Kate & Barry Roach Garden
Garden Interview with Kate Roach
When master gardener Kate Roach and management consultant-husband Barry moved from Palo Alto to Sonoma in the early 90's, they selected renowned Bay Area architect Bill Turnbull to design a Federal-period farmhouse to sit on a bench on the eastern flank of Sonoma Mountain. But instead of engaging an equally prominent landscape designer, Kate chose to plan the gardens herself.
A veteran of numerous previous garden design projects, from Palo Alto to Atherton to Mexico City, she wanted to put her own very personal stamp on what was to be their retirement and perhaps last home. We caught up with Kate on a recent summer day for a tour of the gardens and a chat. We particularly wanted to find out how her master gardener training and experience had shaped both her garden design, and her overall gardening experience.
How long have you been a gardener?
Forever. My dad was a gardener, and I learned a lot from him growing up. I’ve designed and installed gardens on a series of houses starting with our first in Mexico City –a rented home that I just HAD to fix up! Upon returning to the States, we lived in Atherton a short while, and with some professional help, we redid that garden when we remodeled the house. After 5 years, we moved back to Palo Alto, where I grew up and once again I needed to make lots of changes in the garden. However, by far my most ambitious project has been our Glen Ellen home. It always feels like a work in progress as I keep adding and now subtracting as well! I want to give credit to Gene Kunit who helped design the rear garden hardscape. It was a really fun collaboration of ideas!
How would you describe the design of your garden?
Casual, natural looking, not formal. It’s really a series of beds, and a collection of living areas. And of course the native blue and live oaks lend a strong presence.
Do you have a particular garden philosophy?
Well, my new philosophy going forward is “don’t design more than you can keep up yourself”. And my constant experimentation with plants in different locations has really emphasized the importance of “right plant, right place”.
When was your Sonoma Mountain garden planted?
The initial parts when we completed the house in 1993. We’ve expanded it in several stages over the years, to the point where we have the entry garden, the side garden and rose arbor, the pool terrace, the upper outdoor living areas that have plant beds and seating areas and a fountain nestled in the blue oaks, and the edible garden and orchard between the house and vineyard.
Can you talk about relationship of garden design to home design?
I’d gotten to know Bob Cannard through a class I took, and asked him for ideas for plants appropriate to the house, which is a Federal-period farmhouse designed by San Francisco architect Bill Turnbull. Bob came up with an initial list that included things like leatherleaf Viburnum, Physocarpus (Ninebark), Cestrum, snowball bush, shrub roses, myrtle and hydrangeas. So the initial entry garden and pool terrace landscaping were done in that sort of palate. The house itself is a fairly informal farmhouse style, and asymmetrical, and the gardens echo that.
What are your favorite flowers, shrubs and trees?
Oh, I have a lot, and I’ve gone through phases, like my rose phase. I love Japanese maples, Loropetalum, the Cestrums, limelight hydrangea, day lilies, dahlias, Hidcote lavender and of course, roses. And our edible garden, and fruit orchard – apples, peaches, pears, plums, quince, figs and pluots.
How do you feel that being a master gardener has changed your gardening?
The training really opened my eyes to a lot of things. I knew a fair amount about plant ID from the gardens I’d done before, but all of the knowledge of plant pathology, insects and disease, and what to do about them, amending soil and the importance of mulching were all new. And it really opened my eyes to the plants and flora of Sonoma, and the plant communities we have here.
What type of soil is native to this location? What sorts of amendments have you done?
Mostly Sonoma Mountain clay, although there is some alluvial overlay to the south toward the vineyard. We’ve added literally tons of amendments over the years—Mango Mulch from Grab n Grow, compost from Sonoma Compost, and Soils Plus. And I’ve taken in more recent years to planting mostly in slightly raised beds, or mounds.
Any particular challenges in creating and maintaining this garden?
Well, there’s a fair amount of garden, and we only have help a couple of mornings twice a month, so mostly it’s Barry and me. There’s a lot of pruning, deadheading and keeping ahead of the oak leaf drop. But nothing out of the ordinary.
On a yearly average, how much time do you spend in the garden?
Not so much in the winter, but at least 2-3 hours a day in spring, summer and fall—I’m out there part of the day, every day.
What irrigation method do you use?
There’s quite a bit of drip irrigation, but some of the beds are on sprinklers, and all of the containers and pots have to be hand watered--that takes a good bit of time.
What about insects, pest control and weeds?
We don’t have much in the way of pests. We’ve never had snails. Following the MG way, we don’t use chemicals and pesticides. We spray copper for the fruit trees when dormant. I’ve had an aphid problem on my artichokes, and found that diatomaceous earth spread around them and lightly dusted on them actually works. I got scale last year on one of my plum trees, and following MG Cathy Williamson’s advice, my daughter and I spent an hour running our thumbs up the branches to flick them off. It seems to have worked, as I don't see them this year.
Finally, can you point to any secrets of success in your garden?
Trial and error and patience; I try things, and move them if they don’t work. At this point in our lives, my husband and I don’t want to waste time and fiddle with delicate or fussy plants! Barry has been a great help with everything—all the maintenance and dirty work, the drip irrigation, and of course the gopher getting! I really do have to give him loads of credit for help and support as I pursue my gardening passion!