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This gutsy woman is behind one of Sonoma’s top gardens

A well-managed garden appears to be in a natural state of perfection. The waving flowers beckon, rich green foliage prevails and weeds are absent. The outside world and its cares fall aside when visitors enter these quiet spaces, and the garden becomes life’s expression.

These gardens are, as former Cornerstone Sonoma Garden and General Manager Dawn Smith described them, “Places that people repeatedly come back to for solace, peace and happy memories. They are spaces that give people joy no matter if they are wealthy or not. The gardens are there for everyone.”

Her garden and team kept her going

For Smith, plants and gardens were not just an occupation. The energy and fulfillment she felt in creating and tending these places with her beloved team kept her going through years of health issues associated with kidney failure, dialysis and organ transplants. She tended the gardens and her team and they nurtured her in turn.

Attracted to art and drawing, Smith initially studied graphic design but was pulled toward the plant world after meeting some horticulture students. She disliked being inside and looked for work at many nurseries in Sonoma County, eventually finding a job at Rose Garden Nursery in Petaluma. Smith described the owner handing her “The Sunset Western Garden Book” and telling her to look up whatever she didn’t know. From that book and her boss, Smith said, she learned so much.

After a couple years, Rayford Reddell of the noted Garden Valley Ranch in Petaluma hired her to manage and refurbish the rose nursery. It was in a slump after the death of Reddell’s partner, Robert Galyean, and the scale of the business was too much for one person to manage. Reddell graciously gave Smith Galyean’s old office in the carriage house. There she found his old garden log and plans and used it to restore the neglected gardens, which became a lucrative part of the ranch business as a wedding venue. She also reinvigorated the nursery. Reddell focused on the cut rose business and wrote columns for the San Francisco Chronicle. After five years, he retired and sold the property.

Around that time, a friend gave Smith a newspaper clipping about the Cornerstone Sonoma project in Sonoma. On a day of pouring rain, Smith went to Cornerstone armed with her resume. Owner Chris Hougie gave her a tour of the site, then just under construction with piles of dirt everywhere and empty buildings. He explained his vision of garden exhibits based on the garden festival in Chaumont, France, where each year a series of conceptual gardens are created. He cautioned that his project might be crazy and difficult to get off the ground.

After a couple of months, Smith got a call from Dave Aquilina, the project manager for Cornerstone, asking her to consult on the plantings as many were not thriving. After offering some effective suggestions, Smith was hired in 2004. Building the gardens and redoing newly installed plantings became her life. She loved it. “It was the hardest but most exciting job I ever had,” she said.

Strong winds, winter wet and summer heat, plus non-amended heavy blue clay soil and a cement-like soil hard pan, made for a challenging growing and working environment. Designers and landscape architects nationwide and beyond gave Smith designs to build with plant lists that all needed tweaking as many knew little about plants. An ever-present theme in the weekly staff meetings was, “How are we going to make money?” Smith’s experience with weddings at Garden Valley Ranch led to a wedding garden installation that did well after it started to bloom. But between the retail stores, weddings, advertising and new garden installations, the owner changed his mind often trying to figure out a big, complex new business type.

“But we were all happy because we liked each other, and this made up for the shortcomings of the budget and a new startup business,” Smith said. The business matured and Smith became general manager. She strongly credits Aquilina, her boss, for mentoring her and teaching her how to manage a business and people. He still coaches her, and she said she still looks up to him.

Health setbacks

During the early buildup of the gardens, Smith began getting horrendous migraine headaches. Finally, a doctor gave her the bad news that she had kidney failure. Smith described being in denial because she still felt good. The doctor explained that when her kidney function dropped to about 20% of normal, she would likely live for about two years without dialysis or a transplant.

Her first transplant lasted just over four years, and a second transplant lasted just three months. The dialysis after her body rejected a second transplant was especially taxing. Three nights a week, Smith drove to San Rafael for treatment. Life became a roller coaster of feeling good and then terrible. Mornings came with nausea and vomiting.

Despite her sickness, Smith said, her work ethic wouldn’t let her stay home. Most days she would manage to walk through the garden to check in with each team member about how they were and what they needed for their work. Many days this was all the physical activity she could manage.

“But in being at Cornerstone, a magical thing would happen. My mind would clear, and I would watch the plants grow. It was bio-feedback,” Smith said. “It would feed my energy and distract me from what was happening in my body. And I was so happy to see my team.” Her longtime team members Miguel Alvarez and Joe la Rosa really stepped in and ran the garden during her many absences.

Throughout it all, Smith’s mother, Diane, was a rock, supporting her through kidney transplants and dialysis and saving her life when she had seizures.

“She is the true flower lover and every day finds some flowers to put on the windowsill in some artistic way,” Smith said. “Growing up, Mom would stop me on countless hikes and say, ‘Get underneath it and look up!’ as I stood in front of a towering, beautiful tree. She definitely made me acknowledge nature at a young age.”

Hougie, Cornerstone’s original owner, sold the property in 2014 to Kenwood Investments, the real estate development company founded and led by Darius Anderson, managing member of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat. Kenwood Investments sold Cornerstone Sonoma in 2019 to LeFever Mattson, the North Bay property management and investment company co-owned by Ken Mattson and Tim LeFever.

Smith said after the sale, there was an infusion of energy, ideas and funding. Popular and engaging gardens like the Sunset Gardens went in, event spaces were built, businesses opened and visitors came back repeatedly. “By a little effort, by creating a space and putting some thought into it — then magic,” Smith said. “Each garden is its own universe. People react to it and these spaces give people joy.”

While the gardens flourished, her own health did not. The UCSF transplant team told Smith she wasn’t a good candidate for a third transplant, as her body would reject it. A referral to Cedars Sinai Transplant Center in Los Angeles introduced her to Dr. Tsuyoshi Todo and his medical team, who said they didn’t see why it wouldn’t work and began treatment to prepare her. When she was ready, a kidney became available almost immediately. After a six-hour surgery, she felt better right away and her normal bodily functions returned. She returned home feeling great, but when Cornerstone was again sold Smith found herself demoted.

A new path

Smith left Cornerstone in 2019 and began a new job managing high-end properties, but after three months she was laid off due to COVID-19. Soon she realized she really enjoyed garden management and renovation. So with Aquilina’s encouragement, plus support from family and friends, she started a consulting business for high-end hotel renovations and for bringing existing landscapes back to life. Smith said her boyfriend, Juan De La Cruz, a former firefighter and now home inspector, has been an integral part of her business. He always shared great ideas and business savvy as they both started new businesses at the same time.

What’s next? Smith would like to create healing or therapeutic gardens at hospitals. During her many stays in them, she often felt the need to be among greenery and plants, she said.

As Smith tends her gardens, so they tend her — and the rest of us, too.

Kate Frey’s column appears every other week in Sonoma Home. Contact Kate at: katebfrey@gmail.com, Twitter @katebfrey, Instagram @americang.

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