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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.

"After coming as a customer, to be able to actually work in it and touch the soil," Price said, "is a real treat."

To Mike Nevard, another volunteer who drives in from The Sea Ranch every Thursday to produce compost with fellow "Compost King" Dick Miner of San Anselmo, it doesn't feel like work.

"This is not a job. It's a privilege," he said.

The Szybalskis faced a daunting task when they took on Western Hills. Not only was it overgrown, but it needed a new irrigation system and improvements to the well. Aging structures were falling apart, 32 bridges needed shoring up and the pond needed to be cleared of the parrot feather, duckweed and dreaded azolla invasive pond plants to make it more habitable for the fish, frogs, ducks and pair of mating turtles who live there.

"The biggest challenge has been the canopy, and having it become a full-shade garden," said Stacie Miller, who is one of only two paid, part-time staff. She described it as a careful "editing process" to decide what to cut back and how much, in order to once again open the breathtaking sightlines and vistas that had been obscured over time.

Gardens are always changing as their denizens mature, seed and die back. And the vision of Olbrich and Hawkins, self-taught horticulturists and pioneers in the back-to-the-land movement who bought the property more than 50 years ago and initially set about creating an "organic homestead" in a sunny clearing, has since grown into a thick otherworld. Many of the plants that they brought back and introduced into the horticultural trade may no longer be rare, but are of an awe-inspiring size and maturity.

"The pathways were full of plants that had seeded themselves and plants were falling over the pathways," Tim Szybalski said.

"The first two years were stabilization. The first spring we cut everything down and it was a surprise what came back. And the second spring was really great," he added. "Marshall and Lester knew they were planting too densely, and that the trees were going to be a problem. But they laughed that they just needed another tree."

Among the many intriguing specimens are four maple trees on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources' "red list" of threatened species: acer pentaphyllum, acer morrisonense, acer oblongum and acer griseum.

The couple have installed a new 50-valve, 200-head automated sprinkler system and added a new pump and controllers to improve the well. The Szybalskis say sprinklers are going 18 hours a day, six days a week, with a break only on Saturdays when they welcome visitors.

Twenty tons of amended soil have been brought in and a greenhouse, small barn and the octagon cottage, where Olbrich and Hawkins once reportedly lived, have been restored for offices and a lunchtime refuge for volunteers from the heat and sun.

With the help of Maggie Wych, who worked the garden for years and became its owner and caretaker after the death of Olbrich in 1991, they've identified many plants. And with help from The Garden Conservancy, which has adopted Western Hills as one of its official "assistance gardens," they've been able to document much of the garden. The Conservancy has given them an inventory of 170 different trees on the property, a strong start but not comprehensive. That will help them provide the labels and signage befitting Western Hills' new future, not as a plant nursery but as a botanical garden and center of horticultural education.

The Szybalskis and their team of supporters are committed not only to preserving what Olbrich and Hawkins created, but to continue adding rare and unusual plants in their spirit of horticultural innovation. They've recently acquired two Wollemi pines — an "heir and a spare," as they say at Western Hills. One of the world's oldest and rarest trees, the conifer dubbed a "living fossil" was discovered less than 20 years ago by Australian bushwhackers.

The garden has been open since June for tours between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Saturdays and by appointment. Long-term plans include developing the garden more as an event space and educational center. Visitors, said Miller, are always amazed.

"You walk up to the gate and you have no idea what to expect when you're standing out there. It's overwhelming and it's awe-inspiring. This is a drop-to-your-knees kind of place."