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Famous Bay Area garden has become couple’s $1.75million pandemic project

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When the pandemic forced people back home, many bought plants to beautify their living spaces. A married couple from Berkeley did better: they bought a 3-acre nursery.

But not just any nursery.

Stitched between apple orchards and redwood forests in rural Sonoma County is the Western Hills Garden, a world famous pocket of horticultural history. Founded in 1959 as one of the first nurseries in the region, it has become a model for show gardens everywhere.

“At one time it was a mecca for ancient landscapers,” said Dick Miner, a retired UC San Francisco microbiologist who runs the Western Hills composting scheme as a volunteer. “It’s such a special place.”

The property is known in part for its hundreds of exotic plant species, densely packed and artfully arranged in a flourishing botanical cornucopia.

“Some of the most exquisite varieties of plants from American gardens have been introduced here,” according to a 2005 article in the New York Times.

But 12 years ago, Western Hills fell into disrepair, then was seized. A major revitalization was underway until the pandemic hit, pushing back the garden’s harvest of older volunteers carrying out critical maintenance, its once spectacular flora left to languish.

Longtime gardening consultant and volunteer Mary Zovich observes plants at Western Hills Garden in Occidental, Calif., Friday, July 15, 2022.

Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

Last fall, the 3-acre property – which includes a main house, outbuildings, a greenhouse, several ponds and dozens of wooden walkways – sold for $1.75 million to Hadley Dynak and Kent Strader, who bought it on a lark. They had recently sold a homestead in Utah and were looking to invest in real estate closer to home. A friend who knew about Strader’s burgeoning pandemic gardening hobby sent them the Western Hills list.

“We thought it was kind of a joke,” said Strader, 55, a partner at a San Francisco law firm.

“We didn’t know much about homesteading or landscape architecture or anything,” said Dynak, 52, a nonprofit consultant and creative producer.

But the more they read about the history of the land – having inspired generations of gardeners and romantics – the more delighted they became. A national garden conservator The Chronicle once said that Western Hills was “probably the most influential garden and nursery in North America”.

It was an opportunity to acquire and restore the old mainspring.

“We immediately felt a deep connection to the history of this place, and we believe our skills can help move it forward,” Dynak said.

Western Hills Garden owner Kent Strader prunes vines near the greenhouse on the 3-acre property, which includes a main house, outbuildings, ponds and dozens of pedestrian bridges.

Western Hills Garden owner Kent Strader prunes vines near the greenhouse on the 3-acre property, which includes a main house, outbuildings, ponds and dozens of pedestrian bridges.

Jessica Christian / The Chronicle


To people in the “horticulture” industry, Western Hills is synonymous with its founders, Lester Hawkins and Marshall Olbrich. The couple moved to Occidental from San Francisco and are considered pioneers of California’s mid-century back-to-the-land movement, as well as the vanguard of the city’s gay men migrating to the area from Russian River.

“They were post-beat, pre-hippie people enjoying the solitude and quiet of the countryside outside of the city,” Miner said.

The land they purchased in 1958 was then an expanse of grasses and oaks with a small patch of redwoods. They quickly got to work on their organic farm, reshaping the landscape and erecting the property’s main house.

“Over the next 30 years, their unique combination of skills and personalities led to the property becoming a garden and a place to share ideas that inspired a generation of horticulturists and landscapers,” according to a article in Pacific Horticulture magazine.

Hawkins has drawn particular attention for his keen gardening acumen; he was later commissioned to design the Bancroft Garden at Walnut Creek.

A rowboat sits at the edge of a pond at Western Hills Garden, a 3-acre nursery that is a model for show gardens everywhere.

A rowboat sits at the edge of a pond at Western Hills Garden, a 3-acre nursery that is a model for display gardens everywhere.

Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

“In its heyday, (Western Hills) was the place to be,” said Ryan Guillou, director of collections and conservation at Golden Gate Park Gardens, which manages the San Francisco Botanical Garden, the Conservatory of flowers and the Japanese tea garden. “It was where everyone went to get inspiration, the awesome rare plant nursery where they went to get plants for their garden that they don’t normally see.”

The garden is credited with cultivating and popularizing certain evergreens and shrubs that are still found in the Bay Area today. He contributed to what Guillou calls “meta collections” of rare plants supported by arboretums in San Francisco, Berkeley, Sonoma and elsewhere.

“From a conservation perspective, the gardens make a concerted effort to share certain species with other gardens so rare plants aren’t lost forever,” Guillou said. “We basically create insurance policies for these factories.

“I’m sure some of our plants ended up (in Western Hills) and several things that they were growing ended up in our garden,” he added.

Bees enjoy the pollen of a blue puya berteroniana, one of hundreds of exotic plant species at Western Hills Garden.

Bees enjoy the pollen of a blue puya berteroniana, one of hundreds of exotic plant species at Western Hills Garden.

Jessica Christian / The Chronicle


Western Hills has changed hands several times since the deaths of Hawkins and Olbrich in 1985 and 1991, respectively. Former owners Chris and Tim Szybalski, who bought it in 2010 and saw the garden through his 60th birthday, took on the difficult task of revitalizing it, Dynak said. “They brought him back from the brink.”

But the pandemic has dealt another blow to property. The core of volunteers who maintain the grounds have mostly stayed at home, leaving things largely unattended. When Dynak and Strader bought it, the garden was again in need of rehabilitation.

The new owners intend to bring the place to life with the help of a team of dedicated volunteers and a part-time employee who show up weekly to trim, trim, compost and maintain its five ponds.

Peeling back the layers of the garden has been an exciting process of discovery.

Just inside the main entrance stands a gnarled Chinese maple (acer pentaphyllum), a critically endangered species of which less than 500 are believed to occur in the wild. Ribbon-like bark peels off the coppery trunk of a Paperbark Cherry. A ghostly white gum tree stands near the edge of the property. The canopy of a massive Japanese Zelkova near the main house shades an area 100 feet in diameter.

“Everywhere you look, things are stuck,” Dynak said. “It makes this sensory experience explosive.”

Narrow paths wind through thick vegetation at Western Hills Garden in Occidental, Calif., Friday, July 15, 2022.

Narrow paths wind through thick vegetation at Western Hills Garden in Occidental, Calif., Friday, July 15, 2022.

Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

Dynak and Strader’s plan is to hijack Western Hills from its previous incarnation as a nursery and reinvent it around a non-profit organization focused primarily on preserving the historic institution. They plan to partner with schools and gardening companies as well as run classes and workshops.

“My background is in using arts and culture to connect people to the big ideas that matter, and we want to bring the garden into that as well,” Dynak said.

They also plan to offer tours and appointments with customers, and continue to sell some of the species the nursery has become known for – Western Hills spotted lily and Chinese maple, in particular.

“We don’t see it as a source of revenue,” Dynak said. “We just need enough to carry on and achieve this larger vision.”


Gregory Thomas is The Chronicle’s Lifestyle and Outdoors Editor. Email: [email protected]: @GregRThomas