After hours and hours of driving we finally arrived, many come now as it has become a highly sought after vacation spot, but for me, I came to see my mom and my brother. When it all began, over 30 years ago, my brother had a dream to live in this valley. He would bring my mom here and convinced her to purchase some property with him. I remember that trip, full of excitement and anticipation. I wanted to also be a part of it, I wanted a piece of shangri-la for myself.
|The roses garden at the Madrones|
At that time the valley was much different than it is now. Truly an unspoiled country side, close to the coast and with a huge untamed element. I remember the stories of the Boyde brothers,who bullied the town and its people. The stories of a not to far away valley where wild horses still ran the hills. This valley, known as Andersen Valley, is in northern California. Rolling golden hills, sprinkled with oak trees and guarded by giant stands of Redwoods like soldiers on watch as people drive through to the coast and Mendocino. There were apple farms and some wineries as you drove through the valley. The main town, Booneville, was the larger of the two, it had a hotel, a fair grounds, a senior center, gas station, greasy spoon and a cafe. A large part of the town center or Main Street was empty old shops in need of much repair. The town was still famous for its own language of sorts called Boontling folk language...The next town over, Philo, was not quite as developed. It consisted of a general store, a farm supply, a lumber yard and the post office. The beautiful but short drive between the towns on the way to the coast were sprinkled with churches and homes, rolling green or gold hills dotted with grape vines and sheep. The oaks and redwoods which also lined the main two lane highway appeared to watch the visitors as they came and went, often feeling like something from a scary movie.
The reputation in the valley was also a bit eery. It was told, by the locals, to have been home to serial killers like Charles Manson and Charles Ng. Even this pristine environment had some dark secrets. The attraction of being secluded in the country, away from the main stream of society, can sometimes draw in a darker element.
I remember that weekend, driving with my mom and brother, looking at property, listening to locals tell their stories and worrying about my mom living here. The property they convinced her to buy was a mountain top property that was part of a larger estate which had be subdivided into smaller parcels, around 160 acres each. Yes, you heard me right, 160 acre small parcels of rolling green hills and giant oak trees that overlooked the world. The views were 180 of amazement. Nothing has ever scared my mom. She has always been a strong women, supporting us and herself, reaching the top of her field of interior design without any formal education. She had always lived in Southern California but my brother had convinced here to look up north where he now was trying to settle. We looked at many properties that weekend and my brother ended up buying a 5 acre mixed use piece of property right on the main road. Unlike my moms property which was on top of the world, my brother's property was nestled in the valley floor, surrounded by rolling hills and in need of much work. The house was falling apart, since the foundation was failing it was leaning badly to one side. There also stood a large commercial warehouse type building on the property which was rented out to a plumber in the valley. The over-grown property was full of poison oak, wild blackberries, and broken down vehicles which looked like someone had driven them onto the property where they died and were just left to become part of the landscape, like lawn ornaments only there was no lawn. Yes, my brother had also been the recipient of my mom's spirit of adventure with no fear of the huge challenges that lay before him.
|Some of the tasting rooms at the Madrones|
I remember those early years when we would come up to visit him and he had a small wood burning stove in the shape of a train that we would light to try to warm up the cold, damp air. The fireplace was boarded up because at night the family of bats that lived in the chimney would fly out and often they went out the wrong way, ending up in the living room with all of us screaming. So began the next 30 years of adventures, for my mom and my brother and us as occasional visitors. When my mom decided to move to northern California she stayed with Jim on his 5 acres as she contemplated how she would develop her large acreage. The more she went to the property the more she realized how hard that living on top of the world would be.
Her closest neighbors were also true pioneers in every sense of the word. They had built a fully sustainable home with solar panels and storage batteries, dug wells, grew all their own food and hunted. They were a wealth of information for my mom and years later they were the ones that modeled what her life would be like all alone on that mountain. I think that is when my mom decided that the winds on top of her mountain would make it too hard for her to landscape and live! LOL yes she had plans to landscape that acreage.
My husband and I had also wanted to be a part of the move to the valley. We had been looking at many pieces of property over the years and even had made offers but the one property we tried to get slipped through our fingers when the owner decided not to sell. Many years later, my mom, with all her charm and persistence, talked him into selling her that piece of property. That is where I am sitting today, on a 5 acre piece of property that we tried to by in the 80's and that my mom now owns.
|The Carriage House|
Once she purchased that property she sold her large acreage and began to draw up plans for a large estate to be built with a carriage house and storage units so she could bring all of her treasures that were in multiple storage locations to this one final home. A place where she could finally settle in and build her dream house and have her antiques again. The building restrictions for this area are crazy and as she started the building process the costs were exorbitant. It took years for the carriage house and storage unit underneath to get finished. She lived in the small unit upstairs and began to landscape her 5 acres of paradise with her large house always in mind. The acreage was also full of poison oak and redwood trees, wild turkey but she loved every inch of it. She would spend countless hours in the yard laying out flower beds and building cages in which everything had to be planted in order to protect the roots from the gophers and squirrels. It was hard work, long hours and it was plagued with weather issues, large trees breaking, and wild animals.
|One of the hidden garden rooms at Sugar Hill Farms|
My brother's property was also changing. The once derelict property was now beautiful. When my mom was living with my brother she helped him with his property. He had raised and leveled the foundation, kicked out all the wild residence that once occupied the house and drew up a remodel plan. He hired local people and started the remodel of his tiny house. It became a beautiful, 3 bedroom, open floor plan country farm estate and went from about 1400 square feet to 3000 sq ft of glorious room. They had found and salvaged old windows and doors but yet you would never know as the place was incredible and perfectly decorated.
The leaning house that was home to bats was now the envy of every interior home designer and magazine. I can't tell you how many times we all would arrive for holiday dinners to a roaring fire, gourmet meals with wonderful smells filling the air. The house was full of arrangements of berries and local greenery with bottles of local wines always flowing. The once uninhabitable house had been reborn, recreated and resurrected into a place of celebration!
The grounds took longer, a work in progress as are most gardens. My mom was actually working on both gardens and helping my brother in his very successful design business he was running from the redesigned commercial building. After years of hard work, Jim decided to close down his design firm and reinvented his business into a bed and breakfast with tasting rooms and pizza ovens.
|The newest project and property, the future home of treetop cottages for guests in the redwoods. They are calling it the Brambles|
|One of the guest suites at the Madrones|
He longed to stay closer to home, travel less and reduce his stress load. My mother needed the same too. So began a new chapter in my families life in the country. It has continued to change, as life does, always moving, evolving.
My mom, now 83, has settled into the bottom unit of the carriage house so she doesn't have to climb the stairs over and over during the day to water. She lives to be outside, pruning, planting and enjoying this paradise of hers. She has no need to have the gardens on tour, although people plead to come and see them. She is not boastful or showy, she has come to a place in her life where she is happiest alone, digging in the dirt, marveling in the blooms and fighting the weeds. Her routines have become as regular and constant as are the seasons.
Both my brother and my mom have created multiple wonderlands which we can all enjoy as a family. My brothers place is called the Madrones and is open to the public now. The host for my art retreats guests. Both properties have given us countless hours of walking the gardens, picking wild blackberries, talking about the plants, the varieties of roses, laughing about the pests and the struggles.
It is a place where I love to lay on her bed and feel the breeze coming through her windows as we chat; a place that is already bigger than life and more branded with her identity than anywhere else. I treasure these days with my mom and my family.
It is the knowing that as the garden continues to change so goes life. These days together in her garden are fleeting and I don't want to take any for granted. I take every opportunity to visit her, to paint and sketch and journal in this beautiful place.
I love being a part of this magical garden that will forever bear witness of her love for this valley and us. A place where she has left her mark for all to enjoy. We call it Sugar Hill Farms.