Tuscany without travel

Kathleen N. Brenzel

When Susan Skinner and Bob Heisterberg planned their dream house on the western slope of the Sonoma Valley, they wanted it to resemble a walled village in Italy, with different levels and rooflines, a front courtyard, patios for lounging and dining, and lots of room for parties. Transplants from New York, they looked forward to frequent alfresco gatherings in this mild Mediterranean climate. "All our entertaining is geared to the outdoors," Skinner says.

To complement their home, designed by architects Sam Wells and Diana Marley, the couple worked with Harris, who created a garden that's every bit as Italian in feel as the house. A fountain burbles in the entry courtyard. An olive grove leads to the backyard with its series of pocket patios, a dunking pool, and a bocce court. Plantings are simple ― lots of lavender and ornamental grasses.

Because crushed-stone mulch covers the ground right up to the foliage, the planting areas have no defined edges. "The Japanese call this technique kansei, meaning peaceful simplicity," says Harris, who worked as a landscape architect in Japan. Adds Skinner: "My husband doesn't want to cut grass, and I'm not a gardener. We got the idea for crushed-stone mulch in Italy."

What do Skinner and Heisterberg like best about their garden? "It's easy," Skinner says. "It looks right, feels right." And no passport is required.

Landscape Design: Paul Harris, Imagine Sonoma, Sonoma, CA ( www.imaginesonoma.com or 707/939-1300)

Design: Diana Marley and Sam Wells, Marley + Wells Architects, Petaluma, CA (707/762-8123)