With new owners, and dedicated volunteers, a landmark Occidental nursery is coming back

  • Pink Cleone, and Black-eyed Susan at the Western Hills Nursery in Occidental.

Like many a gardener who made pilgrimages to Western Hills Rare Plant Nursery and respected it with a reverence reserved for sacred landmarks, Sandra Price wasn't sure what she'd find past the tall hedges and unassuming gate.

Reports were that it was so overgrown the wide paths were barely visible and a few plants in its storied collection had even gone missing.

But the St. Helena gardener and garden historian was not only not disappointed, she said she was "delighted by the work" done by a committed group of some 50 volunteers who have worked with, and often beside, new owners Tim and Chris Szybalski of Moraga.

The couple, serious gardeners who also partner in the century-old Westbrae Nursery in Berkeley, bought Western Hills out of foreclosure two years ago. Since then they have spent virtually every weekend in a hands-on effort to bring back the bewitching, nationally renowned three-acre garden, planted by the late Marshall Olbrich and Lester Hawkins with rare plants they gathered from around the world.

Price wound up volunteering herself, and she has now just finished an eight-week docent training course to lead the public on tours through the garden, hidden away on Coleman Valley Road above Occidental.

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