show menu

A tale of two gardens

When thinking of the history of gardens in Sonoma County, one would be amiss to think of Luther Burbank and all he accomplished with his horticulture influence, and not go further. If you love plants, then by taking into consideration some of the other iconic gardens in Sonoma County, you will be greatly rewarded by the unique and rare plants to be discovered.

There are two such gardens that could be considered sisters in the horticultural world: Western Hills Garden and Hidden Forest Nursery. These two gardens are true gems and keepers of both rare flora and plants that could be considered common (until one learns how many varieties there are within one genus of the plant). Have you ever wondered about growing an edible shade garden? Yes please! Would you like to find a breathtaking rhododendron different from anything you have seen before? They and many others can be found in these two unique and beautiful gardens.

If you haven’t made a visit to either Western Hills Garden or Hidden Forest Nursery, you are in for a treat. Simply walking through the properties is akin to a meditation with a touch of heaven to enhance the experience. Are you an artist who is looking for the perfect place to sit and paint or sketch? These could be your new favorite places to create! If you want to find unusual plants that are perfectly adapted to our wet winters and the Mediterranean climate that we have in Sonoma County? The only difficulty will be in deciding which or how many of their beautiful specimens would fit into your garden. The varieties of rare plants both of these gardens provide are an eye-opening journey into some of what makes Sonoma County so special.

Western Hills Garden

Western Hills Garden, a three-acre property on Coleman Valley Road just outside of Occidental, has gone through a number of owners and changes over the years since its inception in 1959. The property was purchased by two guys from the city, Lester Hawkins and Marshall Olbrich, who wanted to free themselves from the manic city energy, surround themselves with nature, and homestead their new terrain. In the process of working the land and removing mountains of blackberries and poison oak, they turned the property into Western Hills Rare Plants Nursery. With their radical enthusiasm and dedication, they made the property home to a vast number of exotic and rare plants, which in turn, attracted botanists, plant collectors and horticulturists from all over the world.

In 1991 they bequeathed the property to their dear friend and gardener Maggie Wych, a British expat who added more touches of whimsy and needed infrastructure to the garden. In 2010, the garden was purchased by Chris and Tim Szybalski, who further improved structures such as irrigation, buildings and the botanical collection.

Western Hills is now owned and operated by Hadley Dynak and Kent Strader, who purchased the property in August of 2021. They are serious stewards of the property, from care of the land and plants, to new public programs they are offering, which focus on creativity, wellness and horticulture. “It’s about plants, people, place and possibility,” says Hadley. Opportunities to learn in the garden include classes such as Botanical Observation Through Painted Collage, and others. These classes fill up quickly, so check out their website regularly for times and dates. Or better yet, sign up for the monthly newsletter to stay in the know. Volunteers are welcome so if you want to get your hands dirty in this magical place send an email and let them know. You will forever be thankful for the opportunity to be a part of this important historical location in Sonoma County.

When I walked through the garden of Western Hills the other day, chatting with Hadley and Kent, I think I discovered one of my new favorite plants (although in all honesty, I don’t think I have a favorite, how could I with so many choices?), Edgeworthia, the Oriental Paper Bush, which originates from China and the Himalayas. The reason it is called a paper bush is that its leaves were once used to make paper bank notes. What I really love about the plant is both its scent, a delicate gardenia/honeysuckle, and how it appears from a distance. It looks almost as if the 1 - 2-inch clusters of tiny yellow flowers float in the air because during this time of year, when there is not yet any foliage, the slender branches which hold them up are practically invisible. In the spring, after the flowers have finished blooming, a lovely bluish foliage with silvery undertones appears. It is an easy-care plant that thrives in partial shade -- and it is a welcoming thought to know that there will be flowers, scent and color in the wintertime.

Hadley has also written a book, very appropriate for the times we live in that released on Feb. 28 called, “It’s a Good Day to Change the World,” published by Countryman Press. Come and have a book signed at Copperfields at 138 N. Main Street, Sebastopol on Mar. 17!

Western Hills Garden is open by appointment which can be made through their website. The garden is located at:

16250 Coleman Valley Road

Occidental, CA 95465

Hidden Forest Nursery

Hidden Forest Nursery is a seven-acre jewel of a property, just south of Sebastopol on Azalea Lane, one mile off of Hessel. The first time I visited the nursery was in 2002, before Mike Boss, the current owner purchased the property in 2017. In a way it was a race against time for him, as there were other parties who wanted to purchase the property, and whose designs on the place involved inaccessibility to the garden. I am so thankful Mike acquired the property, because he has always had the goal and passion of preserving and making this cherished horticultural treasure available to the public.

The garden started out as an azalea farm in 1964, created and managed by Stewart and Audrey Barber. In 1976 it was purchased by Polo de Lorenzo and Warren Smith, who tended and worked the land, adding and nurturing an expanding variety of plants, both rare and ones perfectly suited to Sonoma County - with a focus on azaleas, rhododendrons and camellias. Not only are there beautiful pathways that wind through lush groves of rare trees and shrubs, with stunningly beautiful clematis meeting your eyes as you look up, many of the plants you meander past are available for purchase. This is one of the few places where one can bring home a rare large-leaved rhododendron with breathtaking flowers, or pick up one of the many hellebores available for purchase. The varieties of camellia, azalea and rhododendron are truly astounding and there is even one camellia (Camellia japonica ‘Unryu’) that has branches similar to the delightful character of a curly willow!

If you are interested in edible plants (even in the shade!) explore their long-lived edible selection, where there are quite a few plants to choose from. It could be a rare vegetable fern (Diplazium esculentum) with edible fronds, or Camellia sinensis which makes a delectable tea (did you know that all black and green tea come from camellias?). Alternatively consider the Chilean guava that can both handle some shade and also produces a delicious fruit. Other unusual plants that Hidden Forest Nursery carries are Paw Paw, Goji Berries and a longevity spinach.

The staff at the garden are delightfully knowledgeable and love to answer questions. I had a very enlightening time talking with Armando about bonsai. He has worked at the garden for over 30 years and his enthusiasm, like everyone else who works at the nursery, is contagious. Ask Mike or any of the workers to direct you to the tree museum – where you can see the rare Bald Cypress or the Chinese Swamp Cypress, with their knees sticking out of the water, looking like a colony of prairie dogs! It is an encounter not to be missed and can’t help but put a smile on your face.

Whether you purchase one of their gorgeous plants, volunteer at the garden or take one of the tours available or upcoming classes, Hidden forest Nursery will touch your heart and soul and draw you back again and again.

When you visit Hidden Forest Nursery:

3970 Azalea Lane

Sebastopol, CA 95472

We've moved our commenting system to Disqus, a widely used community engagement tool that you may already be using on other websites. If you're a registered Disqus user, your account will work on the Gazette as well. If you'd like to sign up to comment, visit
Show Comment