When Cathy Henning got the call from a real estate agent about a small Petaluma dairy farm that had just come on the market, her first response was: Keep the news under wraps. On a lark, she and her partner John Henning been up in the area six months before, scouting out properties. But Cathy wasn’t convinced this was the right time to take the plunge. She figured what John didn’t know wouldn’t hurt either of them.
“I hung up and said, ‘John will never know about this,’” she remembers. “But then throughout the day I started feeling guilty. I thought, ‘What if I really wanted something and John kept it from me?’” So I called him and told him about it, and he said, sight unseen, ‘We’ll take it.’” That’s precisely what Cathy had been afraid of. She insisted they at least check it out. “As an omen, on the way up here his car broke down,” she says, chuckling. “I should have known then.”
What the pair didn’t anticipate was all the hours and years of work they would pour into their 50 acres, which include a 1910 farm cottage, pastures, three barns, and a picturesque white pasteurizing shed with turquoise shutters. The land posed endless possibilities for Cathy, who has gardened wherever she lived, from New York to Santa Barbara to her native Pennsylvania. And John, a retired attorney whose mother taught him how to build and fix things, relishes a good project.
John crawled on his back under the big barn— built in 1890 by a Scotsman with redwood brought down from the Russian River—to replace its foundation.
Cathy reroofed the cottage herself with steel made to look like copper. Before the couple moved up permanently from San Francisco, they had to scramble to carve out the time to work on the farm.
“I had to be at work at 6 a.m. John would be waiting for me with McDonalds in the car and we’d drive up here after work because I never knew when I was going to get out. Then we worked until 11 o’clock, I’d get in the car and go to sleep and he’d drive us home.
That’s how crazy we were,” she says.
The main home, a little white cottage, now feels like a jewel box, surrounded by two acres of English country-style gardens with topiaries, boxwood hedges, seven fountains, and statuary — most charmingly, a series of ceramic cats. Exuberant color bursts out, with hydrangeas in the shade and climbing roses in the sun.
In spring the deep red rhododendrons dazzle; in summer it’s the dahlias.
The grounds are naturally pretty without appearing too manicured, making it a sought-after backdrop for photo shoots for the likes of Pottery Barn and Williams Sonoma. One popular spot is a glass conservatory at the side of the house, where John and Cathy have coffee every morning.
Cathy was committed to keeping as many features of the old farm as possible, from a weathered tool shed, to the original pasture gate, to a chicken coop that has a locust tree pushing out of it. Mature trees, including a beloved Gravenstein apple and a Colorado blue spruce, are treated with reverence.
Most of the garden was dreamed up and planted by Cathy and two longtime caretakers. One she says is like a son to her; the other she describes as perhaps the country’s best rose man.
The garden has many distinctive spaces. There is a shady nest developed around a giant 300-pound egg-like geode Cathy brought from Wyoming. The surrounding boxwoods are trimmed into circles to mimic the geode, and nearby, a flowering maple climbs wildly up a honey locust.
The majority of the garden radiates off of a 100-foot-long lawn of pasture grass, lush in spring.
At this time of year, though, it’s as russet as the hillsides. Along one flank is a large border sizzling with Alstroemeria, ornamental grasses, Buddleia, and Kniphofia (red hot poker), along with sun-loving hydrangeas that Cathy says produce pom-poms two-thirds the size of a football.
By the barns is a field of fragrant, tall Lavender ‘Grosso.’ Cathy has also created a riot of a rose garden with 400 bushes and a hot-and-sunny upper garden she’s termed “the mesa.” In the early years, she planted a small grove of redwoods, which are now massive and shade a path leading to the pasture.
Running through the gardens is a seasonal creekbed with hand-set, flat-faced rocks that look like something you might see in the English Cotswolds.
In fact, the little farm is a Beatrix Potter illustration come to life.
Cathy laughs that friends and outsiders may wonder, “What were they thinking?” But she knows that it all feels less like work than play.