Sonoma County spots included in new book celebrating the beauty of western gardens

For too long, the lush and green gardens of England and the East Coast set the standard for gardens everywhere. Gardeners in dry climates struggled to recreate the ideal with lawns and water-thirsty flowers and shrubs.

But the western garden has a different soul and is no less beautiful, say Caitlin Atkinson and Jennifer Jewell. The two women have collaborated on a new book celebrating the unsung virtues of gardens that embrace rather than erase the rugged landscape of the American West.

“Under Western Skies: Visionary Gardens from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast” (Timber Press, May 2021), features 36 gardens that embody the spirit of the West, with its vast diversity of plants and geography. Two of the gardens are in Sonoma County.

“The gardening media for the last 100 years has promulgated this vision of a beautiful garden that looks like it was taken right out of England,” said Jewell, who lives in Chico and hosts the national award-winning weekly public radio program and podcast “Cultivating Place: Conversations on Natural History and the Human Impulse to Garden.”

“There have been a some exceptions of iconic Southwestern gardens, but by and large, the idea of what is beautiful is very limited and based on a garden that uses a lot more resources than most Americans have during one season, particularly in the West,” she said.

Jewell, whose mission is to elevate “the way we think and talk about gardening” and explore “the intersection between places, cultures and the gardens,” joined with Atkinson, a garden photographer equally passionate about working with the landscape rather than against it.

“Each region and each garden have such different flavors,” Jewell said. “But most of the whole West has a fairly long dry season, while parts of the Southwest get a late summer monsoon and the Northwest gets rain until later in the summer. There is less water throughout the year in most of the West. I love how people are working with the sometimes harsh environmental conditions of their areas — floods, fires, drought.”

Far more than a breakdown of appropriate plants and design techniques paired with pretty pictures, “Under Western Skies” shows how each garden reflects a sense of place and the sensibility of the gardener who created it. Jewell and Atkinson highlighted gardeners who don’t just have beautiful landscapes but who do the hard work of digging in the dirt.

“I think this is important because the more time you spend in the garden, with your plants, with your soil, with the surroundings, the more you are connected to it,” Jewell said. “I feel like when you enter a garden, it is someone’s personal project. You can feel the soul of the garden, like all the love and energy that have contributed to that garden is part of what makes it beautiful.”

Hog Hill heaven

One of those gardens that shows that deep connection between garden and gardener is Hog Hill, a vast hilltop garden in Sebastopol that is a true horticultural partnership between Mary and Lew Reid. She is a landscape designer and artist who takes an artistic approach to garden design. He is a plant collector and propagator who propagated more than half the 6,000 plants that went into the original planting. On their first dates, they introduced each other to their favorite plant nurseries. For Lew, it was Half Moon Bay Nursery. For Mary, it was the famed Western Hills Nursery in Occidental.

“I love Mary’s painterly combination of colors and textures,” Atkinson said. “And I love their mix of natives and climate-appropriate plants.”

While Hog Hill features many California natives, the garden is not made only of native plants. Nor was it designed strictly for drought tolerance.

But because most of the plants come from in Mediterranean climates, the garden is adapted to our summer dry climate. And the pair learned over time and by trial and error which plants are happiest in their microclimate, which they describe as a bit of a banana belt in western Sonoma County. They removed anything that proved invasive, including Stipa tenuissima, even though they loved it.

While they have made changes over the years, Mary kept the original “color foundation” that is so integral to the 3-acre garden.

Native plant pioneer’s garden

“Under Western Skies” also visits the Sebastopol garden of Phil Van Soelen, who for years ran “California Flora Nursery,” one of the first California native plant nurseries in the Bay Area. Founded in 1981, it is still going strong under different ownership.

Van Soelen’s own garden, which he shares with wife Mary Killian, reflects his love of and commitment to the botany of the Golden State.

His garden measures 150 feet deep by 60 feet wide and is, by design, packed with as many plant species as possible to promote genetic diversity and provide food for wildlife, like the local pipevine that is the only larval food source for pipevine swallowtail butterflies.

Van Soelen revealed that he loves trying to “cultivate a feeling of what the undisturbed native landscape might have been, even if I don’t have exactly the same plants.”

Among his plants are many small trees like dogwoods, woody shrubs like manzanita, herbaceous flowering plants such as buckwheat coral bells and penstemon, succulents and wildflowers.

Atkinson loves that it is an unassuming garden in a small town.

“One of the things I wanted to do was make gardening feel accessible to as many people as possible, from those with a small space to those with a larger space like the Reids,” she said.

It’s interesting how, even within the same climate and culture of a particular place, Jewell observed, you can come up with wildly different gardens, with each gardener putting their own imprint on the landscape.

“Mary Reid is really interested in color and form and taking a painterly approach with swathes of color repeated,” she said. “She did an entire composed drawing of the garden prior to planting it, showing where she wanted the colors to work together and move throughout the season. It’s a very different approach than Phil (Van Soelen) as a plants man. His garden shows his passionate and deep knowledge of the plants of his county written over all these years of hiking and collecting and propagating.”

Integrated with local environment

Jewell said she feels heartened by a rising consciousness about gardening with respect to the local environment and geography.

“We’re not just removing front lawns and moving gravel and a couple of boulders or putting in halfhearted plantings,” she said. “We’re seeing really sophisticated gardens that are taking these questions of resource use and watershed health and integrating their gardens with our local habitat, but still having them be places of rest and respite and celebrations.”

Gardening, Jewell said, is spiritual, scientific, political and environmental. And it is also — like food, literature, music and art — something that all people, in all parts of the world, are moved to create.

“It is something we humans have an impulse to engage in across time, across space and across cultures. Ancient Mesopotamians were gardening. Ancient Egyptians were gardening. Israelis and Palestinians are both gardening. And certainly ancient North Americans. It is this higher level of engagement where we can actually find a place to transcend our petty disputes at political, economic or religious levels,” she said.

Atkinson said she wants to inspire and empower people to engage in gardening wherever they are and however they are able.

“I want everyone to feel like they can garden, even if it’s in a parking strip or small yard or rented space.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or OnTwitter @megmcconahey.

Meg McConahey

Features, The Press Democrat

Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.


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