Cultivated Charm

Time to stop and smell the flowers By Kathryn Loosli Pritchett Times Correspondent Posted on Sat, Apr. 29, 2006 Excerpted "You can tell a lot about a gardener by what he or she grows. Gardens filled with found objects or rare specimens indicate a collector's sensibility. Back yards overflowing with tomatoes, squash and artichokes identify the earth mothers (and fathers) among us. Rose gardens reveal a romantic personality; native plants a practical concern for the earth. Participate in any of the garden tours available in the Bay Area this spring and you'll meet a host of fascinating people through their plants." "Laurie Stern's passion is flowers, preferably scented ones. In the El Cerrito garden she shares with her husband, landscape designer Gary Lazar, Stern has planted flowers that eventually infuse the homemade tinctures, perfumes and bath salts that make up her perfume business, Velvet and Sweet Pea's Purrfumery (a nod to the many cats that sun in the garden). Stern will be demonstrating how she makes her perfume in their garden during this year's Secret Gardens of the East Bay tour on April 30. Stern and Lazar bought the property 23 years ago right after Lazar earned his landscape design degree at Berkeley. "The house was a total pit, and the landscaping was even worse," says Lazar. "I looked at the site and said, 'What does this space want to be?'" Lazar determined that what the property was calling out for was a series of terraces where you could take in the view and have dedicated resting spots. A back deck attached to the house lined with potted plants is the first area; below it is a shaded terrace with a view; beneath that and to the side of a charming guest cottage is the barbecue area lined in stone and featuring a bold wall fountain. At the bottom of the property is a lilac dell, another small fountain and a wrought-iron arbor covered with Cecile Brunner, New Dawn and Zephirine Drouhin roses that support an elegant chandelier. The arbor shades a claw-footed tub fully plumbed with hot water for al fresco bathing. When Stern wants to concoct a favorite tincture, her materials are close at hand. Floral notes are derived from lavenders, roses, hardenbergia, wisteria, honeysuckle and sweet peas. Citrus notes come from lemons, limes, blood oranges and mandarins. Fruity notes abound in the pineapple, guava, kiwi, apricot and wild plum plants. And to create "earthy" perfumes, she grows mosses, sages, herbs, wild gingers and ferns. "This is our paradise, our refuge in life," says Stern. "Every day we try to spend time in it."