Sitting out on her back patio in Sonoma, Anne Brewer loved to watch as warm colors melted into the sky while the light slowly faded.
Those sunsets inspired the fiery palette for her west-facing garden, effervescent with bold plants and grasses in shades of red, ochre, orange and deep blue.
"I'm a color fiend. I'm a nut about color and the way colors play off each other, even if it's very, very subtle," says Brewer, a master gardener whose breathtaking creation is a highlight of Sunday's "Bloomin' Backyards" Garden Tour.
The event is staged every other year by the Sonoma County Master Gardeners. It's a gardener's garden tour, showcasing landscapes that are not just beautiful, but demonstrate smart horticultural practices. Tourgoers will come away learning about growing low-water-use vegetables and ornamentals, nurturing the soil organically, using mulch, composting, installing drip irrigation and putting beneficial insects to work in the home landscape.
The roving biennial tour this year moves to Sonoma Valley. Shuttles taking off from Hanna Boy's Center and Sebastiani Winery will stop at The Sonoma Garden Park and four private gardens, from an upper valley home where lawn was recently replaced with low-water-use plants to a hillside spread full of garden whimsy.
Visitors to Brewer's garden can also see a honeybee demonstration and talk to food garden specialists.
Brewer's exuberant yet elegant landscape debunks any motion that a drought-tolerant garden need be dull or utilitarian as a highway median.
"It's really important to have plants that are drought-tolerant, are really pretty and that have more than one season of color either in foliage or form," she said.
She seeks out anchor shrubs that make a big impact and works in complementary plantings, smartly repeating colors and forms and plants. Her most dramatic and architectural plants are muscular agaves that serve as big bookends at the base of the garden.
A retired research librarian who spent many years at the Stanford University School of Medicine, Brewer and her husband, Ray Jackson, bought their rural east Sonoma property nine years ago with the expectation that she would begin unleashing her longheld passion for gardening unfettered from the hilly restraints of their Novato home.
"I just see a garden as a blank canvas, and for people who are artistic, it just gives you this opportunity to paint something really beautiful and yet that is ever-changing," Brewer said. She and her husband had a landscape designer lay out the hardscape and paths. But they did all the plant selection and most of the planting themselves.
A side garden under the live and valley oaks is given over to shade plants and things that she determined, both from the Sunset Western Garden Book and through trial and error, won't be devoured by deer. Favorites include Phormiums with their long strappy leaves; Calamagrostis "Karl Foerster," a low-maintenance perennial grass with feathery tops that has been singled out by the Sonoma Master Gardeners as a top plant for local landscapes; and Teucreum cossonii, with short, spikey flowers of deep purple.
The main attraction of Brewer's garden is safeguarded behind deer fencing. This is her sunset garden, designed with plants that not only evoke the dramatic colors just before twilight, but which can take blazing heat. It starts lighter and brighter at the top near the patio and then deepens and darkens as the garden slopes gently downward.