OFF THE HIGHWAY JUST SOUTH OF ST. HELENA,
at the end of an olive tree–lined gravel driveway, is one of Napa Valley’s
oldest troves of zinfandel grape vines.
Twenty acres of these vineyards, which date back to the Gold Rush, are
flanked by the Mayacamas mountain range toward the west and valley
oaks on the east. They were planted just before Prohibition and now
survive as the centerpiece of a retreat for a family involved in technology.
Palo Alto’s Field Architecture recently designed a weekend home to complement this singular setting.
Conceived as a grouping of single-story peak-roofed structures linked
visually and literally by covered porches, the new farmhouse has three
wings in a roughly U-shaped plan that forms courtyards shielded from
afternoon winds that sweep the valley.
For the gardens, the Fields, a father-and-son team from South Africa,
collaborated from the start with San Francisco’s Surfacedesign, which
previously worked on the owners’ Russian Hill home in San Francisco.
“It became quickly obvious how to organize the garden,” says
Surfacedesign principal Roderick Wyllie.
A dilapidated barn rebuilt for parties using the old timbers, at one end
of the vineyard, and an ancient and majestic oak just east of the farmhouse,
at the other end, became the two poles of a central axis, with the pool and
other outdoor gathering spaces in the middle. From there, Surfacedesign
created a series of discrete paved gardens and asymmetrical plantings that
flow in and around the buildings and through the larger composition.
“In a way it is a simple, sensory color story,” Wyllie says.
Blues and soft pinks shift through the verdant setting, and textural
lavender, soft Mediterranean grasses, reclaimed wood decks and domestic
tan-colored Millcreek stone and gravel courtyards create a pleasant rhythmic contrast with the crisp lines of the modern wood-and-metal farmhouse.
“We wanted the garden to have a soft, almost reflective quality to echo
the changing light,” Wyllie says. For instance, a “moon garden” has white
and silver flowers and foliage that glow in the evenings: Pennisetum ori-entale “little bunny” grasses, Digitalis spires, gardenias, ranunculus, white
lavender, Gaura lindheimeri “geyser white,” Anemone x hybrida “Honorine
Jobert” and iceberg roses. For the pool, paler stone and tile make the water
seem fog-like as opposed to hard and mirror-like.
Emerging from the stone patio and teak deck around the pool, small
Chitalpa trees provide shade as well as little colonies of fragrant mint and
perennial plants that attract butterflies and hummingbirds to the water.
Around the heritage oak tree on the east end, perennials flourish
seasonally: Nepeta tuberosa flowers in spring and colorful Agastache
foeniculum, Perovskia atriplicifolia, lavender and Gaura lindheimeri in
And the rest of the plantings are riffs on Surfacedesign standards, such
as a useful citrus garden near the kitchen courtyard, where salvias are
combined with cooking herbs like oregano and thyme that are ever-present
in classic potagers.
But a new twist is two kinds of thyme — Thymus serpyllum and Thymus
albiflorus — planted in wide gaps between slabs of stone paving to echo
the rough-edged pattern of rows of grapevines.
“When you crush them underfoot, they release a pleasant scent,” Wyllie
says. “It lingers like a memory.” n
We wanted the garden to have
a soft, almost reflective quality
to echo the changing light.