Painting with plants

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The butterfly garden at Truett Hurst Winery in Healdsburg is iridescent in the mid-afternoon heat.

Enter through the arbor heavy with potato vines and you're greeted with a visual assault of color.

From deep purples and burnt reds to vivid orange and electrifying chartreuse — and that's not counting the pretty winged visitors who come to dine on a feast of plants precisely suited to their tastes.

Much of this display thriving only several hundred yards from Dry Creek comes not from flowers but from the foliage.

Garden designer Margaret Baumgratz of Healdsburg pointedly seeks out plants with a lot of visual punch and then pairs them with a shock of contrasting color.

She points to a Physocarpus or ninebark, with its dark, maple-like leaves and plumes that shoot up and out like a fountain.

It makes a dramatic statement beside a billowy Miscanthus Cosmopolitan, a creamy white-and-green variegated grass that produces coppery tassels and thrives in hot spots like Dry Creek Valley.

In the mix is a Phlomis or Jerusalem sage that produces pink clusters in spring and is beloved by butterflies.

Everything is tightly packed in, with maturing plants now bumping into each other along natural walkways of mulch. The effect is surprisingly graceful even in its wildness.

"I just feel like sometimes I'm painting with plants," she says, pointing out with obvious delight how a Phormium picks up the orange in a neighboring Berberus.

Biodynamic vineyard

Three years ago there was little growing in this formerly barren corner of the 26-acre estate where zinfandel and petite syrah are grown biodynamically. Biodynamics is an agricultural philosophy that seeks to create a diversified, balanced farm ecosystem.

Bringing in a habitat garden for pollinators was a natural addition to the Truett Hurst ethos.

Visitors pass by a pasture of sheep and goats as they enter the property, located about four miles from Lake Sonoma in Dry Creek Valley.

Flanking the vineyards are habitat islands for birds and beneficial insects, and accommodations for bluebirds and owls.

"I wanted it to grow wild, like you were being transported into a lush and active habitat area. It worked. They knew," she said with a smile, as bees swarmed the dark purple bracts of an aromatic "Hidcote" English lavender.

The garden hisses with insects and the whisper of grasses moving in the warm breeze.

"I like striking combinations of plants," she explained, "that don't really take a lot of care."

Herbs and edibles

Little echeverias and other succulents poke out amid the natives and low-water-use Mediterranean plants.

She also incorporates herbs and other edibles, like the striking chartreuse oregano near a purple Salvia Plumosa, with its silvery green leaves and lilac plumes.

"If we're going to spend water, and water is so costly and rare," she said, "we should be able to eat what we grow."

Baumgratz spent much of her career as a staff botanist with the state Department of Parks and Recreation, doing botanical surveys for developers.

"It was a great job. But I found my passion when I went through the Master Gardener program," she said.

Deciding that planting was ultimately more satisfying, she took up landscape design seven years ago, driven by a belief that a garden should be appropriate for the site, climate and surroundings as well as reflect the personality of its owner.

And that is what she has done with her 90-by-90 foot plot, blessed with rich soil and hot summers, but sometimes freezing temperatures in winter.

Right plant, right place

The garden looks much more mature than its three years, a testament to how a garden can quickly thrive with the right plant in the right place.

Some Euphorbia 'Blue Haze' planted from four-inch pots only two years ago have now spread out three feet and are a foot high.

She planted fast-growing, fruitless mulberries whose canopies will quickly come together, creating a shady natural arbor.

"Now it seems that everything grew much bigger than I expected and much faster," she said.

"Because gardens are such a transitional procedure, people don't realize you're constantly moving things around, trying to accommodate the growth."

The meandering habitat garden borders a large vegetable garden. Visitors are invited to step out of the tasting room and explore both, then cool off in the shade beside the creek.

Baumgratz' efforts to invite pollinators is paying off.

She's seen swallowtails, painted ladies and monarchs among other butterflies, as well as dragonflies, bees and many birds, from finches to meadowlarks.

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