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Historic Western Hills Garden in Occidental marks 60 years

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If You Go

What: Western Hills 60th anniversary

When: May 25-26

Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Highlights: Self-guided and walk-and-talk tours, special talks by guest speakers including Sean Hogan, owner of the renowned Cistus Design Nursery in Portland, Oregon

Cost: $35, with proceeds going to help support the garden restoration and maintenance. Free for Western Hills Garden members. $10 for kids 6-12 years.

Address: 16250 Coleman Valley Road, Occidental. Parking is
limited. There will be a shuttle from downtown Occidental running every 30 minutes from the upper lot behind the Union Hotel Restaurant.

Information: 707-872-5463 or westernhillsgarden.com

It was 1959 when Marshall Olbrich and Lester Hawkins ditched the city life in San Francisco to go “back to the land” in the hills above Occidental.

They were far ahead of their time, beating the hippies by a decade as they established a homestead on 3 acres off Coleman Valley Road. They built a rustic home and a barn and began taming the land, ripping out poison oak and blackberries and creating the beginnings of what would become one of the West’s great gardens.

In 1973 the pair went public, opening Western Hills Rare Plant Nursery, which quickly became a magnet for horticulturists and plant collectors. They came from around the world to talk botany, ecology and world affairs, share seed and cuttings and buy plants from a nursery filled with an eclectic array of material unseen in garden centers of the era.

Miraculously, the garden survives, having grown over six decades into a lush shade garden filled with specimens that still draw marvel. And even though many of the plants are not so rare anymore in the American market, they are rarely seen with such size and maturity.

Current owners Chris and Tim Szybalski and the garden’s legion of supporters and volunteers, will celebrate Western Hills’ 60th anniversary this weekend with self-guided and guided tours of the 3-acre garden, special talks both days and a big plant sale. The garden’s regular public hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays in spring and summer or by appointment on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

“We’ve really worked hard on the nursery. We’ve got good volunteers propagating and starting from seeds. Almost everything we have now is from the garden,” Tim Szybalski said. Visitors can select from acers, conifers and flowering shrubs.

His cousin, Sean Hogan, a horticultural superstar and owner of Cistus Nursery in Portland, has also trucked in unusual plants for the sale and will be a guest speaker.

The event is expected to draw a multitude of fans who either worked, shopped or showed up at Western Hills just to hang out with Olbrich and Hawkins in their magical garden of amazing plants.

“It was so much more than a garden. It was a lifestyle for Lester and Marshall and for the young people they attracted and taught about gardening and horticulture. But it also was about economics and politics and all the things that make life interesting for young people,” said Betsy Flack, a landscape architect from Sebastopol who worked for many years with the national Garden Conservancy. She was a young biology graduate helping out at Strybing Arboretum and the Berkeley Ecology Center in the early 1970s when she heard about the remarkable garden up in Sonoma County, whose creators were leading a movement that really had no name at the time. But it was all about creating gardens suitable for California’s cool, wet winters and dry summers.

Hawkins and Olbrich had an open gate philosophy. They were generous about sharing cuttings and seed. But they also created a sort of salon atmosphere for stimulating conversation about broader ideas, using, as Flack said, “landscaping and gardening and horticulture as a centerpoint.”

Hawkins and Olbrich were completely self-taught. Hawkins became the designer, who went on to design other great gardens, including the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek. Olbrich was the plant man and propagator.

If You Go

What: Western Hills 60th anniversary

When: May 25-26

Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Highlights: Self-guided and walk-and-talk tours, special talks by guest speakers including Sean Hogan, owner of the renowned Cistus Design Nursery in Portland, Oregon

Cost: $35, with proceeds going to help support the garden restoration and maintenance. Free for Western Hills Garden members. $10 for kids 6-12 years.

Address: 16250 Coleman Valley Road, Occidental. Parking is
limited. There will be a shuttle from downtown Occidental running every 30 minutes from the upper lot behind the Union Hotel Restaurant.

Information: 707-872-5463 or westernhillsgarden.com

One of the unique things about the garden is how it was laid out. Instead of starting with paths and hardscaping, Hawkins designed planting islands of garden beds.

“The plants were the important part and as they grew the paths were worked in and around the beds so there was room enough so the plants could take their natural form,” said Flack, who went from volunteering in the garden to working there, up until the early 1980s.

Olbrich set about filling the garden with plants that would thrive in Northern California’s Mediterranean climate, that wouldn’t require more water than what is naturally available to them. It was a novel concept at the time, when so much of garden fashion came out of places like England, Japan and the wetter, colder East Coast, said Dick Turner, the retired editor of Pacific Horticulture magazine.

Olbrich and Hawkins began acquiring plants from parts of the world with a similar climate, like Chile, Australia and South Africa.

“Fellow gardeners would send them seeds from plants from their region. And out of that came introductions we’re familiar with today,” Turner said.

They became trendsetters, setting the stage for the kind of waterwise gardening that is common practice in California today.

The experimented with grevillea from Australia and from South Africa, restios and proteus, as well as new species of rock roses and lavender that had not yet been introduced in California.

“Their nursery and their garden became a mecca very early on for plant lovers and garden makers who realized we need to be a little more cautious about how we use water in the landscape, and use it more efficiently and effectively,” Turner said.

Western Hills remained a major force for several decades, even after the death of Hawkins in 1985. When Olbrich died six years later he bequeathed the property to longtime employee Maggie Wych, who devoted herself to their vision while enhancing it with new plants and infrastructure, including stone runnels and a rebuilt arbor known as the folly.

But it became too much and in 2005 a weary Wych put the garden on the market. Western Hills devotees were fearful that the property would be acquired by someone who would let the garden die, remove it or simply not know how to tend it. It initially was purchased for nearly $1.5 million by two men who put in a valiant effort to keep the garden going. But the demands of maintaining a complex 50-year-old garden were daunting. When the economy tanked, along with real estate prices in 2010, they lost it to foreclosure.

The Szybalskis, both engineers from Moraga, on a rescue mission to save Western Hills, paid only $430,000. They have spent the last nine years, with the help of a cadre of volunteers, rebuilding the main house, where they now live, adding a large 60-by-30-foot area for public gatherings, both social and educational, as well as reviving the iconic garden that had become seriously overgrown over time.

That included rebuilding five of the 34 little footbridges along the paths, enlarging a pond and adding a waterfall, upgrading the irrigation system and, with the help of experts and The Garden Conservancy, they set about identifying the plants and trees in the collection.

They now have an inventory of 140 trees, including a fine collection of dogwoods and conifers and 13 different species of Taxodium representing every type in the world, including Chinese and Florida Swamp Cypress and Mazuma Cypress.

Working from five file boxes of index cards beautifully typed with the names of every plant introduced in the garden between 1970 and 1985, Szybalski and others went through the garden on a hunt to locate every one of them that they could. About half to two-thirds of those original plants remain, and new things are being uncovered all the time.

Sean Hogan said there was a lot of effort put in to figuring out what to preserve, what to remove and what to add.

The garden needed a lot of pruning back, but over time, the original bones and sight lines are emerging, as well as plants no one knew were there.

“Now you can begin to see the spatial design,” Turner said. “It’s not just a collection of plants, but plants used to create some marvelous spaces.”

“We’re just so lucky someone came along who was willing to put the energy into saving that garden and re-envisioning it for future generations so it doesn’t just disappear. They deserve a lot of credit.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5204.

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