Like many public gardens across America, Western Hills is preparing to open its gates for the 2015 season. Formerly the Western Hills Rare Plants Nursery, the three-acre site, located in Sonoma County, CA, is re-opening this Saturday, March 14. In addition to outstanding plant collections, what makes this particular garden exceptional is its tenacity. Since 1997, when heavy rainfall damaged the garden, through the present day, Western Hills Garden has survived a sequence of rebounds from near-extinction. This landmark “oasis of beauty” welcomes visitors with a beautiful spring collection of azaleas, camellias, hellebores, and rhododendrons. Summer will bring flowering Beschorneria, Cornus, Echiums, Iris, Kniphofias, Mullein, Phlomis, Puyas, Wachendorfia, and more. You may also be lucky to spot hummingbirds, dragonflies, ducks, turtles, mosquito fish, and an occasional heron.
Shortly before Tim and Chris Szybalski purchased the property in 2010, Western Hills was in foreclosure; its future in the hands of dedicated volunteers organized in part under the auspices of the Garden Conservancy’s Preservation assistance program. We continued to work in partnership with the Szybalskis in their concerted efforts to save the garden, providing background coaching and advice from our staff and a subsidized internship dedicated to inventorying the garden’s 144 named trees and the creation of electronic maps. The owners and staff attended key Garden Conservancy educational events, including our Preservation Weekend 2012 workshop at the Chicago Botanical Garden. Western Hills officially re-opened to the public in 2012, Saturdays only. Individual and group tours are arranged by appointment.
“This is our third year of limited public access,” said Tim Szybalski. “We are planning to offer bigger and better services, including expanding our nursery with more drought-tolerant native and Mediterranean plants, more tourism outreach, and improved signage in the garden for our significant plants.”
Some key milestones for Western Hills Garden under its new ownership include:
- Automated irrigation system and upgraded well and pump;
- Volunteers have cleared the trails, restored five of the 34 bridges, enlarged the parking lot, and cleared the ponds;
- Five structures have been restored on the property, including the “Big House;”
- An event space with landscaping has been created for weddings, anniversaries, birthday parties, and other gatherings;
- New volunteer, member, and docent programs have further extended community support;
- Hosted several garden clubs, horticulture societies, and community organizations.
- Key plants have been added, including restored rock gardens, dry perennials, a second Wollemia nobilis (Wollemi pine), and a Sequoia sempervirens ‘Yukon Prince’ (coastal redwood);
- Lilium pardalinum subsp. pitkenense (Pitkin marsh lilies), an endangered perennial herb, are being propagated.
Historically, Western Hills plays an interesting role in West Coast horticulture. Lester Hawkins, who founded the nursery in 1960 with Marshall Olbrich, also designed the original layouts of the Ruth Bancroft Garden, our very first Preservation garden. For a more detailed history of Western Hills Garden, please reference this in-depth article in the Winter 2015 edition of Pacific Horticulture.