Whenever I'm in the UK a visit to a garden center or public gardens is always part and parcel of every itinerary, whether on a city visit, in the wilds of Scotland or Wales and most certainly a given when stopping off practically anywhere in the English countryside.
Whereas the Brits are balmy for horticulture and have been for centuries, I've not encountered quite the same degree of common enthusiasm for celebrating other people's gardening prowess, here in California. Though some of the most spectacular gardens to be seen anywhere in the world are likely tucked away amidst private homesteads of affluent or green thumbed West Coast Americans- it's a rare treat indeed to actually get beyond these garden gates.
Which brings us to a nine-acre, radiant spot of horticultural heaven, right here, a Californian twist on the Chelsea Garden Show and an incredible resource for landscape art and gardening inspiration, more or less in our own backyard, offering refreshingly free admission for all to visit.
Situated along the main route between Sonoma Valley and Napa Valley, The Gardens at Cornerstone Sonoma are actually series of walk-through, living art forms showcasing new and innovative, gallery-style designs from the world's finest landscape architects and designers.
If you've yet to set foot in this gold standard of a gardening showcase, it's time to make plans for a well-deserved morning outing, or maybe an afternoon foray into one of the most exciting and accessible series of gardening platforms in the country.
In fact, thousands of people, from all over the world, travel to Cornerstone Sonoma specifically to walk through these renowned garden installations since it opened, seven years ago. Many are experts in the fields of conceptual landscaping, where art blurs most exquisitely with gardening. Others seek inspiration for their own landscaping potential, be it a contemporary, back yard patio, traditional home garden or full-scale statement planting. Plenty more have the sole desire to see a variety of expressions of this unique art form, for themselves. In short, a visit to Cornerstone's remarkable gardens creates confidence to get out and garden with an artful approach.
I've been a Cornerstone frequenter many times over the past few years, a mini road trip to Sonoma on a stolen afternoon being one of my favorite secret escapes. And I always come away feeling that I've actually been somewhere of significance, a place to fill up that build-up of yearning for a smart dose of culture at the end of the working week. In fact, the cafe at Cornerstone has served me well for many a pit-stop en-route back to Petaluma from wine country assignments, far more preferable than the alternative option of fighting for parking spaces on the square in Sonoma itself.
Here's a place where, just like in the UK (and France, as Cornerstone was actually inspired by the International Garden Festival at Chaumont-sur-Loire), you'll actually be inclined to invite your entire entourage along and would like to share this one-of-a-kind Californian experience!
Shopping, wine tasting, a super-sought-after, micro-brewed Blue Bottle Coffee stop, lovely, quiet lunch destination with friends, avant-garde gardens that lure you into relaxation mode, even a children's garden with its striking series of colorful and inhabited owl boxes - a perfectly accessible outing to encourage creativity in outdoor spaces, capturing the imagination of younger guests to keep this culture generating new, visually captivating, environmentally friendly and sustainable horticulture into the future.
It was my very good fortune to go beyond the flying fence and giant blue Adirondack chair to take a private tour through current installations with Cornerstone visionary and owner, Teresa Raffo. We'd settled on a date to walk and talk that just happened to transpire into one of the rare, rainy days of early March. Though my windscreen wipers were working double time on the drive to Sonoma from Petaluma, slate gray skies cleared, revealing patches of blue and fluffy cloud formations, as if by orders of an efficient, celestial stage manager, the moment I pulled into the Cornerstone parking lot.
My favorite scene of impending Spring (aside from Andy Cao and Xavier Perrot's awe-inspiring, crystal-laden, chicken wire clouds pictured below) thousands of buttery yellow narcissus blooms lined pathways and the ever-so-slightly undulating acreage in-between gardens.
Teresa and I hit it off like a house on fire. With so much to learn about these enchanting gardens, and her motivating passion to direct such gloriously un-intimidating landscape sets, I felt I was experiencing Cornerstone fully for the first time. Teresa's married to a Brit, whose own design brilliance brought the green world of Cornerstone to life. Having traveled the world extensively and lived overseas, there's an otherworldy perspective about this place the couple has created from an international minds eye.
More recent installations, photographed above drew me to the spectacular rescued metal dome-like structure, originally created by shoe designer Taryn Rose and hauled to Cornerstone in the back of a truck. Now adorned with dozens of metal, lantern-like structures, it sits, splendidly visible from the road, atop emerald-green, clear water with salvaged wooden railroad steps for tip toeing (in homage to Chinese railroad workers) across for a closer look .
Upon each commission, individual artists are given the flexibility and freedom to create anything from traditional gardens to modern, conceptual installations, remaining in situ anywhere from several months to two or three years.
Each designer is provided a garden parcel of approximately 1,800 square feet, a few practical considerations such as on-site housing with student support. Infinite opportunity to create, as Petaluma-based Landscape Designer/Sculptor, Suzanne Biaggi experienced with her media darling of a "Future Feast" living table installment at Cornerstone.
Country, by Eurasian Interiors (pictured at the end of this post) is a lovely new addition to the retail offerings at Cornerstone, in which its possible to while away at least a half an hour wandering from shop to shop.There's a lot more of interest to look at than there is amongst the tired-old tourist-trappings around the town square. Don't miss out on a wander through Tesoro for your floral fill.
book about the gardens available at Sage Fine Food & Provisions, and Zipper upon arrival ($10). Please note, wheelchairs are not available.
Gardens close at 4:00 pm. Note: On weekends the gardens may close as early as 3:00 pm for special events, it is recommended to call ahead for specific garden hours.
t: 707 933.3010 f: 707 933.3856