A Salvia Garden in Sonoma

Decomposed granitic paths are broad and gracious and can accommodate the luxurious, sometimes unruly, growth of the salvias. The only artwork in the garden, a bronze apple, has been placed in this wide path. It is conspicuous in sunlight but almost disappears as early and late shadows fall across it. Photograph by Bart O’Brien

Decomposed granitic paths are broad and gracious and can accommodate the luxurious, sometimes unruly, growth of the salvias. The only artwork in the garden, a bronze apple, has been placed in this wide path. It is conspicuous in sunlight but almost disappears as early and late shadows fall across it. Photograph by Bart O’Brien

“A sweet land,” he muttered, “an almighty sweet land.”

Jack London, Burning Daylight, On Sonoma Mountain

In 1961, Willa and Ned Mundell purchased their home on East Napa Street in the town of Sonoma. A few blocks away from their spacious property lies the center of town, where the county courthouse stands in solitary splendor. It is the focal point of the handsome plaza that predates the Mundell house by several years. Around 1850, approximately sixty acres of land was given by General Vallejo, the town’s alcalde (mayor), to William Steven Shaw, a well-known Californian who painted portraits of the famous “railroad boys”—Huntington, Stanford, Hopkins, and Crocker. Construction began on the Shaw, now the Mundell, house in 1850 but was not completed for about ten years. Of gracious proportions, the windows are large, and the ceilings are high—an airy fourteen feet on the first floor. Mature trees on all sides of the house produce dappled light patterns throughout the day. A mature Canary Island palm (Phoenix canariensis), close to the house, is a reminder that people who came to California in the early days planted the most exotic plants available to them. (One or two palms may be found on old estates throughout this and many other areas of California that were developed in the mid-1800s.) A large, open field lies to the east and south of the house, while to the west, towards the plaza, a cemetery provides additional open space.

Three years ago, the Mundells met David Sheppard, a local horticulturist and garden designer, as well as an experienced gardener. He was invited to see the garden and make suggestions for an under-developed part of the property that lay to the south of the house. This section of shrubbery and lawn had mature trees but was not heavily wooded. A seasonal stream, of notable size in the rainy season, marks the boundary between the garden and the open field to the southeast. All in all, it is an inviting and pleasant vista since the entire expanse is more or less level; a generous sweep of the grounds can be seen from the house or from the parking area.

Sheppard was born and reared in Marin County but was no stranger to the nearby town of Sonoma. He moved there in the 1980s when the town was smaller and there were only a few, long-established vineyards scattered about the countryside; Sonoma and Napa counties were just becoming widely known as “wine country.” For a number of years, David lived and worked on the Dewey and Jean Donnell estate, for which Thomas Church had designed his celebrated garden and swimming pool, with its view of San Francisco’s distant skyscrapers. Turning more and more to horticulture, Sheppard frequented Western Hills Nursery and the company of people such as founders Marshall Olbrich and Lester Hawkins. In 1989, he began working for Quarryhill Botanical Garden as director of horticulture and, over the next several years, created a beautiful private garden for its founder, Jane Davenport Jansen.

A year after the new millennium, David decided to go into business on his own; it was at this juncture that he met the Mundells. In the spring of 2002, he began planning and planting their new garden. Both Willa and David came to the project already knowing that they wanted to feature salvias. Willa had seen a bed of them at the Elizabeth F Gamble Garden in Palo Alto and thought the structure of the plants and their free flowering nature to be in harmony with her existing garden. The spacious area in front of the house, separated from it by turf, furnished Willa and David with an inspiring canvas on which to work.

The commonplace Salvia leucantha ‘Midnight’ is transformed when paired with the ripe peach-colored S. greggii ‘Desert Pastel’. The green leaves of the two plants, differing in size and shape, offer an interesting contrast

The commonplace Salvia leucantha ‘Midnight’ is transformed when paired with the ripe peach-colored S. greggii ‘Desert Pastel’. The green leaves of the two plants, differing in size and shape, offer an interesting contrast. Photographs by Ginnie Hunt, except as noted

Both were drawn to salvias because of the wide range of flower colors available. Willa wanted no bright yellow or pink flowers. David has a fondness and flair for combining colors and found the strong red and orange flowers worked beautifully with the blues and purples. His unfaltering talent for combining foliage color and texture gives the garden a deep complexity. For example, the four-foot-tall Salvia leucantha ‘Midnight’, with its rich purple inflorescences all at the same height and surrounded by substantial gray green foliage, is set off by the lower-growing, peach-flowered, S. greggii ‘Desert Pastel’, with small mid-green leaves. Another handsome combination is the four- to five-foot-tall S. regla, with spectacular orangy red flowers and calyces, paired with the soft, creamy white ‘Moonlight’, a seedling S. greggii, at its feet.

Requiring modest amounts of water during the growing and flowering season, Salvia regla, a woody shrub, needs to be shaped while it is in flower

Requiring modest amounts of water during the growing and flowering season, Salvia regla, a woody shrub, needs to be shaped while it is in flower

The partnership of blue-flowered Salvia chamaedryoides, with gray foliage, and the strong red-flowered S. greggii ‘Lipstick’ is enhanced by the large, shrubby S. ‘Waverly’, which reaches four to five feet in both height and width. ‘Waverly’ is heavy blooming with inflorescences of creamy white, a touch of lavender marking each lip, and with lavender-tipped calyces (see Pacific Horticulture, July 2001). A wide, level, and inviting path lures visitors through this portion of the garden. Tall salvias, such as S. confertiflora, S. involucrata, S. mexicana ‘Limelight’, S. ‘Byron Flynt’, and S. canariensis furnish a splendid five- to six-foot-tall background for the many medium-growing and smaller salvias.

Violet blue Salvia mexicana will flower heavily from September until frost. Photographs by Ginnie Hunt, except as noted

Violet blue Salvia mexicana will flower heavily from September until frost

With so many different combinations of salvias, both native and exotic, the garden is alive with the activity of insects, hummingbirds, butterflies and many species of bees. As spring folds into summer, plants build in height and width with an ever-increasing abundance of flowers. By autumn, plants are mature and the grand finale persists until November’s winds and rain bring a halt to the splendid tableau. Then the garden rests, gathering strength for the coming season of growth, flowering, and seed set. Both Willa and David use each winter season to dream and plan for new plantings in the coming year.