In 1941 Marshall Olbrich came to California from Wisconsin to do graduate work in philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, and, after nearly twenty academic and urban years in San Francisco, he and his partner Lester Hawkins did what virtually everybody in those days talked about. They moved to the country, built a house with their own hands, and started a garden.
Western Hills, the idiosyncratic and distinguished garden they created in Occidental, about sixty miles north of San Francisco, is a romantic paradise and a tremendous plant collection, a demonstration of the best sort of plantings for this area and a nursery, developed by Marshall, of good and rare plants. As the garden evolved, through drought and deluge and devastating frost, Marshall Olbrich became one of the foremost plantsmen of this country. He had a world-wide correspondence with other gardeners and plant enthusiasts and collected plants and seeds from everywhere. He grew plants from every Mediterranean climate and dispersed them with an eye for excellence and usefulness and, for a nurseryman, a lunatic generosity. He was a major figure in the California Horticultural Society, exhibiting plants and serving as its president as well as writing (all too little) for this and other horticultural publications. With his discriminating plantsmanship and enthusiasm for the best plants, he was an irreplaceable resource to his peers and to innumerable younger gardeners.
All this only partially accounts for the feeling of loss I have, despite his having arranged that the nursery and garden at Western Hills continue, because, in my mind, Marshall Olbrich was an American aristocrat, an example of the best sort of person our country produces, and because for me, and a lot of others, Western Hills was more than just the finest garden in California or an unparalleled source of satisfaction for our horticultural needs and greeds. What Marshall and Lester created in their three acres of rare plants was a focus of activity in horticulture and the art of garden design, a haven of rational discourse and good garden talk supported by extremely hard work.
I met Marshall somewhere in the middle of the garden’s thirty-year growth into the unofficial status of living national treasure, a reputation that he viewed with amused resignation, and I think my experience was shared by many others. The “family” that lived and worked at Western HiIIs and the group of friends that gathered there accepted an obsessive interest in plants and gardening as normal. Our common fascination with plants was the starting point for an endless conversation that covered every subject. Somehow, without pompousness or pretension, it was assumed that art and ideas were important and that what we were doing was significant, that conventionality was less important than human consideration, that reason and imagination were as much garden tools as shovels were, and that excellence and honesty really mattered.
This liberal atmosphere of cultivated people cultivating plants, a combination of shop talk and salon, encouraged a lot of us to believe that perhaps we too could create good gardens and live lives we chose. It was also a salient lesson to see the brutal hard work, sometimes primitive conditions, and menial jobs required in the beginning to support this life of the mind in the midst of a garden. When things didn’t seem to be turning out that way in our own lives, visits to Western Hills gave us heart and provided a refuge among glorious plants and ideas.
The inspiration of Marshall’s avid scholarship and gleeful enthusiasm for good plants and his discrimination in selecting them are as much a legacy to his friends as his plant introductions. His last letter to me ended: “The garden has never been more photogenic! Boy! The plants I got. Come up and see!”
In realizing how much I am going to miss his generosity and playfulness, his honesty and wicked sense of humor, I am coming to see how much of my validity as a designer and horticulturist is due to that endless conversation, how often my satisfaction at getting a new plant, or at getting something right is set in terms of “Marshall would like that.” I suspect a lot of people feel the same. We don’t need to go up to Western Hills to see what Marshall Olbrich meant to California horticulture. We need only step through the garden door.