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

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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