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Occidental Oriented - November 2016 - MacKenzie Nekton


Occidental Oriented - November 2016 - MacKenzie Nekton

As I am writing this, I am in Portland, Oregon, 15 stories up, and looking out over the city. In the spirit of not the city, I’d like to dedicate this article to the botanical and natural beauty of Occidental. 

What better place to start then the Western Hills Garden, three acers of sloping paradise just up Coleman Valley Road? In 2005, the New York Times called it the “Tiffany’s of plants,” but the journey to becoming the landmark garden it is today hasn’t been easy. The garden was founded in 1973 by Marshall Olbrich and Lester Hawkins. Originally, Hawkins and Olbrich bought the property with the intention of living the hippy dream of 1959. However, when they got tired of organic gardening, the two began to plant more exotic, decorative varieties of plants. In 1972, just one year before Western Hills Plant Nursery was set to open, temperatures dropped below 20°F for several days, and many young plants died as a result. However, in 1973, Western Hills Plant Nursery was opened as a show garden and nursery for rare plants. Olbrich and Hawkins’ academic style of gardening attracted a dedicated group of followers, who made the journey up to Occidental to talk about politics and art in the gardens with their mentors. By the late 1970s, the gardens had matured into a dense wonderland of plants, all overlapping and intermingled, which created a natural feeling. In 1980, Roger Warner, inspired by Olbrich and Hawkins, stopped perusing his PhD and joined the Western Hills Garden partnership. His fresh perspective and new energy inspired a new well, better irrigation, and concerted marketing efforts. Eventually, in the early 1990s, the nursery passed into the hands of Maggie Wych, who knew little about horticulture before owning the garden. Her dedication to learning the trade and preserving the spirit of the founders was dampened only by heavy rainfall in 1997, which destroyed part of the center of the garden. After 15 years of adding new species and caretaking, Maggie put the garden up for sale. In 2007, it was bought by Robert Stansel and Joseph Gatta, Occidental locals who wanted to make the garden a public nonprofit. The recession dashed these hopes, and the garden went into foreclosure. The year the garden was closed, before being repurchased, is known as the “Secret Garden” Year. The garden survived only because Occidental natives snuck in and did their best to keep the garden alive. Christine and Tim Szybalski bought the property in 2010, and restored it to its former glory. Now, after much renovation, Western Hills Garden is once again open to the public. You can go and visit the spectacular garden on Tuesdays and Thursdays by appointment for plant sales or tours. Contact to make an appointment. Admission is $10 per person, and you can bring your own lunch to enjoy in the gardens. 

The Occidental Arts and Ecology Center is featured more regularly in this column, but it is worth mentioning again. The OAEC is dedicated to the helping communities move from ecological crises to sustainability. To this end, the OAEC has several amazing programs: a wetlands restoration program, a “Bringing Back the Beaver” campaign, a Mother Garden dedicated to biodiversity, a Resilient Schools Program that works with schools to work ecological resilience into the school, and a Permaculture Design program. There are other programs as well, all of which reflects OAEC’s commitment to the environment. They offer group retreats and classes of all kinds, and often host art, music, and theater events. The Occidental Arts and Ecology Center was born in 1994, in tandem with the Sowing Circle, an intentional community founded with the intention of weaving together shared labor, family ties, and sustainability. Since then, the OAEC has continued to live up to these lofty goals. Though they aren’t hosting any major classes at this time of year, you can support them by attending their volunteer days, and buying plants at their plant sales. Visit their website,, for more information. 

There is so much beauty out here in Occidental, and we are so lucky to live in the heart of it. Get outside before the weather gets too cold!