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.