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.

| March/April 2005

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.”

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