A Leap for the Earth Saves a Local Treasure - The Hidden Forest Nursery
By Leslie Curchack
I sat with Mike Boss in a rustic gazebo on the grounds of his newly acquired 7 acre horticultural preserve outside Sebastopol, CA. Now renamed the Hidden Forest Nursery, for decades it operated as Sonoma Horticultural Nursery, specializing in rhododendrons and azaleas and featuring rare botanical wonders along its beautiful forested garden paths. Simple benches and pathways allow a person to wander and contemplate acres of incredible flowering trees and shrubs, as well as discover a peaceful pond, a creek, a wetland, 100 dawn redwoods, the exceedingly rare Chinese Water Pine and more. The serene feeling of a sanctuary was palpable to me as I walked through the forest with Mike on the way to the gazebo.
Mike describes himself as a passionate plant-person. For 30 years he’s been running a landscaping company in San Francisco, and he's been holding a dream of someday owning land in Sonoma’s West County, with a botanical garden of edible plants, a research farm for agricultural development, and a nursery for community and economic engagement.
In the summer of 2017, he learned that the long-time owner of ‘Sonoma Hort’ was retiring and the nursery was for sale. He and his business partners marshaled resources and were ready to make an offer, but the night before submitting paperwork, his partners dropped out. A call came in the next morning from his real estate agent delivering another thunderclap. A bid had been accepted from a developer who would most likely turn the 7 acres into two private properties with luxury mansions. There was, however, a contingency on the sale, which gave another buyer 30 days to possibly get the place first.
Mike wrestled hard with the decision of whether to proceed. “I had a bird on one shoulder saying ‘Mike, walk away!’ I had a bird on the other shoulder saying ‘If you don’t go after this with every fiber of your being, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.’” He’d wanted a nursery for a long time, and the horticultural brilliance before him was compelling. The clincher was that if he didn’t pull off a miracle in the next 30 days, the property would be closed off to the public forever. He needed to make the leap for the earth, but also for the community. The place, he explained to me, has a natural richness, with incredible educational and spiritual experiences. In this age where people suffer from Nature-Deficit Disorder, there's a deep need for opportunities to connect with nature. The decision was made for him.
And he leaped! He maxed out his line of credit, cashed in his retirement plan, and took out a hard-money, high-interest loan. He begged and borrowed from family, friends, and even strangers who believed in his vision. He met a guy at an earth-based event and told him what he was trying to do. The man replied that he’d just come into an inheritance that he wanted to do something good with, and Mike's project was going to be it.
On the 31st day of the contingency period, Mike put down the deposit and the property was saved. The nursery was his hope for money to live on and pay the mortgage, and there were decent sales the first spring when the azaleas and rhododendrons were in glorious bloom. But after Mother’s Day, sales tanked and the high-interest loan was pressing down. Bankruptcy loomed, until a chance meeting with an old friend saved the day by leading him to a mortgage broker who worked miracles for a refinance. That got him through to this following spring of 2019, but continuous rains have kept people away and sitting before me now in July, he’s still on a keen edge of uncertainty. He laid out upcoming changes that should help: 1) expanding the selection of shade-loving plants 2) introducing a new line of long-lived edible plants 3) changing the name and upgrading signage 4) getting non-profit status 5) asking for donations and offering memberships.
Mike believes that his entire life was in preparation for him to steward this very place. He was the only person who had been in love with the place for decades, understood the horticultural significance of what was in the gardens, had the wherewithal to secure it, was there at the moment needed, and had the courage and confidence to dive off the financial cliff without being able to see the bottom.
Mike is at the nursery most days of the week, performing a multitude of tasks with enthusiasm and purpose. He welcomes new and repeat visitors to enjoy and support this gem of a forest garden.
Open Thursday - Monday 9-5 pm.