A California Garden for All Seasons

Designed to mimic nature, a native California garden waxes and wanes with the changing of the seasons.

| September/October 2012

  • Britton’s Chalk Dudleya (Dudleya brittonii) thrives in dry conditions and with little care.
    Photo By Barbara Bourne
  • One of many seating areas offers a spot to sit and admire nature.
    Photo By Barbara Bourne
  • An orange-tinged manzanita invites visitors to wander down the crushed gravel path.
    Photo By Barbara Bourne
  • American Indians used the fiber of the Soaptree yucca (Yucca elata) to make sandals, belts, cloth, baskets and mats. Its trunk and roots also contain a soapy substance high in saponins that can be used to make soap or shampoo.
    Photo By Barbara Bourne
  • Gravenstein apple trees are plentiful in Sebastopol, where their lovely white blossoms stand out against the brilliant blue sky.
    Photo By Barbara Bourne
  • California is home to beautiful native irises such as this hybrid Iris innominata xdouglasiana.
    Photo By Barbara Bourne
  • Phil reserves some raised beds for vegetables but often interplants them with annual native wildflowers.
    Photo By Barbara Bourne
  • Native succulents and butterfly larval host plants weave a pretty tapestry that helps lure native pollinators to the garden.
    Photo By Barbara Bourne
  • Tucked into its suburban landscape, Phil’s home is brimming with native California plants, including more than 100 varietieis of manzanita—from the treelike Pajaro manzanita (Arctostaphylos pajaroensis) seen here to low groundcovering types.
    Photo By Barbara Bourne
  • Finding inspiration in the way the natural landscape changes from day to day, gardener and nursery owner Phil Van Soelen designed his native California garden to flow from season to season.
    Photo By Barbara Bourne
  • Hardy sempervivums are also known as "Liveforever.”
    Photo By Barbara Bourne

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. 






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