On a gently rolling terrain where dappled sunlight falls through oak and dogwood trees and highlights sculptural manzanitas, meadow grasses, rocks and native succulents, Phil Van Soelen’s Sebastopol, California, garden feels like a swath of oak woodland in the middle of town. Pathways meander between mounded beds, opening onto small seating areas that invite one to pause and watch the birds and butterflies visiting plants and water features.
The place has such a natural, peaceful feeling that it’s easy to imagine it’s always been this way—that it escaped development while all the neighboring yards fell sway to the craze for lawns and foundation plantings. But when Phil bought his home 35 years ago, most of the lot was covered by a road-base gravel driveway, and there were few plants—it was basically a compacted parking lot for the little house at the back of the property. Back then, Phil had just earned a degree in Environmental Studies from Sonoma State University, liked gardening and being outdoors, but knew little about how to bring his new property back to life. What he did have was inspiration.
During the previous three years, Phil had rented a 200-acre property in rural Sonoma County. “My years at Mark West Springs set the scene for everything I’ve done with my garden,” Phil says. “I got to see the land change through the seasons and came to really love native plants.”
As he hiked around Mark West Springs, Phil often saw the same plants, but always in new combinations. “It wasn’t like a landscape that somebody designed and installed, then it stays that way forever,” he says. “It was dynamic, always a surprise. I knew I wanted to create a garden that had some of those qualities.”
Digging Into Sandy Soil
It took Phil a lot of work and a lot of learning to even partially re-create the complexity of wild nature on his 1/4-acre lot. First, he set to work with a pick and bar to loosen the compacted, sandy soil, adding organic matter to bring it back to life. To counteract the property’s long, narrow “shotgun” feeling, he started digging out meandering paths, throwing the soil to the side to create raised beds. The raised beds are laid out so that shafts of sunlight reach most of the garden at some time during the day.
A drainage problem near the house became an asset when Phil sculpted a seasonal creek. In summer, it appears as a dry, rocky streambed. With winter rains, water flows in the creek and moisture-loving plants spring up along its banks.
As Phil was developing his yard, his love of gardening also became his life’s work. In the late 1970s, Phil was working at a small nonprofit, helping to develop a native plant nursery north of Santa Rosa. While there, a stranger with a deep appreciation for wild nature and native trees offered him a generous start-up loan to create his own nursery. In 1981, Phil founded California Flora Nursery with business partner Sherrie Althouse. Thirty years later, Phil and Sherrie’s hard work has paid off. “People are realizing what natives are about—that they’re ecologically important, and beautiful and useful,” Phil says. “When gardeners start looking for a native plants nursery, we’re one of the main places to go.”
Over the years, Phil’s home garden has served as a testing ground that ultimately serves a much wider audience. “I’ll see something in nature that I think is beautiful or unusual, then I’ll propagate it from seed or cuttings and test it in my garden. If it does well, I’ll provide it in the nursery.”
Working with Nature
The mounds, the moist and dry areas, and the patterns of sunlight and shade in Phil’s garden create a range of environments. “When I’m placing a plant, I read my garden’s landscape,” he says. “I’m looking for the conditions closest to what that plant prefers in nature—where it could probably thrive with the least water and other input. So I have trilliums in drainage ditches and manzanitas on mounds.”
Phil has also been creating wildlife habitat. His garden attracts abundant bird life, and native bees flock to the open spaces and wood where they can nest. He’s planted larval food plants for native butterflies. Fruit trees, berry bushes and a raised vegetable bed also provide food for humans.
In his efforts to re-create a natural landscape, Phil has built complexity into the garden. Plants of many heights and types provide layers and a range of habitats. Some plants go dormant as others are emerging. In winter, deciduous trees drop their leaves and admit sunlight; in summer, the shady canopy closes over parts of the garden.
“This garden is an ongoing conversation between me, the land and the plants,” Phil says. “I have notions of what I want, and I put plants in, but then I give them the dignity to tell me what they want.” Recently, he planted some buttercups as an accent, and they spread beyond their intended spot. Rather than contain them, he acknowledged that the buttercups really wanted to grow into that wider area. “I realized that you usually see small fields of buttercups, not just a tiny patch of them, so this looks more natural.”
Embracing the Climate
Working with California’s Mediterranean climate—typified by warm, dry summers and cool, wet winters—is fundamental to Phil’s gardening philosophy. Due to the lack of summer rain, much of the garden goes dormant from late summer into October. But when autumn rains begin, it’s like spring in other parts of the country: Plants start popping up, turning green and blooming.
Only a few years ago, Phil deep-watered portions of his garden for an hour every few weeks in summer. But now, he says, “I’m finding more and more satisfaction in letting things go really dry. I only have a few plants that can’t tolerate that, and I water them frugally.”
Manzanita is one of Mediterranean California’s signature plants. Phil’s garden boasts more than 100 of them, from groundcover to tree size. “You can have an 8- to 10-foot-tall flowering tree manzanita that never needs summer water, requires only a little pruning, and just becomes more beautiful with time.” Phil has found numerous manzanita hybrids in the wilds of Marin, Mendocino and Sonoma Counties that seem well-adapted to a garden setting; he’s testing them in his garden to see which ones do best.
An Eye to the Future
While Phil finds his garden personally satisfying, it’s also his way of passing something on to future gardeners. “We’re at an unusual time in history; we’ve reached peak oil and water, and we need to change how we use resources,” Phil says. “I have a knowledge of native flora, the skills to propagate plants, a garden where I can demonstrate ecologically sensitive gardening, and a nursery where I can offer native plants to others.”
Phil hopes gardeners are at a turning point in terms of attitudes about gardening—especially in dry climates. “Many Californians have been taught to water their way out of the Mediterranean climate, re-creating northern European landscapes that need lots of maintenance and irrigation. We have to move toward summer-dry gardens,” he says.
“If you think about it, we have a long history of coffee-table books and magazines teaching people how to have European gardens and green lawns. Now we’re in the process of creating a culture that supports more environmentally friendly practices; we need lots of examples and beautiful books and magazines and websites that help people learn how to do that.”
Carol Venolia is a pioneering eco-architect, founder of Come Home to Nature and coauthor of Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House.
Take-Aways for Every Climate
Wherever you live, you can apply many of the principles Phil uses to make your garden thrive naturally:
1. Work with your regional climate and the microclimates in your garden to choose and place plants that will thrive with minimal input.
2. Plant local natives and other climate-appropriate plants.
3. Minimize irrigation.
4. Provide wildlife habitat via food, water and shelter (often in the form of native plants) that attract native fauna.
5. Build in complexity.