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.
Lowry, a landscape architect who lives in Manhattan, said when she and co-author Nancy Berner, embarked on the Bay Area gardens book — they have previously looked at gardens of the Hudson Valley, New York City and New Jersey (the Garden State) — they felt a twinge of envy at Northern California’s scenic beauty “that also seemed to be a gardener’s paradise, with no off-season and the possibility of growing almost anything a plant lover’s heart might desire,” as they put it in the introduction.
“Every garden is a product of its geography,” Lory said by phone from New York. “But since the scale of your geography is vast, it’s just larger than the East Coast. It’s dramatic. There a lot of ups and downs. The drama of the landscape seems to affect the kind of gardens you have. They’re showy and intense.”
One thing that has always helped define the California garden is water, or its scarcity. Even going back to the mission days, padres developed mission gardens based on the Mediterranean climate of their native Spain, also inspired by the sophisticated, water-conserving aesthetic brought by the Moors from North Africa.
The mission gardens were fruitful with lemons, olives and grapevines. And that legacy can still be seen in many landscapes in Wine Country.
Among the gardens featured in the book is that of Frances Bowes. Her modern home designed by noted Mexican architect Ricardo Legoretto, is nestled into what appears to be a massive bed of 2,500 lavender plants in the rolling hills of the Mayacamas in Sonoma. Her garden, designed by Roger Warner, is marked by drifts of perennials that appear to seep down to a hillside terrace where 200-year-old olive trees emerge from gravel-like sculptures.
“It’s a brilliant use of gnarled olive trees,” Lowry said. “It’s really a minimalist garden. It’s not fussy. But it holds its own with the vastness around it.”
One of the keys to its success is scale — the magnificence of the old trees, the sweep of the lavender fields.
Another favorite Wine Country garden featured in the book is Hog Hill, which sits on a hilltop between Sebastopol and Occidental. It is a true collaboration between Mary and Lew Reid. She is an artist and garden designer who painted the landscape with texture, foliage and color. He is a plant geek, who propagated many of the plants now densely and deftly packed into their 2-acre garden.
In designing the garden, Lowry said, Mary Reid was challenged by the sweep of the wide-open views of rolling pastures and wooded mountains. She traveled to Kew Gardens in London to learn about garden design and structure.
“She used that traditional underpinning of structure to create the basis of her garden. And they have done a brilliant job in balancing the plantings in that structure.”
Lowry was also impressed with how the Reids used color as an organizing principle, pulling chartreuses and lime through the garden to carry the eye.
“It’s like looking at a piece of art,” she said. “Every piece of art gives you something new. I think we all feel that gardens are art. But there is a fourth dimension. They grow and they change. They’re more like a movie than a painting.”
You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at email@example.com or 707-521-5204.