This brave woman is behind one of Sonoma’s best gardens


A well-managed garden appears to be in a natural state of perfection. Rippling flowers are inviting, rich green foliage prevails, and weeds are absent. The outside world and its worries disappear when visitors enter these quiet spaces, and the garden becomes the expression of life.

These gardens are, as former Cornerstone Sonoma Garden and general manager Dawn Smith described, “places where people return again and again to find solace, peace and happy memories. These are spaces that bring joy to people, whether they are rich or not. The gardens are there for everyone.

Her garden and her team kept her going

For Smith, plants and gardens were not just an occupation. The energy and fulfillment she felt creating and caring for these places with her beloved team brought her through years of health issues associated with kidney failure, dialysis and organ transplants. She took care of the gardens and her team and they in turn fed her.

Drawn to art and drawing, Smith first studied graphic design, but was drawn to the plant world after meeting horticultural students. She didn’t like being indoors and looked for work in many nurseries in Sonoma County, eventually finding a job at Rose Garden Nursery in Petaluma. Smith described the owner handing her “The Sunset Western Garden Book” and telling her to research anything she didn’t know. From that book and from her boss, Smith said, she learned so much.

After a few years, Rayford Reddell of the famous Garden Valley Ranch in Petaluma hired her to manage and renovate the rose nursery. It was in a slump after the death of Reddell’s associate Robert Galyean, and the scale of the business was too much for one person to handle. Reddell graciously donated Smith Galyean’s former office in the shed. There she found her old garden journal and plans and used it to restore the neglected gardens, which became a lucrative part of the ranch’s business as a wedding venue. It also revitalized the nursery. Reddell focused on the cut rose business and wrote articles for the San Francisco Chronicle. After five years he retired and sold the property.

Around this time, a friend gave Smith a newspaper clipping about the Cornerstone Sonoma project in Sonoma. One pouring rainy day, Smith drove to Cornerstone armed with her resume. Owner Chris Hougie showed him around the site, so just under construction with piles of dirt everywhere and empty buildings. He explained his vision for garden exhibitions based on the garden festival in Chaumont, France, where each year a series of conceptual gardens are created. He warned that his project could be crazy and difficult to start.

After a few months, Smith got a call from Dave Aquilina, the project manager for Cornerstone, asking him to consult on the plantations as many were not thriving. After offering a few effective suggestions, Smith was hired in 2004. Building the gardens and redoing the newly established plantings became her life. She loved it. “It was the most difficult but the most exciting job I have ever had,” she said.

Strong winds, winter and summer heat, plus heavy unamended blue clay soil and hard cement-like soil, designed for a tough growing and working environment. Designers and landscape architects across the country and beyond gave Smith designs to build with lists of plants that all needed tweaking, as many knew little about plants. A ubiquitous theme in the weekly staff meetings was, “How are we going to make money?” Smith’s experience with weddings at the Garden Valley Ranch led to a wedding garden setup that worked well after flowering began. But between retail stores, weddings, advertising, and new garden facilities, the owner has often changed his mind trying to find a new kind of big and complex business.

“But we were all happy because we loved each other, and that made up for the shortfalls in the budget and a new start-up,” Smith said. The business matured and Smith became general manager. She warmly thanks Aquilina, her boss, for having mentored her and teaching her how to manage a business and people. He still trains her and she said she always respects him.

Health setbacks

As construction began on the gardens, Smith began to have horrible headaches. Finally, a doctor told her the bad news that she was suffering from kidney failure. Smith described being in denial because she still felt good. The doctor explained that when her kidney function fell to about 20% of normal, she would likely live about two years without dialysis or a transplant.

Her first transplant lasted just over four years, and a second transplant only lasted three months. Dialysis after her body rejected a second transplant was particularly trying. Three nights a week, Smith traveled to San Rafael for treatment. Life has become a roller coaster where you feel good and then terribly. The mornings came with nausea and vomiting.

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