Tubbs fire survivors create landscaping app, Yardzen, to help revive their space — and help others do so too

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Allison and Adam Messner were sure their Franz Valley house was destroyed during the early hours of the Tubbs fire as it burned a wide path of destruction from Calistoga to Santa Rosa.

But their home, which sits on four acres on the Sonoma County side of Calistoga near Safari West, was one of those that was spared, although houses all around were left in ruins.

The fire had come breathtakingly close however, ripping through their property and destroying the landscape. It also took much of their fence, damaged their water tanks and irrigation system and killed mature bay and pine trees. Fire basically burned the entire perimeter of the house and ravaged three of their four acres.

The couple felt extremely grateful their home was spared when so many neighbors were not so fortunate. They surmise it might have helped that they have a creek on one side, were careful about mowing and had created “a defensible space” around their home.

Still, their landscape had to be completely redone.

“We filed an insurance claim and collected some money to rebuild the yard. We called a handful of landscape designers thinking we should do it the right way. But everybody was either too busy or exorbitantly expensive,” Allison Messner said. “I’m sure they do fantastic work and have a lot of happy customers. But we had sticker shock finding out how much it would cost to have a professional come in and design our outdoor space.”

She said she was getting estimates of $5,000 to $10,000 just for plans.

It was then that the two technology entrepreneurs hit upon a possible solution that in the past eight months has grown into a promising enterprise giving homeowners a lower-cost option for landscape design.

The couple created a web-based design service called Yardzen. Through the new site, people can retain a landscape designer or architect. Using technology and a good database of plants and other information, a designer can create a plan essentially for anyone, anywhere, that is suited specifically to the needs of an individual property owner, whether they live in Massachusetts or California.

“We’re both entrepreneurs and we just try to envision solutions to challenges,” said Allison, who was part of the founding team of an Internet security company. Husband Adam started LiveWire Electrical Supply.

“Around January we were starting to do our own landscaping and thinking there has got to be an easier and more cost-efficient way to do design. By March we were committed to doing this,” Messner said.

They officially launched in late July. Write-ups in the New York Times, Forbes and Garden Center Magazine, boosted the fledgling company born out of last year’s horrific firestorms. They now have 18 designers signed on doing up to 10 projects at a time and are looking for more. Two are in the Bay Area although none yet in Sonoma County.

“We’ve completed more than 150 designs for people all over the world,” Messner said.

The couple believe the service could be an option for many people, like them, who lost their landscapes in the fires but have somewhat limited budgets. The cost for a full yard design - front- and backyards - is $1,495. A partial design for either front or back, is $995. They also will do small section “Botanical Makeovers” for smaller sections of a garden, including design, plants and spacing, planting and placement instructions for $249.

In addition to costing less, the service can save time and offer more flexibility, she said. Messner said with Yardzen you don’t have to meet on site with a designer and you’re not locked in to using the nurseries or subcontractors that some designers have relationships with.

So how does it work? A homeowner can walk around their own property with a phone, filming their yard space as they explain what they like and what they don’t like and what they want. They can point out shrubs they’d like to see go and survey the space while asking questions like, “I’d like a place for a trampoline for my kids and don’t know where to put it.”

Using the home video and satellite imagery, Yardzen will create what Messner said is an accurate 3-D replica of a home and the space around it.

People using the service fill out a design profile with 20 questions that offer options to help a designer determine your preferences, covering everything from planter boxes and deck railings to pathways, plant preferences, outdoor kitchens or play areas.

They tried out the system themselves for their own landscape.

“We found a designer online. I just started searching for landscape designers and there are websites where people feature their works. We found somebody we really liked and reached out to her and explained what we were doing. She said, ‘Sure, I’m game.’”

Anniversary Fire Coverage

To read all of the PD's fire anniversary coverage,

click here.

The couple went to the Sonoma County website and pulled out the parcel map for their property and gave her photos, along with a plant list that would work in their climate zone.

They have since developed a big plant database covering different parts of the country. Key in an address and a list of appropriate plants for that region will pop up.

She said the database defaults to low-water use plants. Even people in wetter parts of the country are becoming interested in waterwise plantings.

The couple has a shared concern for the environment. She was born in Alaska, spent her early life there and returned after college to work as a reporter at a paper in Kodiak. She loves the outdoors. Adam also is an outdoorsman and is a member of the board of the Golden Gate Salmon Association.

For their own test yard, they found a designer, who lives in Orlando, Florida. They were pleased with design ideas. She came up with elements they never would have thought of, like using decomposed granite on the driveway, railroad ties for edging, and hanging chairs mounted to the eaves of their wraparound porch.

Their own space has plants they love that also do well in the Wine Country, like irises, lavender, echium and olive trees.

I really believe we could be helpful to some people who are rebuilding after the fire. It’s a unique option that wasn’t available prior to Yardzen.”

The Messners were staying at their weekend home in Franz Valley when the firestorm roared through on Oct. 8.

It had been raging less than an hour when her husband woke up about 10 p.m. to strange noises.

“There was no evacuation effort. It was a firestorm and we were running for our lives,” Allison Messner recalled. The couple jumped in their truck with their two kids Max and Coco, now 7 and 5.

Still in their pajamas, the Messners headed north toward Healdsburg through the Alexander Valley, the only possible escape route

“Telephone lines were falling, the visibility was very poor. It was a scary night,” Messner remembered.

Along the way Adam stopped several neighbors and gave them his phone number, figuring it would be good to build a network to stay in touch, just in case. One man took them up on it only several hours later. He and his family wound up spending the night with the Messners in their Mill Valley home after they were unable to find an available motel room.

The next day the two men went back up to Calistoga and were able to get into Franz Valley to assess the damage.

Adam was fulling expecting to see a ruin.

“Our house is not in view until you come around a corner and all of a sudden you see it,” Allison said. “He will never forget that feeling coming around that corner. Imprinted in his brain was a picture of our lot without a house. It was almost like a mirage coming around the corner and seeing it standing after seeing so many houses that had burned.”

Yardzen can be reached at or via email at

Staff Writer Meg McConahey can be reached at or 707-521-5204.

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