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.
Van Soelen is co-owner of California Flora Nursery in Fulton, which specializes in California native plants, and he uses his personal garden, which measures 150 by 75 feet, as a test area for plants that customers might appreciate and find successful in their own gardens. He's inspired by what viscerally appeals to him, and the discovery of unusual textures and forms is often more important to him than big bold drifts of color.
While he promotes native plants as his occupation, he's not evangelical about it, and among the native redbud, trillium, Sonoma sage, dogwood and coffeeberry, Van Soelen has non-natives, such as a Southwestern yucca grown from seed, and Asian pear, persimmon and Gravenstein apple trees.
"There are two ways to look at the garden: like a painting with plants and as a collection, like a botanic garden. I try to combine them and err on the side of diversity. I'm an artist, and the aesthetic is important," he said.
"I know people respond to a lot of flower color, but it can be really jarring. I like the calmness of natural nature, and it's more emotionally satisfying," Van Soelen said. "My goal is not to fill the garden with color. My concern is creating a soothing personal space."
Van Soelen is intrigued by upright and prostrate manzanita plants, and estimates he has 100 varieties in his garden. It's far too many manzanita to remember their individual characteristics, so he makes written observations in a notebook to keep track of them.
"My interest in manzanita has gradually evolved. There is so much variation, and Sonoma County is one of the richest areas, with six rare ones here," said Van Soelen, noting that Marin and Napa counties also have a rich diversity of manzanitas.