Wayne Winterrowd reminds us that gardens rarely outlive their creators
LIKE A CALIFORNIA WILD FIRE, word has spread that Maggie Wych, after 14 years of hard struggle, has put Western Hills Rare Plant Nursery up for sale. The news may seem to matter most to California gardeners, who frequently travel to Occidental to walk through the garden for inspiration, and to load up on the treasures the nursery offers. But it is fair to say that from around 1970 to the present, no garden in North America has had greater influence than Western Hills. Over many years of bold experiment, it has tested the worth of thousands of plants, especially from Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. It is therefore not just a garden and nursery, but a trove of knowledge. So this next phase of its life is significant to all American gardeners, and indeed, to gardens everywhere.
Maggie Wych inherited the property from Marshall Olbrich, who with his partner Lester Hawkins, left San Francisco in the early 1960s, to homestead, as the word then was. In their quite separate ways both were remarkable men. Lester became a brilliant landscape designer, and a progressively less temperate fire-brand socialist. Marshall had a quieter charm, with an incredible memory for any learning he absorbed and a dry, mordant wit. Together they turned three acres into an amazing garden and a great nursery, with worldwide reputation. Lester died in 1984, and Marshall died six years later. The property passed then to Maggie, who, through devastating droughts and sudden freezes, floods and fallen trees, and with anxieties about whether the nursery could support so ambitious a garden, has soldiered on admirably. Now she is ready to throw in the trowel. No one disagrees that she is passing on a far finer garden than she inherited. The disagreement comes over whether it should be passed on at all.
Gardens are often compared to works of art, the greatest of which have come down to us more-or-less intact. Really, however, gardens are quite different from other products of genius, for though they also depend on curatorial care, they are not lodged in museums. Rather they must be left out in the open air, where they receive the full force of the elements and the changes wrought by time. Though they are structures of shaped space, they are dependent on living things—plants—that grow and change under the vicissitudes of each season. After the devastating winter of 1972, Marshall reported that freakish cold destroyed “a good third of the garden.” That led him, in his account of the development of Western Hills for Rosemary Verey’s The American Man’s Garden (Little, Brown and Company, 1990) to compare it to “a rather disorganized novel or drama.” It is the next act, then, that we are waiting for. It may be the last, which probably will be as disorganized as Marshall foresaw.
I do not believe that gardens can be preserved much past the original efforts of their creators. To those who really love gardens, nothing is as depressing as a “preserved” garden. These bear approximately the same relationship to the living thing as dried apples or a jar of pickled beets. Marshall could never have intended Western Hills to go on forever. He was far too cynical for that. Probably, he simply had a property to dispose of, a good friend to encourage, and a hope that Western Hills might continue a little longer.
Harsh though it may seem to people who are young, H. Lincoln Foster’s wisdom was sound when, at the end of his life, he refused to consider schemes to preserve Millstream, his splendid garden in Falls Village, Connecticut. “It was young when we were young, and is old now that we are old, and it will die when we die.” No one can garden from the grave. H