History: Western Hills has been celebrated as a “landmark” garden over its sixty years of life. The basic layout of the garden by Marshall Ulbrecht and Lester Hawkins emerged over three decades of innovative design and the introduction of rare plants. The garden and nursery survived and evolved for another 15 years under the stewardship of Maggie Wych, who upgraded the infrastructure and introduced a “cottage garden” ambiance. With the sale of the garden in 2008, the garden went into decline and ultimately went into foreclosure in 2010.
Stabilize, Restore, and Renew: The garden emerged from foreclosure in 2010 with new owners Tim and Christine Szybalski. The immediate goal was to “stabilize” the garden, which was in rough shape after several years of neglect. The garden was shut down for the first year.
With lots of volunteer support, paths were restored, and the garden was reclaimed from the weeds and the overly successful species (e.g., Lamium). The well and irrigation system were upgraded, and decayed bridges were repaired. Tons of new soil amendments were imported. A first-ever composting program began with the help of a Garden Conservancy volunteer (now our mulch maven, Dick Miner). Volunteers helped with drastic pruning and vegetation removal, with special attention to the Important plants identified from a Garden Conservancy inventory. Dangerous trees were removed or trimmed.
Renovation of the property began with fixing the badly deteriorated small outbuildings. Important plants were propagated or selectively replaced. Eventually all major buildings, including the private residence, were renovated. A large event space was created to host gardening club visits and meetings. The goals for the garden’s renovation were formalized in 2015 to include the following elements.
Threatened Species: Identify and replicate “threatened” species which are in the garden; introduce new endangered species as appropriate based upon the International Union for Conservation of Nature “red list” of endangered species. Our first effort identified the four “threatened” maples in the garden.
Propagation: Build a propagation capability to provide continuity with existing species that are at the end of their lifespan. Introduce an “heir and a spare” for the most important plants. Our volunteer support has been critical to this effort.
New Cultivars: Understand and rebuild Western Hills’ historical role of “introducing” new cultivars to California with support from Sean Hogan (author, lecturer, and owner of Cistus Nursery in Portland). More than one hundred new cultivars have been added to the garden to improve diverstity.
Fauna: Understand and provide a viable habitat for the “fauna” that live in the garden. Encourage bees, birds, and butterflies. Improve the five ponds by clearing invasive species, promoting helpful plants, and installing waterfalls or aerators. The pond denizens are now thriving: dragonflies, frogs, salamanders, mosquito fish, and some imported goldfish. Seasonally we see ducks, herons, turtles, kingfishers, and river otters.
Infrastructure: Provide a safe and hospitable environment for visitors to enjoy the garden. We renovated the outbuildings to provide an office and lunch room. Paths, bridges, and ponds were restored. For more details on our renovation as of 2015, click on this link: “Accomplishments Toward Our Goals — 2015”.]
Renewal 2020: The garden was closed to the public in 2020 for extensive renovation. Major sections of the garden were targeted for complete replanting. Much of the work was driven by damage caused by falling trees, some was an acceleration of ongoing replacements, and some was just reaching areas that had not been improved for years. (For a more complete description of current projects underway, click on this link: “Goals and Accomplishments — 2020”. Of course, the shutdown from the coronavirus has affected everything. We had intended to host groups and members, but that became unfeasible. We also lost volunteers and gardening staff for a period, but we now are back on track and making lots of progress. We hope to open a grand “new” garden to groups and members in 2021 as we move into the future.
Western Hills Garden, 16250 Coleman Valley Road, Occidental CA 95465