­vide wood for rail­way con­struc­tion but proved too soft). And to drink in the sharp, resinous per­fume of home.

I also love en­vi­ron­men­tal artist To­pher De­laney’s Gar­den Play, a space of spare, min­i­mal­ist charm fea­tur­ing birch trees and balls of coiled rope set on white gravel against a blue striped wall.

It’s easy to while away sev­eral hours wan­der­ing these gar­dens and ex­plor­ing the site’s other at­trac­tions. There’s a restau­rant, cel­lar doors (Keat­ing and Meadow Croft Wines), a sculp­ture gallery and sev­eral stylish re­tail out­lets, in­clud­ing the quite mag­i­cal Arte­fact De­sign & Sal­vage, spilling out of a vast ware­house and crammed with trea­sures.

Af­ter fill­ing a con­tainer with gar­den fur­ni­ture and ob­jets d’art (I wish), head into Sonoma Plaza (only 10 min­utes away), a large and charm­ing town square lined with cafes, bou­tiques, cel­lar doors and Cal­i­for­nia’s north­ern­most Span­ish mis­sion.

Marin County ladies-whol­unch (and svelte young men with cardi­gans draped ca­su­ally across their shoul­ders) favour The Girl and the Fig (110 West Spain St), where spank­ing fresh sea­sonal pro­duce gets the bistro treat­ment. Start with a fig royale (us­ing house-made fig liqueur); move on to the tiny, pastiss­cented steamed mus­sels, or heir­loom radishes (black span­ish and easter egg) served with an­chovy but­ter and grey sea salt. The omelette du jour is enor­mous; the house-smoked trout salad sits well with a Sonoma viog­nier.

All in all, the per­fect way to end a day in the gar­den. cor­ner­stonesonoma.com the­girlandthe­fig.com

CHRISTINE MCCABE

In­stal­la­tions at Cor­ner­Stone range from whim­si­cal to po­lit­i­cal

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