The giant tower of jewels (Echium wildprettii), rising above a white monkeyflower (Mimulus hybrid) beside a well-pruned manzanita (Arctostaphylos), hints at the sophistication of the garden inside the simple wooden gate of Phil Van Soelen’s home. His garden, in the heart of downtown Sebastopol, California, opens up a new world of possibilities for the urban and suburban gardener. He has brought the aesthetics of the wild into the civilized scale of a town-sized lot and created a garden that is visually expansive and complex and showcases his many talents as artist, plant collector, propagator, and designer.
Known to many Northern California gardeners as a successful nurseryman, Phil and business partner Sherrie Althouse own and manage California Flora Nursery in Fulton, just north of Santa Rosa. Their collection encompasses garden-worthy California native plants and their appropriate companions, and they have introduced many exceptional garden plants to mediterranean and native gardeners. A trip to “Cal Flora,” as the nursery is affectionately known, never disappoints and always turns up horticultural gems.
Phil’s home garden reflects his love of the native landscape. When he bought the house in 1978, the yard was essentially bare and covered in hard-packed gravel. Before Phil even began the design process he labored to improve the soil so that something—indeed anything—could grow.
First, he loosened all the soil by hand—the old-fashioned way—using a pick to break up the hardpan. Then he dug paths, adding the excavated soil to the planting areas to create raised beds. The soil is sandy and needed organic matter, so he added a thick layer of mulch, mainly leaves, bark, and wood chips. High quality organic compost was not as readily available then as it is now, so Phil used “whatever I could get my hands on.” He added a balanced organic fertilizer and started planting. Now, planting means merely scraping back the mulch, using a post-hole digger to dig a one-gallon sized hole, and then backfilling with native soil. He has learned that it is best not to enrich the planting holes too much, or the plants struggle to adapt when their roots move out into the sandy native soil. He fertilizes each spring using an organic product.
Next, Phil turned his artist’s eye toward design. His wood frame house has an inviting front porch up a short flight of steps and it was from this vantage point that he made most of his important design decisions. His first big inspiration was a garden he saw in Pacific Horticulture; its shape was similar to that of his own garden (long and narrow), and the designer had turned all the beds at forty-five degree angles. Phil knew immediately that that was what he wanted to do “since it’s such a linear rectangle, I wanted to break it up and fight that boxiness.” That decision made, he began creating the beds, which have since evolved into the terraces now fully planted. He has never regretted that design decision; it has made for a pleasing space, and establishes a comfortable dimension for the garden. From then on, Phil says “everything else developed slowly and organically; it was basically just noting what I saw from up here [on his front porch] and going down and playing in the garden until it evolved.”
There were other considerations, of course. He found that the french drain in front of his house, harmless looking in summer, was a raging torrent in the wintertime. To turn this into an asset and capitalize on the winter water that was just below the front porch, he decided to treat the drain as a riparian zone planted with California polypody ferns (Polypodium vulgare), which help give the impression of a seasonal creek.
Phil had lived for some time in the country north of Santa Rosa, and the rolling oak woodlands deepened his love for the state’s flora. As his appreciation grew for the complexity of California’s mediterranean climate and the plants that thrive here, so did his experience in cultivating those plants. Soon, Phil was able to bring it all together both, at his nursery and in his home garden. “Natives are my strongest love. I enjoy my pollarded plane tree [Platanus acerifolia], and I’ve got two sweetgums [Liquidambar styraciflua] that nicely shade my home, but I wouldn’t plant those sorts of things now.” Most of the plants in his garden and at the nursery that are not California natives are from other mediterranean climate regions. Like most plant collectors, however, this is not a hard and fast rule, and Phil admits he is “inclined to break it any time I feel the payoff would make it worth taking the chance.”
Phil loves nature and tries to bring a natural look to his garden, carefully considering the design elements that result in an uncultivated, wild look. Bringing a natural look to a structured garden can be complicated, with plants from around the world combined in ways that would never occur in nature. The challenge is in arranging them artfully, but with a light touch. Phil has succeeded in creating a kind of wildness, at the same time creating a garden that does not need a lot of maintenance—or much water—and can easily adapt as the trees, shrubs, and vines grow and change the light levels throughout the space.
As a plant collector by hobby and profession, Phil uses his garden as a testing ground for the nursery. He spends a lot of time hiking the beautiful trails of Sonoma County, and cannot resist propagating the many wonderful plants he finds during his peregrinations. One of his favorite collections is from a hybrid swarm of manzanitas along Guerneville Road in Santa Rosa. “I’ve taken cuttings and tried them out in my garden just to see what character they reveal. They are good healthy small shrubs; I think the Arctostaphylos densiflora in them gives them the disease resistance of A. densiflora ‘Howard McMinn’,” one of the most garden-adaptable of all manzanitas. Phil also collected and introduced a California fuchsia (Epilobium californicum ‘Calistoga’) that is now widely propagated and sold by Northern California nurseries and arboreta. Another of his exceptional finds is a native grass (Festuca californica ‘Phil’s Silver’) notable for its silvery foliage and graceful form.
Following His Own Path
When Phil decided to remove a patch of lawn and create a “meadow,” he was drawn to the challenge and approached it thoughtfully. In keeping with his organic style of design, he was motivated in the plant selection and arrangement by his desire “to arrive at an assemblage of plants that wouldn’t bore me with its simplicity, but also wouldn’t read as totally phony.” As his meadow began growing, he came to believe more and more that one of the important lessons he’s learned from the natural garden has been to leave things alone and to embrace the wildness that is so much a part of the beauty of a natural setting. As Phil explains it,
I’m constantly fussing, grazing, picking weeds, trying to leave an overall effect of voluptuousness, and it’s taken a while to learn how not to be too heavy handed in the garden. For habitat plantings, that is especially important—to allow that growth and not be constantly grooming and doing all that ‘garden stuff’ that’s so hard on animals and invertebrates. I find that I need to remind myself that this is truly a garden for me. I want to follow my own course.