Cornerstone Sonoma showcases conceptual gardens in scenic wine country

It wasn’t easy, but I finally visited the gardens at Cornerstone Sonoma in Northern California, which have been on my bucket list for years. Due to my own poor planning, I first missed them after the San Francisco Garden Bloggers Fling, when I rented a car to explore up to Stinson Beach but inexplicably forgot to push on to Cornerstone. Doh!

Determined not to repeat that mistake, I planned a visit to Cornerstone during a family road trip from San Francisco to Portland earlier this month. We arrived on a beautiful, sunny day in time for lunch and then poked around in the market’s charming shops along olive-lined lanes. As the midday heat eased, I headed eagerly to the gardens — where I learned to my dismay that they were closing in 5 minutes for a wedding! As we were escorted out by staff, I watched the bride, adorable flower children, and elegantly dressed guests heading into the gardens and glowered.

Foiled? Not hardly! The next day, while my husband and daughter went zip-lining among coastal redwoods, I drove an hour back to Cornerstone for a quick visit before my hour-long return trip to pick up my family. Was it worth all that trouble? Yes! Let me show you what it’s all about.

Mediterranean Meadow by John Greenlee

Cornerstone’s gardens consist of 9 small conceptual installations created by landscape architects and designers. Each plays off a particular theme, idea, or mood. Inspired by the International Garden Festival at Chaumont-Sur-Loire (also now on my bucket list), the Cornerstone gardens were designed to be temporary and originally numbered 20. However, to accommodate the relocation of Sunset’s test gardens in 2016, they were whittled down to the 9 that remain today.

Ornamental grass expert John Greenlee designed Mediterranean Meadow, a billowy meadowscape accented by two striking sculptures: an openwork steel sphere by Ivan McLean, which allows glimpses of the swaying grasses and golden hills beyond…

…and a stacked-stone ovoid with bands of terracotta and white.

In the distance you see a tall steel mobile sculpture…

Time Killer by Diego Harris, which is currently for sale if you have a large space in need of a special something.

Peeking through a window in its steel base, I spotted another artful installation…

Daisy Border by Ken Smith. Cornerstone’s website explains:

“Composed of classic daisy pinwheels — a common garden decoration on American lawns — the border is at once artificial and natural. Made of plastic, it nevertheless registers sun, rain, and wind.”

I like the contrast between the colorful, toylike pinwheels and the muscular agaves and tawny grasses in the next garden.

Garden of Contrast by James Van Sweden and Sheila Brady

Designed by the late James Van Sweden and by Sheila Brady, Garden of Contrast is maybe the most famous of the Cornerstone gardens. I was happy to see this one! Toothy green Agave salmiana reach up to touch the dusty-green leaves of olive trees, while tawny Mexican feathergrass sways in the breeze below. Three species of plants, all of which grow in Central Texas, planted to perfection!

As Cornerstone describes it, “This design offers a new paradigm for the American Garden. The garden’s ground plane, a plant tapestry[,] combines texture and form, color and scent, while a canopy of olive trees adds a third dimension that changes in color and opacity as the seasons advance.”

In springtime, wine-colored drumstick alliums and orange California poppies thread through the grasses and agaves, adding sparks of seasonal color. I’d love to see that.

I couldn’t get enough of the contrast between muscular, stiff-leaved, saw-toothed agaves and feathery, pliable, strokable grasses. Actually I stroked the agaves too.

This agave is a monster at over 6 feet tall. Behind it, a diagonal line of rosemary bisects the garden, separating the sunny, grassy side from the olive-shaded, woodsy side.

Under the olives rests a huge steel-and-stone sphere, also by Ivan McLean, who writes:

“Noyo cobbles are the name of locally, Sonoma County area, found stones, 4″ to 8″ or so in size. It took 2 yards to fill this 60″ sphere, about 6,ooo pounds. It’s placed in a garden whose theme is ‘contrasts’, so you have the sphere made from squares and rectangles filled with round stones and a very heavy sculpture looking very light, at least that was the idea.”

In the Air by Conway Cheng Chang

I imagine plenty of engagement photos have been taken in the romantic and heart-adorned In the Air garden, designed by Conway Cheng Chang. Rebar arches help vines clamber over billowy, sedge-lined paths on one side.

On the other, a geometric arbor supports a cloud of white roses, and interlocking steel hearts playfully divide the garden in two.

Hearts and sedge

Love must be in the air.

As Cornerstone describes it:

In the Air intends to be playful and critical, spontaneous and composed. Air penetrates and circulates through all living organisms. It fills the in-between spaces and supports human life and emotions. The garden was created to reveal the form of air and in doing so help us understand and appreciate it.”

Purple clematis

And another purple clematis

Small Tribute to Immigrant Workers by Mario Schjetnan

A memorial to Mexican agricultural workers, Small Tribute to Immigrant Workers is the creation of Mario Schjetnan.

A maze of walls — red-painted plywood, corrugated steel, and rock-filled gabion — seems to reluctantly allow entry, each with photos and text about the dangers faced by migrants desperate to cross the border to find work.


A simple shrine hangs on a gabion wall, offering a place for prayers.

On the other side of the wall lie plots of edibles symbolizing the agricultural fields of California.


Eucalyptus Soliloquy by Walter Hood and Alma Du Solier

Towering eucalyptus trees line the roads in Sonoma, and Eucalyptus Soliloquy pays tribute to them. A gabion wall stuffed with eucalyptus leaf litter and a trellis screen of pinned eucalyptus leaves line a long path toward a view of a pond.

Cornerstone says, “The Sonoma landscape features eucalyptus windbreaks that divide field and vineyard. Eucalyptus Soliloquy is a conversation between distant groves and a built landscape of borrowed trees, orphan leaves, branches and seeds.”

Rise by Roger Raiche and David McCrory

Rise, designed by Roger Raiche and David McCrory, is one of my favorite gardens at Cornerstone. Its iconic steel culvert tunnel makes a playful path through the garden and seems to shrink you, Wonderland-style, to childlike dimensions as you pass through.

See what I mean? Cornerstone says:

“Rise is a celebration of color, texture, diversity, light, space and life. The plantings and landform, modeled on a natural landscape, are exaggerated to enhance the sense of separation from reality. Likewise the pipe exaggerates the sense of transition from one world into another.”

Walking through, you get a porthole view of a neighboring vineyard.

But the garden itself transports you to a tropicalesque jungle of dramatic foliage.

Sizzling! Later, Loree Bohl of Danger Garden asked me if I’d seen the Marcia Donahue garden at Cornerstone. I immediately knew she was referring to this distinctive garden.

Donahue’s artwork adorns the garden, like this tree necklace and some of her ceramic bamboo sculptures (previous photo).

More of her bamboo, at left of the tunnel.

Flowering fuchsia adds its own bright adornment, like dangling earrings.

Rise overlooks a large rectangular pond that stretches invitingly behind several of the gardens.

As you approach, hedges frame a view of the pond and ornamental grasses that overhang the far side.

Waterlily circles seem to skip across the water, echoing the rhythm of the tall grasses.

Beyond that, rows of grapevines establish their own rhythm, leading the eye to distant hills.

Bai Yun (White Cloud) by Andy Cao and Xavier Perrot

Bai Yun (White Cloud) is hard to photograph but absolutely mesmerizing in person. Fluffy clouds of wire mesh, suspended by metal posts, drip with hundreds of raindrop-like crystals over a desertscape of prickly pear and white dunes. Shadows are surely an intentional part of the design as well.

Such creativity!

You can’t help musing about drought, the preciousness of water, and gratitude for rain when you look at it.

Serenity Garden by Yoji Sasaki

Along a straight main path, narrow paving strips extend on either side into a green lawn in Serenity Garden. Cornerstone says, “Each element in this garden has been carefully selected for its effect, particularly of its ability to point to or register the ever-changing aspects of nature — shadows, wind, borrowed scenery and material texture.”

I wasn’t moved by this garden, but I did stop to appreciate the rough bark of the pine trees along the back hedge.

Birch Bosque

On the other hand, I loved this bosque of birches in the garden next door. I have a thing for bosques. I find the simple geometry of tree trunks, open space, and (usually) a hedge enclosure to be very soothing.

This garden lacked signage, and it’s not included in Cornerstone’s list of gardens. A little online sleuthing told me that it was formerly a garden by Topher Delaney called Garden Play. The original blue-striped wall and rope balls no longer exist, and an enclosing hedge now frames a view of a vineyard (previous photo).

That settles it: I am going to have a bosque of my own one day. But what kind of tree, I wonder?

Pollinator Garden

Another garden not listed on Cornerstone’s website, as of this writing, is a brand-new space that I believe was labeled as a pollinator garden.

A barn-like structure (wedding venue?) with a central hallway frames it nicely.

Bright with coneflowers, salvias and more, it’s sure to be a hit with insects, birds, and people.

Children’s Garden by MIG Incorporated

The last Cornerstone garden is a children’s garden by MIG. I was struck by the fact that this kids’ space is largely organized around a mini vineyard. Starting ’em young out in wine country!

A few colorful playhouses and birdhouses on tall poles add a little kid flavor.

But really, this space is all about the grapes. Which is an appropriate way to end a post about a garden in Sonoma.

Up next: The picture-perfect Sunset Test Gardens at Cornerstone Sonoma.

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All material © 2006-2017 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Roses, butterflies & garden goodness at Antique Rose Emporium

On Saturday my mom and I drove out to Brenham, Texas, for the Antique Rose Emporium‘s Fall Festival of Roses, where I was one of the day’s speakers. A gray sky spit rain on us during the 2-hour drive, but it held off as we strolled around the nursery before my talk.

ARE’s 11-acre display gardens bloom with abandon in autumn, Texas’s second spring.

Lush bouquets of roses picked from the gardens adorned the nursery’s help desk.

First-time visitors may be surprised to see the gardens are not just beds of roses.

I love the gardens precisely because they’re not just roses, although of course the roses are lovely. I dislike the apartheid of traditional rose gardens, in which roses are grown separately from other plants. Mingling roses with other flowering plants and grasses creates a sense of fullness and an opportunity for pleasing color echoes, and bare, thorny stems are more easily disguised.

The gardens were alive with butterflies, especially queens.

They were particularly attracted to flowering amaranth celosia (Celosia spicata).

I also spotted a white-striped longtail…

…and a beautiful Julia butterfly enjoying lantana.

A lily pond, glimpsed through trees…

…was in full bloom too, despite the cooler temps of autumn.

I think this is a tropical waterlily, as the flowers stand tall above the pond’s surface and the leaves have toothy edges.

A charming sculpture of a boy flying a toy airplane stands nearby.

Wandering on, along a pathway edged with Philippine violet (Barleria cristata)…

…to one of several homestead-style buildings in the gardens. This building and others used to be filled with garden gift items, but on this visit they were mostly empty. The Antique Rose Emporium property — display gardens and event spaces — have been for sale for more than a year (and I’m already mourning its loss unless someone buys it to keep operating it as a nursery), and perhaps that has something to do with the scaling back.

An old log structure — the Corn Crib

Some of the many roses for sale

For wow power, check out this awesome braided-pot arbor. There are two such arbors at ARE, one at each parking lot entrance. (The other is pictured at the top of this post.)

How many pots went into the making of this, do you think? The sky vine-draped arbor in the background is striking too.

Pink roses fronting a picturesque stone house, another former gift shop now mostly empty

Leaning in for a sniff

Such nice framing of views through doorways and arbors

Along one wall, a face fountain partially obscured by fig ivy (Ficus pumila) spouts water into a small pool.

Flowery border of canna, Celosia spicata, and salvia

More annual amaranth celosia (Celosia spicata), beloved by butterflies

Looking out the back door of the little stone house at an herb circle and greenhouse

And at the herb circle, looking back

A purple greenhouse with fish-scale shingles adds cottage charm.

More roses for sale, with ARE’s iconic vine-smothered windmill standing tall

White rose

The central area of the display gardens has sassy signage…

…and dry-loving agaves, yuccas, and other succulents in interesting displays, like this tiered potted arrangement.

Children and children-at-heart enjoy the Beatrix Potter Garden, a playful space framed by a low, purple picket fence…

…populated by pot people with spiky agave hairdos…

…taking baths in galvanized tubs.

A squirrel finial on the fence offers a friendly welcome.

There’s a bit of Wizard of Oz mixed in here too. I remember seeing Toto last time I was here. This time I noticed a witch just past a stand of Philippine violet — or maybe she’s leftover from Halloween?

A wavy-pruned hedge and mint-green table and chairs create an inviting scene.

Another view, with shade-loving purple oxalis (Oxalis triangularis) in the foreground

Yellow firecracker fern (Russelia equisetiformis ‘Lutea’) cascades from an old well.

Purple path

No Southern garden is complete without a bottle tree.

Moving toward an open lawn you see some of ARE’s event spaces — rose arbors, a gazebo, and a tin-roofed house — rentable for weddings and other events.

Another sky vine (Thunbergia grandiflora) in full bloom clambers along a trellis near the house.

This tropical-looking Asian vine is a showstopper in the fall.

Stopping to admire what I think is a white-flowering variety of Philippine violet (can anyone confirm?), I spotted a fuzzy bee hard at work.

Across the lawn, a picturesque red chapel adds its own fall hue to an autumnal border of cigar plant (Cuphea ‘David Verity’), ornamental grasses, white mistflower (Ageratina havanensis), and red roses.

This is where the speaking events are held.

Blazing orange cosmos adds more color around back.

Ask not for whom the bell tolls.

More fall loveliness

Here’s my mom helping me out at the book-selling table. It was so nice to meet everyone who stopped by to chat or buy a book. If you were there, thanks so much for coming!

And thanks also to Mike Shoup of the Antique Rose Emporium for having me back out to speak! If you’d like to get a signed copy of The Water-Saving Garden, I left a few with Mike to sell in the gift shop, so stop by soon.

And if you’d like to read more about ARE’s gardens — with lots more photos! — click here for my post (the first of 3) from the Fall Festival in 2013.

I welcome your comments; please scroll to the end of this post to leave one. If you’re reading this in a subscription email, click here to visit Digging and find the comment box at the end of each post.

Digging Deeper: News and Upcoming Events

What’s hot in garden design — or about to be? I interviewed designers and retailers across the U.S. to find out! Natural dye gardens, hyperlocalism, dwarf shrubs, haute houseplants, sustainability tech, color blocking, and more — check out my 2017 Trends article for Garden Design and see if anything surprises you.

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All material © 2006-2016 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Silobration at Magnolia Market and Fixer Upper fandom

Uninitiated into the world of Chip and Joanna Gaines and their HGTV show Fixer Upper because we don’t have cable TV, I’d nevertheless picked up an inkling of their popularity from fellow bloggers and multiple magazine features. So when we were in Waco last Saturday for one of the kids’ sporting events, I had to see what all the fuss was about.

Once known mainly as the hometown of Dr. Pepper, Baylor University, and the David Koresh doomsday cult, Waco, a mid-size city halfway between Austin and Dallas, is being reinvented thanks to the Gaineses. A year ago, riding a wave of popularity from their TV show, they bought an abandoned cottonseed mill and two silos in downtown Waco and remade them into a tourist destination and fan-girl (and -boy) nirvana.

Their Magnolia Market at the Silos home-decor store and event space now attracts 35,000 visitors each week. Thirty-five thousand! They come to shop, eat at the on-site bakery, wander through a picturesque small garden, play games on a big faux lawn, swing on swings, eat at food trucks, and take selfies in front of the landmark silos.

Last Saturday was Silobration, a multi-day festival marking the one-year anniversary of Magnolia Market’s opening. Having read about long lines to get into the store on an ordinary weekend, we arrived 45 minutes before opening and found a line already out the door for the bakery, which opens earlier.

Instead of waiting for bacon-and-cheddar biscuits, we explored the perfectly manicured grounds, which feature a basil-green 1953 Willys Jeep, picnic tables with stylish black-and-white awnings, string lights, and newly planted trees surrounded by colorful pumpkins and squash.

Enjoy the sunshine & silos. Well, we sure did.

In transforming the silos and mill, the Gaineses wisely left intact the industrial structure and turned it into supports for flower boxes, lighting…

…and swings! The artificial lawn was soon buzzing with young children and parents kicking balls, playing cornhole, and lounging on cushy poofs set out by the staff after opening. A stage just out of view on the left overlooks the lawn, and a band tuned up for the early crowd.

Behind the silos, at the entrance to a cottage garden, this pretty display advertised pumpkins for sale.

Charming flower-and-pumpkin arrangements in bushel baskets provided festive color.

Stacked on hay bales, the pumpkin patch would soon be teeming with parents snapping kids-and-pumpkins pictures.

Nearby, a cedar tepee cloaked with squash vine and hyacinth bean vine made a kid-friendly hideout…

…with toadstool stools inside.

Hyacinth bean vine was in full flower along the fence as well.

Magnolia Seed & Supply offers terracotta and tin flowerpots, seed packets, vases, and other garden decor in a picturesque Texas farmhouse-style building. However, it was jammed door-to-register with people that morning, so I took only a quick peek before beating a retreat back into the garden.

Cheery pink zinnias, the essence of cottage charm

One last look at the garden, with a silo looming behind

By 8:30 am, a line was forming at the door to Magnolia Market, and we joined the throngs lining up along the entry ramp. A festive mood prevailed, with many women taking selfies with the silos in the background. I talked with a woman who was visiting from California with her sister from Austin. I later read that not only do people travel to Waco expressly to visit Magnolia Market, but quite a few are moving to Waco to live the idyllic, friendly, small-town lifestyle portrayed on the show.

At 9 am the doors opened, and the crowd streamed inside. Racks of souvenir T-shirts — DemoDay, Shiplap, Magnolia, they read — were soon mobbed by fans riffling for their size. Cut branches of fluffy cotton were also quickly snapped up.

Decorative displays, like this stag illustration on open books, with a graphic mossy backdrop, reminded me somewhat of Anthropologie’s eye-catching, nature-themed window displays.

The store is nicely merchandised, which disguises the fact that many of the goods, even antique-looking architectural relics, seem to be mass-produced Made in China items. But uniqueness is not really the point, I soon realized. The Gaineses’ show promotes a modern-farmhouse aesthetic that re-imagines “country” with a clean, bold look, and people are clearly in love with it. The shop gives fans an opportunity to bring a little of Joanna’s trademark style back to their own homes. It’s a brilliant marketing move.

But the market as a whole is more than that. It’s a gift to Wacoans, a source of civic pride, and a tourist draw that lifts the city as a whole. It’s also a pretty fun place to hang out on a beautiful October morning, even if you don’t buy anything except a couple of Sic ‘Em on a Chicken biscuit sandwiches from Milo Biscuit Company‘s food truck, which were delicious, by the way.

I welcome your comments; please scroll to the end of this post to leave one. If you’re reading this in a subscription email, click here to visit Digging and find the comment box at the end of each post.

Digging Deeper: News and Upcoming Events

Austinites and native-plant shoppers, I’ll be at the member’s day Fall Plant Sale at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center on Friday, October 14. I’ll be signing books from 1 to 3 pm in the Wild Ideas gift shop. Even if you’re not a member, of course you can still come on out and see the gardens and stop in at Wild Ideas. I hope to see you there!

South Texans, come see me at the 2nd annual Planta Nativa festival in McAllen, Texas, on Saturday, October 22. I’ll be delivering the keynote talk, “Local Heroes: Designing with Native Plants for Water-Saving Gardens,” that evening. Tickets are on sale at Quinta Mazatlan. I hope to see you there!

I’ll be speaking at the Antique Rose Emporium Fall Festival 2016 in Brenham, Texas, on Saturday, November 5th, 1:30-2:30 pm. Come on out to the Antique Rose Emporium’s beautiful gardens for a day of speakers and fun! My talk, with plenty of eye-candy photos, is called “Hold the Hose! How to Design a Water-Saving Garden that Wows.” Meet me afterward at the book-signing table!

Do you review? Have you read my new book, The Water-Saving Garden? If you found it helpful or inspirational, please consider leaving a review — even just a sentence or two — on Amazon, Goodreads, or other sites. Online reviews are crucial in getting a book noticed. I really appreciate your help!

All material © 2006-2016 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.