Santa Rosa home a symbiotic oasis

Pots of mint surround a chair sitting in the shade of a pomegranate tree in the garden of Helene Morneau of Exteriors Landscape Architecture on Wednesday, June 24, 2015 in Santa Rosa, California . (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)


In 1988, Hélène Morneau and her physician husband, Bob Landman, moved onto 2.75 rural acres off Highway 12 in Santa Rosa. The property, a former dog kennel, was neglected and run down, and the three-bedroom house — where dogs had roamed freely — was in serious need of renovation and modernization.

As a landscape architect, the most daunting problem Morneau faced was in making the land itself more visually compelling.

“There was nowhere interesting to look,” she said. “It was such a flat property that you could see everything at once. It was like stepping into a house where all contents are visible: the big screen TV, the bed, the kitchen stove. Where do you look?

“You need focal points, a wall for artwork, say, and a feeling of unity that invites you to linger.”

Morneau envisioned transforming the property into a series of separate garden “rooms,” each with its own purpose: a dining area, a garden work room and vegetable beds.

“I set about designing this as for a client,” she said. “I did what I preach. I laid out a master plan on paper. I knew this project would take years, and it has, but the plan allowed me to establish a core at the beginning and work out.”

The master plan for such a project varies from one family to another, Morneau said. “For a family with young children, we’d focus on playgrounds and play structures, and with someone into cooking we might do an elaborate culinary center.”

Entertaining was the primary focus for Morneau and Landman. “We have a lot of out-of-town guests,” she said. “Our house is not big, so we needed to extend our living and entertaining areas into the outdoors. The mild climate in this region means that you can be outdoors much of the year.”

The first part of the plan was to create an outside dining room, which Hélène placed in the orchard amid plum, peach, pear and apple trees. A low, colorful wall allows the pool area to remain visible while discreetly separating it from the “dining room” (trees and flowers serve as walls on the room’s other sides). A huge table can accommodate a crowd and, in the evening, strings of white lights lend a magical glow.

Next up was transforming the one-time pool house, used by the former owners for storage and dog supplies, into a dual-purpose guest room and culinary center. Then came Morneau’s potting area and garden workroom. Other projects included building a barn and tennis court, creating innovative walls and fences, and renovating the house to include an outdoor bedroom on the upper terrace.

All these projects took time, a good 20 years, Morneau said. She works full-time as a partner in Exteriors Landscape Architecture, so she squeezed her own home project into evenings and weekends, working with a gardener on Saturdays.

“Every couple of years I moved onto the next thing,” she said. “There was a period where about five years passed between one phase and another. We’ve enhanced and added along the way. Horticultural needs change over time. With the drought now, we’re taking out more water-requiring plants and replacing them with drought-tolerant plants.”

It wasn’t until about six years ago that Morneau began building her dream vegetable and herb gardens.

“Up to then I’d been growing vegetables in the ground,” she said. “I had a lot of critter problems. I tried growing in wine barrels and containers, but it was pretty funky.”

Today she has two separated food gardens with raised beds and another in-ground area given over almost totally to tomatoes, about one-quarter acre in total. Each garden is tucked away behind its own gated fence.

The herb garden contains six raised beds measuring about 12 feet by 3 feet. They have wire netting beneath to keep out moles and voles, provide instant drainage and are plumbed for irrigation from beneath. Aside from herbs (including many types of basil), Morneau grows squash, pumpkins, onions and eggplants in the summer and tulips in the winter.

The vegetable garden is encased by a beautiful rusted steel fence on a wooden frame (a vinegar solution caused the rust). The fence is softened by plants that grow beside and often cover it: figs, rhubarb, lemon verbena, hydrangea, clematis, sage and butterfly bush. The five raised beds grow a variety of peppers, onions, eggplant, cucumbers and lettuce; one entire bed is given over to giant sunflowers.

The back veggie garden shares terroir with two beehives and a giant compost pile. Crops grown in-ground in mounds include butternut squash and melons, but the real attraction here is the 14 different types of tomatoes. “I do lots of freezing and canning,” Morneau said. “And we give lots away to friends and family.”

Among her favorite tomatoes are Sun Gold (“easy, a favorite”), Celebrity (“it’s a workhorse”), Persimmon (“big, beautiful, meaty and voluptuous”) and Cuore di Bue (“great for Italian sauces”).

Throughout all the intertwined gardens and rooms are touches of artistry that tie everything together. An old horse trough filled with yellow-flowered water lilies rests beside a path. Three 2-foot concrete balls visually separate an open area.

There’s an ancient blue-painted iron gate from Tunisia, a goddess made of old broken pots, a pile of Middle Eastern amphora, parasols shading delicate plants, flowers spilling from beautiful pots, old copper pots and a weathered wooden bench.

“It’s a symbiosis of beauty, bees, butterflies, edibles and birds,” said Morneau. “It’s a place to come home to that’s a retreat. You open the gate, you close the gate, you have a sense of peace in the outdoor retreat you created. That’s what we strive to do for our clients, and it’s what I’ve achieved for myself.”