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Western Hills Rare Plant Nursery

Articles: Western Hills Rare Plant Nursery

Western Hills today with a new bridge backed by a mature variegated dogwood (Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’). Photo: Sue Duncan

In 1959, Marshall Olbrich and Lester Hawkins left professional careers and a San Francisco apartment to homestead three acres of pastureland 70 miles north of the city in rural Sonoma County at a time when affordable land attracted legions of disaffected city-dwellers seeking a different lifestyle. Western Hills, their refuge from urban politics and stress, was named after the early Chinese philosopher’s retreat outside Beijing and evolved into an enterprise that inspired a community of horticulturists and landscape designers that profoundly changed the look of West Coast gardens.

The tiny town of Occidental lies in a narrow valley where the redwood-clad inland slope of the Coast Range meets rolling orchards and vineyards nine miles west of Sebastopol. The area enjoys a temperate mediterranean climate with six months of drought followed by an average of 60 inches of winter rainfall. Marshall described their land about a mile west of town as “a sort of bent rectangle sloping gentl...

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