The story of Western Hills can’t be fully told by an outsider, of course, so this will in no way be an attempt at a complete history. The former nursery and now endangered 3-acre garden have woven through Northern Californian garden history and the careers and fortunes of San Francisco Bay Area designers for the last 50 years. Indeed, at its peak, obsessive gardeners from all over the world traveled here. I merely made biannual pilgrimages from Southern California beginning in the early 1980’s, armed with notebooks and plant lists, never drumming up the nerve to speak to its owners, Lester Hawkins and Marshall Olbrich, who I’d often see on the pathways absorbed in giving tours to the impassioned gardeners that found their way to this remote garden in the hills of Occidental, California, seemingly as far west as is possible to venture without falling into the ocean. Bodega Bay, immortalized in Hitchcock’s The Birds, is just a few miles to the west.
When the pursuit of plants was still an adventure and not a mouse click, when one smuggled plants in suitcases from Europe because there was no U.S. source — a time hard to imagine, before Heronswood, Plant Delights, before the Internet — in this barren horticultural landscape the rare plants nursery at Western Hills became the beacon that guided me to a fecund world brimming over with a stunning riches of plant wealth, a world I returned to again and again for over 20 years.
Like all lost worlds, it’s nearly impossible to imagine a time when, for example, now-common plants like diascias, euphorbias and penstemons were rarities unavailable in U.S. commerce, only written of in English garden books. These were plants eminently suitable for my zone 10 garden but frustratingly out of reach. It was this kind of plant, perfectly adapted for use in my garden in the Mediterranean climate of Los Angeles, that I brought home by the dozens from Western Hills Nursery in the trunk of the car, spilling over into the back seat, occasionally tied to the roof of the car, or on the floor between our feet.
What I was mostly oblivious to, however, largely because I had no place for them in my small garden, were the woody shrubs and trees that were being carefully selected and placed in the garden at Western Hills, inspired by the natural planting styles espoused by such horticulturalists as the 19th Century’s William Robinson.
The garden at Western Hills (USDA Zone 8, Sunset Zone 14/15/) slowly evolved over the decades of my visits, and as I walked its paths so many years ago, scouring the understories of its trees and shrubs for the next perennial or subshrub to shoehorn into my garden, I often neglected to bring my gaze upward. It seemed only just last week, wandering its abandoned paths in stunned amazement, did I truly apprehend the full scope of their horticultural ambitions.
Like all good plantsmen, Hawkins and Olbrich were steeped in the garden writers and makers of the past, absorbed their principles, then added their own unique adaptations, tempered by their own character, time, and place.
Ahead of its time, the garden today now has a sleepy, magical quality. You will not find intricate hardscape or elaborately paved sitting areas, just simple tracks through an astonishing array of plants, from spring bulbs of the tiniest stature, up through shrubs of infinite variety of leaf, flower and berry, and now the mature canopy of rare trees, many of which have required the assistance of an arborist to identify.
This timeless garden is literally poised at the edge of oblivion, of being wiped from horticultural memory.
If there is such a thing as perfect horticultural pitch, Hawkins and Olbrich were blessed with it. The complex perennial plantings they loved to engineer have not entirely survived the neglect, as is naturally the case with detailed perennial plantings, which need constant thinning and rejuvenation, but what remains has a purity of purpose, creating broad, rich carpets of tough and adaptive plants like phormium, astelia, phlomis, furcraea, eryngiums, echium, gunnera, linaria, hellebores, geraniums, lychnis, pulmonarias, symphytums, myosotis, lamium, ferns of all kinds, dicentra, euphorbias. It is an outdoor master horticultural class, espousing and vivifying the axiom “right plant, right place.”
In the face of such horticultural zeal, three acres was woefully inadequate, and the mature garden now needs careful editing and pruning to keep sight lines clear and growing conditions ideal.
After the deaths of Hawkins and Olbrich, the nursery and garden were bequeathed to and run by nursery associate Maggie Wych in 1991 and then sold in 2006. The new owners Robert Stansel and Joseph Gatta, had ambitious plans to maintain and preserve the garden and reopen the nursery, but due to the recession have had to make the painful decision to allow the property to lapse into foreclosure.
In its present mature state, the garden would seem to represent a maintenance challenge far beyond the abilities of a single owner, and a consortium is contemplated as a solution. The Garden Conservancy is compiling a photographic record of the garden and hoping to ensure its “long-term preservation.” MB Maher and I were at Western Hills in the early, slightly rainy morning of March 26, 2010, to add to the photographic record.
The Garden Conservancy has put together a rich history of Western Hills on its website, with links to newspaper articles and also the horticultural essays written by Lester Hawkins for Pacific Horticulture. Like those they admired and whose writings they absorbed, including Messrs. Robinson, E. A. Bowles, and Graham Stuart Thomas, we can add the names of Lester Hawkins and Marshall Olbrich to the pantheon of horticulturists still relevant to us today. Their legacy is not in doubt. If only their beloved and astounding garden can be preserved as well.
Warm thanks to Robert Stansel (who identified this camellia as ‘Dark Knight’).
Postscript to the nursery’s future under new owners here.