A secret garden in Oakmont


In 2014, Kim and Clay Clement moved from a large home in Santa Rosa’s Montecito neighborhood to a smaller residence in Oakmont.

“We were ready for a much simpler life,” Kim Clement said. “We wanted something that was easy to care for. Our new house is one story with a small garden and fits us perfectly.”

There was only one thing wrong with the house. Newly built on the grounds of a former parking lot, the back yard — which included alleys running along either side of the house — had absolutely no landscaping.

“It was just dirt,” she said, “and that dirt was horrible. All we had was a big blank canvas. That’s when we called in Kris Sunderlage and said, ‘What do you think?’”

Sunderlage, a partner in Exteriors Landscape Architecture, had earlier worked with the Clements on their Montecito home.

“The backyard soil was cracked and compacted,” she recalled. “There was also shale left over from when the parking lot was scraped. It was awful.”

When undertaking a new project, Sunderlage always uses a client’s wish list as her starting point. The Clements’ five requirements were:

1. Outdoor dining

2. A separate sitting area looking northeast toward Hood Mountain

3. Plants with low water usage

4. Vegetable beds

5. Limited flowering plants (Kim is allergic to bee stings)

In many ways, designing an outdoor area is similar to designing an interior space. “You want to maximize the outdoor space,” said Sunderlage, “while designing its floor space and living space.” Just as an interior dining room benefits from easy access to the kitchen, so does the outdoor dining area. So Sunderland set aside an area closest to the rear sliding doors, and thereby the kitchen.

She placed the sitting area at the top of the wider alley; furnished with a spacious outdoor couch, it offers a spectacular view of 2,700-foot Hood Mountain. Farther down the alley are two concrete planting boxes arranged lengthwise. They’re about 12 feet by 5 feet, plumbed from the bottom and separated by a gigantic Belgian pot containing a dwarf olive tree. And at the alley’s bottom is a bench purchased by Kim’s great-grandmother at the 1915 Pan Pacific Exposition in San Francisco.

The alley on the other side of the house is now a fenced dog run ruled by the Clements’ two rescue pets, Gunner and Rusty. “They really enjoy being there,” she said.

What pulls everything together is the union of hardscape and landscape, whose combined monochromatic color scheme and bold contemporary look offer a feeling of spaciousness to the small back yard. Encountering the lush bounty of plants feels as if you’ve escaped to a secret garden somewhere far away.

Sunderlage compares the process of constructing hardscape and landscape to making a layer cake.

“You don’t start with the icing,” she said. “You start with the layers. Each layer is important and must relate to the others in just the right way. The fluff or icing doesn’t come until the end.”

Among the hardscape elements are three stunning pots made of powder-coated aluminum that never rusts. Other notable hardscape includes the wooden wall encompassing the garden, bluestone paving, a narrow planting bed for trees between the wall and the dining area, tubular metal path lights and a gravel walkway with steel edging.

“You can balance costs by using crushed stone of your choice for a walkway,” said Sunderlage. “It’s easy to maintain by raking.”

With landscaping, the selection of plants and trees was narrowed somewhat by the need to reduce flowering, but in the end no limitation is evident. The “Red Sunset” maple trees are eye-catchers, as is a lovely Japanese maple. Other plants include fall-blooming reed grass, dwarf cape rush, English boxwood, flax and variegated pittosforum.

Does it work? Just ask the Clements.

“It’s fantastic,” said Clay. “We’ve got full sun on the planters. I can watch the mist on Hood Mountain. We’re ecstatic.”

“We did almost everything Kris suggested,” said Kim. “It’s like she added another room to our house. It’s so accessible and so usable.”

Said Sunderlage, “Design is a back-and-forth process. I get feedback, and then I go and redesign. I always kept in mind how the Clements wanted to use the space, and that they wanted the aesthetic to blend and complement what they had created inside.”

Exteriors Landscape Architecture is located at 6066 Melita Road in Santa Rosa. For more information, call 528-8696 or go to