Gardeners at play on the west coast
California’s Sonoma region offers more than just vineyards and cellar doors
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
Installations at CornerStone range from whimsical to political