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

  • 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).
    PHOTOGRAPHY BY BARBARA BOURNE
  • The pool brings a deep feeling of serenity to the garden. London Pool & Spa crafted the pool to blend into the landscape, with its infinity edge and dark, stone-like bottom. Solar panels downslope enhance the solar-heat-storage capacity of the water and stone.
  • Cherry tomatoes, previously unsuccessful here, now grow abundantly thanks to solar heat stored and radiated by the slate steps and nearby stone retaining wall. They grow together with creeping thyme 'Pink Ripple,' within 'slipper distance' from the kitchen door for fresh salad-picking.
  • Rosemarinus prostratus (creeping rosemary) spills like water over a series of terraces, down to the pool level. Mixed sedums and strawberries fill crevices between rocks, beneath stone steps, and along pathways for easy harvesting.
  • Kamala Bennett of Sentient Landscape, owners Mark Jacobsen and Pam Laird, and Geoff Hall, also of Sentient Landscape, relax on a log strategically placed to store water and provide wildlife habitat.
  • A young table-grape tendril climbs a chain on the outdoor shower gazebo constructed by Mark, promising clusters of tasty fruit for bathers.
  • Bodega enjoys the sunshine afforded by prudent trimming of the redwood trees. The garden is a natural to him, because his own trails informed the pathway design. The sweet fragrance of Buddleia (butterfly bush) makes his bliss complete.
  • Bodega, one of two resident golden retrievers, surveys the warm slate steps that lead downward from the kitchen garden and blueberry patch. Flanking the steps are oregano, verbena, rosemary, Heuchera (alum root), coreopsis, violets, nasturtium (climbing through the fence), and scented geranium. Irish and Scotch moss mix with creeping thyme amongst the pathway stones.
  • Prostrate rosemary cascades over the stone retaining walls, while sprawling ground­covers and small perennials blend the stone steps into the landscape (here, thyme, Erigeron karvinskianus [Santa Barbara Daisy], and strawberries). Small planting pockets support annual food-producing plants like this cherry tomato.
  • 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).
  • 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).
  • Thanks to the principles of permaculture, an enchanted landscape now opens up on Mark and Pam’s once dense and dark property. Lush, colorful gardens cascade down the hillside behind the house; fruits, vegetables, and medicinal plants thrive in the abundant sunlight; fire fuel has been reduced; and beneficial habitat regeneration, soil building, and rainwater harvesting are built into the garden’s design.

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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