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Before & After: An Artful Gravel Garden in Sonoma, California

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Before & After: An Artful Gravel Garden in Sonoma, California

February 4, 2019

More than 15 years ago, when furniture maker Ed Clay of Furniture Marolles bought a low-slung ranch house on a cul-de-sac within walking of the historic central plaza in downtown Sonoma, California, the location was great. But the garden needed help (to put it nicely).

“We bought it from the son of a woman who had lived here 45 years and although she had been a gardener, it had fallen into neglect,” he remembers. “The fence was falling down, the old trees’ roots had unevenly heaved up the paving stones, and the backyard was covered by concrete.”

But gardens are resilient. Clay and his partner, who prefers to remain anonymous, spent years patiently transforming the uninspired suburban garden: breaking up slabs of concrete with a sledgehammer, installing a gravel courtyard, root-pruning the old trees, and fixing drainage problems.

The result? A charming, sun-dappled landscape with potted citrus trees and artful surprises, including a vintage marble sink tucked into a wall of vines, a cottage with a roll-up wall of windows, and Clay’s own three-legged Marolles chairs. Let’s find a shady spot to sit for awhile:

Photography by Mimi Giboin for Gardenista.

When furniture maker Clay bought the house, the garden had fallen into disrepair. He took his time restoring it: &#8
Above: When furniture maker Clay bought the house, the garden had fallen into disrepair. He took his time restoring it: “It takes a long time to decide how you want to live in a place.”
The interior of the house also needed a remodel. &#8
Above: The interior of the house also needed a remodel. “The previous owner had been a smoker, for years and years, and even the light bulbs had dark rippled of condensed nicotine stains,” he says.

One of the first improvements was to add French doors and generous windows to the rooms that faced the back garden. “When we moved in,” Clay remembers, “from the house, you couldn’t even see what was in the backyard.”

On the back stoop, an Adirondack Chair by Loll Designs is made of recycled high-density polyethylene (it&#8
Above: On the back stoop, an Adirondack Chair by Loll Designs is made of recycled high-density polyethylene (it’s currently available for $495 at DWR). Over the years, the plastic chair’s color has faded significantly, from Leaf (a bright chartreuse) to a softer pale green that better complements the foliage of surrounding plants.

Before

A scrapbook documents the before-and-after transformation, including a snapshot (at bottom) that shows the original back facade in its windowless incarnation. Clay liberated a pair of liquidambar trees from the ivy shrouds that were growing up their trunks.
Above: A scrapbook documents the before-and-after transformation, including a snapshot (at bottom) that shows the original back facade in its windowless incarnation. Clay liberated a pair of liquidambar trees from the ivy shrouds that were growing up their trunks.

After

The view from the back of the house is of Clay&#8
Above: The view from the back of the house is of Clay’s gravel garden, in which a mix of edibles (in raised beds) and ornamentals including low-water perennials and succulents co-exist happily. The impressive Agave parryi succulents flanking the center walkway “started as tiny babies” in the gravel.
The vintage marble sink was a family find; Clay&#8
Above: The vintage marble sink was a family find; Clay’s partner’s parents over the years collected many architectural antiques.
After a winter flood about data-src=
Above: After a winter flood about 12 years ago, Clay replaced the fence and removed all traces of the former concrete patio. “We had water flowing through the whole yard, because the street we live on is actually a creek that was paved over years ago,” says Clay. The permeable gravel courtyard helps prevent runoff.
Clay built raised beds with durable redwood lumber and steel corner braces. &#8
Above: Clay built raised beds with durable redwood lumber and steel corner braces. “The straps last a lot longer than if I screwed together the corners,” he says.
Low-water perennials such as yarrow mingle with succulents on the edge of the edible garden.
Above: Low-water perennials such as yarrow mingle with succulents on the edge of the edible garden.

To create the gravel courtyard, spread a 2-inch layer of decomposed granite on top of a 2-inch base.

Nasturtiums spill over the edge of a raised bed.
Above: Nasturtiums spill over the edge of a raised bed.
A spectacularly high hedge of mature ivy creates a natural privacy screen on the side of the garden.
Above: A spectacularly high hedge of mature ivy creates a natural privacy screen on the side of the garden.
The mature ivy, nearly  feet high, grows on trunks as thick as a young tree&#8
Above: The mature ivy, nearly 20 feet high, grows on trunks as thick as a young tree’s and is supported by “an old-old fence that’s somewhere under there.”
In the side garden is a dining patio and a cottage, nicknamed the Blue Agave Lounge and tucked into a corner of the property; a roll-up wall of windows invites breezes.
Above: In the side garden is a dining patio and a cottage, nicknamed the Blue Agave Lounge and tucked into a corner of the property; a roll-up wall of windows invites breezes.
Clay&#8
Above: Clay’s collection of Marolles chairs also includes a four-legged model and a high stool. For more information and prices, see Furniture Marolles.

Curb Appeal

In the front yard is a massive and magnificent camphor tree. &#8
Above: In the front yard is a massive and magnificent camphor tree. “The neighbors told me that a man down the street was an arborist, and he trained it,” says Clay.

The circa-1950 house, designed by schoolteachers, has good bones; it was built by the first owner’s father (he was a contractor).

Alongside the driveway, Clay planted a low-water succulents garden to lend structure and texture to the front yard.
Above: Alongside the driveway, Clay planted a low-water succulents garden to lend structure and texture to the front yard.

N.B.: Seduced by the idea of a gravel garden? See:

Finally, learn how to successfully use gravel in a hardscape project with our Hardscaping 101: Gravel guide.

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