From early 20th-century master Bernard Maybeck to modernist Thomas Church to Sea Ranch visionary Lawrence Halprin, the Northern California landscape has beckoned designers and gardeners for more than a century.
With its textured geography of rolling hills, tall peaks, sparkling bay and jagged coast, along with a climate hospitable to a huge palette of plants year round, the Bay Area is a dreamscape for a gardener.
Capitalizing on the region’s combination of near-ideal growing conditions and a forward-thinking aesthetic, garden writers Susan Lowry and Nancy Berner, along with Berkeley photographer Marion Brenner, have created a visual survey of some of the best gardens by the bay.
“Private Gardens of the Bay Area” (Monacelli Press) offers a look at 35 private gardens, representing all corners, from San Francisco to the East Bay, the peninsula to Wine Country.
The lavishly illustrated book profiles 15 gardens in Napa and Sonoma counties, including the Sebastopol garden of Elliott and Anna Brandwene, who bought a Japanese Ikebana inspired garden created by Jun and Noriko Hasegawa beginning in the 1980s, and Barbara and Jacques Schlumberger’s Melissa Garden designed by Kate Frey (Press Democrat columnist) as a haven for honey bees and other pollinators.
The book was released just as the October firestorms rampaged through Wine Country, scarring hillsides and laying waste to entire neighborhoods. Fortunately, all of the gardens in the book survived, with only one, in the Oakville area of Napa Valley, suffering minor damage.
The book offers a hopeful note for North Bay dwellers who have seen their beloved landscapes and views marred by scorched ridges, toasted trees and homesites reduced to ash.
“I am hoping that people who are rebuilding gardens will get some inspiration from the book,” said Brenner, who relates to the shock and pain left by wildfire.
She lives in Berkeley at the Oakland border. The Oakland Hills firestorm of 1991 licked at the edges of her own street. In the aftermath of that disaster, she began photographing gardens and the landscape. At the time, she specialized in architecture. Her eye was caught by the fleeting images of terrible beauty amid the ruins around her.
“They were like ancient wounds and kind of beautiful,” she said. “I photographed a lot of people’s little arrangements, like one in a window looking out at the bay.”
“It was just a whole series I did for myself,” she said, “because I needed to control my world somehow, within a frame, which is still what I do. For me, it was making order out of the chaos.”
Brenner’s work in the Oakland hills after the fire led to a new photographic path. She is now considered a leading landscape photographer. She has worked with well-known California designers such as Andrea Cochran and Ron Lutsko, and provided the art for books like “Outstanding American Gardens: 25 Years of the Garden Conservancy” and the recent “The Bold Dry Garden: Lessons from the Ruth Bancroft Garden.”
What initially moved her after the Oakland fire, she explained, was the regrowth, the greenery, the grasses and the wildflowers that emerged.
That kind of regeneration is anticipated this spring in the fire-ravaged areas of Sonoma and Napa counties. At the same time, property owners throughout Wine Country who suffered some damage to their landscapes — in many places the fire was stopped within feet of people’s homes — will be replanting gardens. When planning site lines, they can’t help but take in the vistas, which in some cases will show the ravages of the firestorm.