Life in the Garden: A Sonoma County Permaculture Garden

Working with natural systems and patterns, permaculture experts transform a forest-edge hillside into a cascade of outdoor living spaces.


Selective thinning and pruning opened the yard to a formerly obscured westward view. Sentient Landscape terraced the slope and created a meadow of wildflowers and bunch grasses, including Achillea “Moonshine” (yarrow) and Festuca glauca (blue fescue). The slate pathway is planted with creeping thyme and Scotch and Irish moss. Beyond the path are plants that attract birds and butterflies, including mixed salvias, Philadelphus (California mock orange), Lavatera (tree mallow), Echinacea, and Asclepias (butterfly weed).


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Thirteen years ago, Pam Laird and Mark Jacobsen bought a home on seven sloping acres of redwood forest in California’s west Sonoma County. It was lovely, private, and quiet—perhaps a little too quiet. “Because of the dense canopy in a mature redwood forest, there aren’t many birds, insects, or bees,” says Mark. “When we first moved here,” adds Pam, “I sometimes felt lonely and isolated when Mark was away on business—like I was stuck in the woods.” To make matters worse, it was too cool and shady on the property to grow food.

Today the road to Mark and Pam’s place still winds through dense forest, but an enchanted landscape opens up as you approach the house. Lush, colorful gardens cascade down the hillside. Sunshine streams into the yard, setting the flowers ablaze and glinting off an oak-barrel waterfall. Meandering stone paths connect outdoor rooms, culminating downslope at an infinity-edge lap pool.

“Now I come out in the morning, and it’s just alive,” grins Mark. “I never feel deprived out here anymore,” says Pam. “Instead, I feel lucky to be in this gorgeous place; it feels like a resort or a wilderness retreat.”

Underlying the beauty of this garden oasis is a deep resonance with nature’s flows. Fallen logs have been intentionally placed to store water and provide habitat; plants are selected for their beneficial relationships with each other and the rest of the ecosystem; microclimate is enhanced to provide optimal growing conditions. In short, the landscape is a “cultivated ecology” modeled after a forest system, letting nature do much of the work and allowing human dwellers to participate in the life cycles.

Beneficial relationships

The transformation began three years ago when Pam and Mark met with Kamala Bennett and Geoff Hall of Sentient Landscape in Sebastopol, California, who work using the principles of permaculture. “Our design approach is based on a study of natural systems and patterns,” says Bennett. “Basically, we worked to create mutually beneficial relationships between the people and the habitat. We used a host of ecological design strategies to cultivate a whole system, including habitat regeneration, soil building, rainwater harvesting, and food and medicinal plantings.”

A permaculture landscape works in partnership with the forces of nature and builds relationships. Falling leaves decompose and nourish the soil; deep-rooted plants break up compacted soil and pull minerals from the earth for the benefit of other organisms; plants attract beneficial insects that keep the system in balance.

“Humans can have an incredibly beneficial impact on the environment,” says Bennett. Working with arborist Steve Garrison, his team carefully removed smaller and diseased trees near the house, then limbed other trees to create view ­corridors, bring in sunlight, reduce fire fuel, and give the remaining trees room to grow. Everything that came down was reused: Brush was chipped for mulch and logs became functional landscape elements.

Bennett points to a log upslope from the pool: “It’s become a favorite bench, but it also stabilizes the slope. It stores water, builds soil, and is a home for beneficial insects, gopher snakes, and lizards. And it looks like it’s always been here.”

The logs are just one part of the water-management stra­tegy on this hydro-challenged site. Before the landscaping, winter rains poured down the hillside in rivulets. Now the contours, logs, permeable pathways, mulch, and retaining walls slow the water so it seeps in and serves the plants rather than eroding topsoil. Hall and Bennett have also created swales and catchbasins with dells of water-loving plants such as ferns, calla lilies, elderberry, and cranberry.

Nothing about the permaculture design process is linear, least of all the pathways. “Pam and I spent hours marking pathways with flags,” says Bennett, “then walking them to get the flow just right.”

Ready for planting

Bennett and Hall replaced rotting wooden retaining walls with meandering dry-stacked walls of local Sonoma fieldstone. “The stones are beautiful, with lichens and little holes for creatures,” Bennett points out. “Between the stones, we’ve planted sedum, columbine, strawberries, and thyme. If you touch these rocks, you can feel that they’re warm. They soak up heat from the western sunlight, then release it later. Now Pam can grow tomatoes, basil, lavender, and citrus—plants she loves but couldn’t cultivate before.”

Abundant native plants—including manzanita, ceanothus, ferns, toyon, coffeeberry, and hazelnut—make it hard to define where the forest ends and the garden begins. “Natives are beautiful, they’re adapted to the climate, and they support local wildlife,” says Bennett.

Closer to the house, the plantings are more tailored to humans. “Pam and Mark can step onto the deck while they’re cooking and snip a few fresh herbs,” says Bennett. “People often locate food gardens far from the house, but you can integrate edible species into an attractive landscape: Strawberries become groundcovers, currants become flowering shrubs.” Berries and mint line paths and patios for easy munching. Elsewhere the landscape is dotted with edible flowers, herbs, artichokes, pomegranates, blueberries, greens, asparagus, and root vegetables.

Immersed in nature

At the lowest terrace overlooking the canyon is the lap pool—a point of serenity. A dark, stone-like Pebble Tec bottom blends into the landscape and soaks up solar warmth. The natural feeling is enhanced by the saltwater purification system, which leaves no chlorine smell. “It feels like swimming in a lake,” says Mark. Solar panels downhill heat the water, and black stonework around the pool soaks up the sun, keeping the air fifteen degrees warmer than up at the house. “After swimming, I lie on the warm stone patio, and it’s heavenly—even in the middle of a sunny winter afternoon,” Pam says.

The couple swims daily and showers in the open-air gazebo Mark built. Pam also does yoga in the gazebo, which is flanked by a hot tub surrounded with plants that attract birds and butterflies. “When I’m in the hot tub,” she says, “there’s always something to watch. Depending on what’s blooming, there might be a new flock of butterflies, hummingbirds, or various kinds of bees.

“Every morning,” Pam continues, “my stroll down the path to the hot tub is a sacred experience. As I walk, I pray, meditate, or just notice what’s around me. I’m aware of the constant cycles of life. I watch a particular plant bloom, then one day I see its last flower and feel a horrible sense of loss, but on the same walk, I find something else budding. It’s a wonderful meditation on loss and gain in our lives.”