Sonoma property has park-like appeal

Overview of the garden from the septic mound.


Fifteen years ago, when Josh Rassen was first shown the 2-acre property on the east side of Sonoma that he and his wife, Amy, would eventually call home, he began to envision pathways and grottos, a “parklike” space. He wanted to create a garden much like the parks he had so loved growing up in his native New England and the orchards his father had tended so carefully. He was also thinking about his and Amy’s retirement — of the days when it would not be so easy for them to walk far to find a place to stroll and to sit and enjoy nature’s beauty.

When he started digging, he found hard, barren soil on the property and realized it would be a long road to its restoration. Happily, at the very start of the work, he enlisted the know-how of gifted landscape designer Nancy Driscoll, who not only assured him his dream garden was possible, but shared his clarity and sensibilities.

Today, the property truly does feel like a park, replete with dry creeks to catch and distribute rainwater, orchards, flowering bushes and trees, a small redwood grove, a composting station, solar power, a pool and pool house, espalier kiwi vines and raised, stone vegetable planters. (The original redwood planters he built gave way after 10 years, Josh said.)

Josh built most of the wooden structures encountered along the pathways himself, including benches modeled after those outside of Buckingham Palace, a child’s playhouse with picnic table, mason bee boxes, an ample gazebo, keyhole seating at the base of trees, a small greenhouse, an old-fashioned bench-swing with handy drink holders — even a wooden bridge over a stone-lined brook. And most marvelous of all: This park is a fully sustainable landscape surrounding the couple’s home, also rebuilt when they bought the property.

One third of the garden is in front, two thirds in back, with gravel pathways creating a circular flow, beckoning one to enter and explore. Visitors find a diverse parade of trees, from weeping cherry (Prunus “Snofozam” Snow Fountains), Elephant Heart plum (Prunus salicina “Elephant Heart”) and White Star nectarine (P. p. nucipersica “Arctic Star”) to the autumn-flaming Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica), plus an impressive number of heirloom apple varieties as well as new fruit hybrid trees. 

Josh’s stepping-stone sub-paths were made with the couple’s grandchildren in mind, each stone placed “a child’s foot apart” from the next. For older members of the family, there are numerous resting areas, places to sit and take it all in, positioned not just in the garden — like the angled stone bench by the gazebo — but on the back deck and side patio as well. Josh asked his elderly mother to step off the comfortable distances.

The layout has views in mind, with six or seven “destination spots,” like the stone-fruit orchard, gazebo, rhododendron shade garden, vegetable garden or the redwood grove. Josh and Amy (a consultant to nonprofits on organizational development and design) are always impressed that different people are immediately drawn to different spots.

Both Josh and designer Driscoll have a special affinity for trees. Josh’s father was an agronomist in his native Lithuania, promoting pear and apple trees, while Driscoll got her appreciation from her grandmother, who started trees from forest cuttings, had a citrus garden and used her rose hips for tea in Santa Cruz. Driscoll joked that she “likes to plant trees in the guise of garden design.”

Josh’s apple trees are the most numerous of the many fruit trees in his garden. “There are over 14,000 varieties of apples worldwide, yet our supermarkets and most orchards typically offer only a few choices,” he said. His dog-eared copy of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden’s “The Best Apples to Buy and Grow” is bulging with esoteric notes and Post-its. He does his research, but after that, his primary criterion is the apple’s flavor. He has fostered some wonderful antique varieties in his apple grove, choosing representatives from both the sweet and the tart camps to ensure the best cider that the family can make every autumn.

Since apple trees don’t mind being planted as close together as 10 feet, Ashmead’s Kernal, Bramley’s Seedling, Calville Blanc D’Hivers, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Hudson’s Golden Gem, King, Newtown Pippin, Pink Pearl, Rhode Island Greening, Roxbury Russet and Tompkin’s King can flourish shoulder to shoulder. And even though about 30 apples are required to make a gallon of cider, Josh takes any extras down to a nursing facility in exchange for their old coffee grounds, which boost his compost.

Besides it’s orderly layout, there is a playfulness to this space as well, and many clever touches, such as the trompe l’oeil door cut-out within a wooden fence Josh built or the small cement mixer he has refashioned with screens on the drum to sift the compost. He has also concocted extremely practical tall and open-sided tomato cages from cattle fencing and user-friendly wire and mesh-hinged boxes to keep pests out of his vegetables.

There are no shortcuts in the garden, for Josh takes the long view. His horticultural knowledge comes from years of trial and error. Every aspect of this garden is intentional, meticulously considered. There are the something-for-every-season visual events, chosen for flower color or leaf dazzle, such as the smoke tree (Cotinus coggygria), and then there are the olfactory events, like the Daphne odora and magnolias strategically situated outside the master bedroom window. As trees and shrubs mature, water is reduced or eliminated. The timing is adjusted to allow deep watering.

There are cues throughout this splendid parklike world that prompt the eyes and feet in certain directions. Above all, Josh — a doctor by profession — is a steward, having created an organic, sustainable haven that friends and family can enjoy for generations to come.

“The deal I made with Amy is that I grow the fruits and veggies we eat, and she cooks them,” he said.

“But he helps,” she said. “He likes to eat!”