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Native-plant nursery owner seeks beauty, serenity in his own backyard

Sebastopol resident Phil Van Soelen has no qualms about yanking out a plant that fails to thrive or doesn't blend with the aesthetic he's trying to create in his garden.

Although their brilliant yellow color heralds spring's arrival, Van Soelen has been removing clumps of non-native daffodils that don't please him any longer. Over the years, he's also removed crab apple and sycamore trees, and he often leaves prominent tree stumps in the garden because they're visually satisfying to him.

As a longtime horticulturist, native-plant aficionado and artist, Van Soelen views his long, narrow garden as an evolving work-in-progress. One of his primary motivations is to see which California native plants will flourish, but he's also aiming to achieve a beautiful and soothing personal space in front of his home near downtown.

Van Soelen, who majored in environmental studies at Sonoma State University, purchased a modest home and bare land in 1978, and has been working since then to cultivate the feeling of country property in town.

He gradually created a meadow of native plants and turned a drainage ditch into a seasonal stream. He's incorporated stone posts with holes drilled into them, known as Kansas fence posts, as garden ornaments that support vines and other plants, and has pushed dirt into mounded beds to give a sense of naturally undulating earth in his gently sloped yard.

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