Sonoma County spots included in new book celebrating the beauty and soul of Western Gardens
For too long, the lush, leafy gardens of England and the East Coast have set the standard for gardens everywhere. Gardeners in dry climates have 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 little-known 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), presents 36 gardens that embody the spirit of the West, with its great diversity of plants and geography. Two of the gardens are in Sonoma County.
“The gardening media over the past 100 years has promulgated this vision of a beautiful garden that looks like it was straight out of England,” said Jewell, who lives in Chico and hosts the award-winning weekly public radio program and the podcast “Place of culture: conversations about natural history and the human impulse in the garden.”
“There have been a few exceptions from iconic Southwestern gardens, but overall the idea of what is beautiful is very limited and based on a garden that uses a lot more resources than most Americans during of a season, especially in the West, “she said.
Jewell, whose mission is to elevate ‘the way we think and talk about gardening’ and explore ‘the intersection of places, cultures and gardens’, joins Atkinson, a garden photographer equally passionate about working with the landscape as against it.
“Every region and every garden has such different flavors,” Jewell said. “But most of the whole of the west has a fairly long dry season, while parts of the southwest have a late summer monsoon and the northwest receives rain until the end of. summer. There is less water throughout the year in most western countries. I love the way people work with the sometimes difficult environmental conditions in their areas – floods, fires, drought. “
Much more than a breakdown of proper plants and design techniques paired with pretty pictures, “Under Western Skies” shows how each garden reflects a sense of place and the sensitivity of the gardener who created it. Jewell and Atkinson have highlighted gardeners who not only have beautiful scenery, but who do the hard work of digging in the dirt.
“I think it’s important because the more time you spend in the garden, with your plants, with your soil, with the environment, the more connected you are to it,” Jewell said. “I have the impression that when you walk into a garden, it’s someone’s personal project. You can feel the soul of the garden, as all the love and energy that went into this garden is part of what makes it beautiful.
Pig hill paradise
One of those gardens that shows this deep connection between garden and gardener is Hog Hill, a sprawling hilltop garden in Sevastopol 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 of the 6,000 plants that entered the original plantation. On their first dates, they showed up at their favorite nurseries. For Lew, it was the Half Moon Bay nursery. For Mary, it was the famous Western Hills nursery in the West.
“I love Mary’s pictorial combination of colors and textures,” Atkinson said. “And I love their mix of native and climate-adapted plants.”
While Hog Hill has many Californian natives, the garden is not made up entirely of native plants. It was also not designed strictly for drought tolerance.
But because most of the plants come from Mediterranean climates, the garden is suitable for our dry summer climate. And the couple have learned over time and through 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 everything that was found to be intrusive, including Stipa tenuissima, even though they loved him.
Although they have made changes over the years, Mary has retained the original “color foundation” that is so integral to the 3-acre garden.
Native Plant Pioneer Garden
“Under Western Skies” also visits the Sebastopol Garden of Phil Van Soelen, who for years ran “California Flora Nursery”, one of California’s first native plant nurseries in the Bay Area. Founded in 1981, it is still in business under different owners.
Van Soelen’s own garden, which he shares with his wife Mary Killian, reflects his love and commitment to the botany of the Golden State.