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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.

Unlike many area residents who are constantly waging battle against gophers and moles, Van Soelen doesn't have a problem with them in his yard. One of his biggest challenges is invasive grasses and weeds that habitually appear in the garden.

"One of the things that is fun with the nursery is to see something in the wild I'm interested in and take a few tip cuttings and root them up for the nursery. I appreciate beauty, and in a low-impact way am obtaining genetic materials," said Van Soelen, who will take clippers, a plastic bag and an ice chest when he roams around the county to preserve plant cuttings he finds.

"There are some areas I return to over and over again where road crews whack back the natives and non-natives grow up," he said.

By using native plants that are well acclimated to the area, Van Soelen doesn't need to do much watering and relies primarily on occasional manual watering to provide the moisture needed in his garden. Native plants also don't need supplemental fertilizer, Van Soelen said, and the mulch he uses comes from decomposing leaves on the property.

"Most of the garden doesn't get summer water. One of my goals is to plant things that will establish and need little care," he said.

He recognizes that many gardeners don't fully appreciate the virtues of native plants, but says that in recent years when rainfall has been scarce, consumers are increasingly interested in plants that don't require much water.

"I want people to come to it because they love it. Natives are totally lovable but you need to figure it out. You've got to learn to love it," he said.