If the winter landscape evokes images of leafless trees and half-empty beds where perennials once bloomed, you haven't seen Sara Malone's Petaluma garden.
Featured last spring on the Master Gardener Bloomin' Backyards tour, the Malone garden stunned visitors with its diverse palette of texture and color. Yet in winter, the scene here takes on a painterly aura nearly beyond imagination.
Green tones abound, but subtle blues interspersed with bright and burnished shades of yellow, gold and red flow in melodious harmony throughout extensive grounds stretching around the home Sara shares with husband Ron and onto the landscape of their Circle Oak ranch, a private equine rehabilitation facility in east Petaluma.
For most of the 20 years the Malones have lived on their ranch, Sara focused on garden spaces surrounding the house and leading to outbuildings. An adjacent hillside, about an acre and a half, she left untouched.
"Such a large space was daunting," she says. "We considered planting olives or grapes, but decided to take a piecemeal approach and eventually re-sculpted the slope. Ron likes to help with the ranch equipment, and he created the pathways I laid out."
Planting began with a greenhouse, a gift from Ron presented at Sara's retirement from a career in the financial industry. She positioned it prominently at the top of the rise with a vine-covered folly (an ornamental structure) nearby, soon filled it with plants, and a design for the slope began to evolve.
The ensuing garden dedicated largely to conifers has become the highlight among many hundreds of plants on the property. Success lies in the interplay of diverse forms and handsome foliage. The collection is filled with intense hues that rival any floral border in any season. In winter, it positively glows.
"Light in winter is so pleasing," Malone says, "not harsh in any way. Cold air brings out a tinge of bronze, sometimes pinkish tints and certain plants reach their peak of color."
It doesn't take a sunny day for the garden to shine, not with the abundance of brilliant foliage that bedecks so many trees and shrubs less than three years after planting. Already this area has become a sumptuous display with riveting combinations of extraordinary color and texture.
The conifer garden seems to have sprung up all at once, but Sara previously had propagated many plants and systematically collected others from local sources such as Emerisa Gardens and Urban Tree Farm in Santa Rosa and Robert Peacock Nursery near Sebastopol. Pond and Garden in Cotati has proven invaluable for many Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) and specialty conifers.
If there's a secret to Malone's success, it's her talent for finding unusual species and a deft hand in creating sizzling partnerships among them, a skill she acknowledges came through years of trial, error and persistence with a goal of low maintenance among plants as attractive in winter as at any other time of year.
To ensure that the garden appears as stunning in January as it does in June, Malone selects the majority of her plants for their multiple seasons of interest. Seductive, colorful evergreen foliage nearly always wins out over showy ephemeral flowers or one-season color.
"I'm careful with deciduous species," she explains. "I love snowball viburnum blossoms in spring and its foliage in fall, and the deep burgundy and purple of Cotinus Grace and Royal Purple — I have eight of them — in three seasons, but I don't want a lot of deciduous color that quickly fades because I'd rather have winter interest."