Sunset’s picture-perfect test gardens open at Cornerstone Sonoma
When she learned that Sunset magazine would be moving from its Menlo Park campus after 65 years, garden editor Johanna Silver had a wave of emotion.
“I was in tears about losing the test garden,” she admitted. “I have never worked a piece of land that long.”
Bay Area landscape architect Thomas Church designed the original grounds for Sunset’s seven-acre suburban campus. The two offices were designed by architect Cliff May, who popularized the postwar ranch house.
The campus for decades served as Sunset’s “laboratory for Western living,” back when young GIs and their growing families flooded the suburbs and installed patios, pools and barbecue pits for a kind of relaxed outdoor living that came to be emblematic of the kick-back western lifestyle.
So when Sunset’s parent company Time, Inc., sold its prime Silicon Valley property to a San Francisco real estate investment and management company in 2014, the staff went through a period of grief and concern about where they would land.
“We all had our goodbye rituals with the campus,” said Silver, who lamented the loss of the test gardens she had babied for eight years.
But now she has a new garden in Sonoma to dote over and, like any new mom, she’s already in love.
“I could not be happier with the location. This is really exciting,” she said on a warm spring morning while standing in the middle of “The Farm,” a pretty patch of raised vegetable beds bordered by herbs that is part of Sunset’s new test gardens at Cornerstone Sonoma.
Separated into five different “rooms,” the gardens will be used to test many of the plants Sunset features. They will also be used as a backdrop for photo shoots.
“I so believe in having a test garden we can play with, where we can get our hands dirty and try out the information we pass on,” said Silver, dressed for labor in jeans and a plaid shirt.
While many curious Sonomans have been watching the gardens’ progress since installation began in January, they will have the chance to see the finished product May 14 and 15 at the annual Sunset Celebration Weekend.
Cornerstone Sonoma is a scenic spot, flanked by vineyards and overlooking the picturesque Gloria Ferrer estate on the opposite side of Highway 121, along one of the main gateways to the Sonoma Wine Country.
It has also proven to be a soft landing for Sunset all around, said Irene Edwards, editor-in-chief. A multi-platform brand that also includes a website, books, video and live events, Sunset moved its editorial and business offices to Jack London Square, with views of the boats along the Oakland waterfront.
In the 1950s, when Sunset moved to Menlo Park, the zeitgeist was suburban. Now there’s a growing interest in urban living, particularly among young professionals and high-techies. And with San Francisco priced out of many pocketbooks, the hip spot is Oakland and its surroundings, with Wine Country a natural playground.
The median age of the Sunset reader is 52, but Edwards said that’s “starting to shift.” Sunset is reaching out to new a generation of readers by enhancing its website and “adding more personalities.”
“While the essence of Sunset is really about learning and exchanging ideas about home, travel, food and garden, I think to get to know the people behind these ideas is what I’m trying to do right now,” she said.
For the test gardens and outdoor entertaining and events, Sunset took over a prime chunk of Cornerstone, which was built as a high concept “festival of gardens” featuring esoteric artistic installations by leading designers and landscape architects. It has in recent years become more of a marketplace destination with shops, tasting rooms and a cafe, with the gardens a side attraction. It was purchased in 2014 by Kenwood Investments, founded by Darius Anderson, who has interests in Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat.
Sunset gardens take over some of that old installation space and incorporate some of the same features. They’ve used the privet hedges to serve as green walls for four outdoor garden rooms, each with a different theme and connected to each other. A fifth garden, called The Cocktail Garden, beyond the main gardens gate, is devoted to fixings for mixed drinks, including chinottos, a bittersweet citrus similar to oranges.
Other foundation plants include bay, pomegranates, pineapple guava and lavender - “Everything you need to mix and muddle and garnish your drinks,” Silver said. A temporary bar will be set up in an Airstream trailer during Sunset Celebration Weekend.
They’ve also kept a curvy path and a full-sized wire tree that now is part of a garden they call The Orchard.