JARS v44n4 - A Sonoma Horticultural Wonderland

A Sonoma Horticultural Wonderland
Barbara Campbell
El Cerrito, California

I've just gotten home from a marvelous afternoon at one of my favorite places in Sonoma County; it is the Sonoma Horticultural Nursery in Sebastopol on Azalea Avenue. The nursery was started about twenty-eight years ago by Mr. and Mrs. Stewart Barber. It was originally a dairy farm. They enlarged the existing pond and planted Monterey pines and redwood trees for shade and wind breaks. Mr. Barber became well known for hybridizing Exbury type azaleas.

Sonoma Horticultural Nursery
Entrance garden.
Photo by Polo DeLorenzo

Polo DeLorenzo and Warren Smith bought the nursery fifteen years ago and have since transformed it into a wonderland. Native live oak, corkscrew willow, and native ash in addition to the redwood trees and the Monterey pines have grown to gigantic proportions so that branches have had to be trimmed and thinned to allow light.
The seven and one-half acres are cut in two by a stream. To reach the north side, one passes the Gunnera chilensis which now has leaves five to six feet across, and a grove of poplars. Along the bridge, wisteria is planted at both ends - a la Monet. There are display gardens with choice specimen trees such as Styrax japonica (the Japanese Snowdrop tree), eight different types of dogwood, and Eucryphia nymnaensis 'Mount Usher' scattered among the rhododendrons. This day the varying textures and shades of green were broken by white lilies, some measuring seven inches across and smelling so sweet.
From the newly built gazebo at least five Paulownia tomentosa (the Empress tree), which have leaves about a foot across, can be seen. As the trees grow taller the leaves get smaller. The English cut them down to the ground each year to get the very large leaves. These trees have been planted strategically so that they will shade the rhododendrons after the last valley oak has died. (It was originally thought that the native oaks would provide needed shade to the rhododendrons, but they cannot survive the wet conditions required by the rhododendron beds.)
From this vantage point the yellow garden is in full view. All year long there is something yellow in bloom. On this summer day, it was yarrow and seven foot yellow lilies. In the spring the laburnum covered arch, miniature daffodils, and yellow rhododendron are in full bloom.
It is fun wandering through the display areas as there is always something new to be discovered just around the corner. This visit it was a stone bench located on the east side of the grove of redwoods which have been planted thickly for a wind break. From this view a meadow stretches for several acres towards the ocean until it ends in a grove of trees on the horizon. It was such a pleasing contrast, like passing from a busy noisy street onto a quiet country lane.
We had passed down a path with raised rock walls planted with red maples and unusual types of geranium to reach this place, and as we left we entered another path covered by a thick mat of chamomile which gave off a delightful aroma as it was stepped on. Patches of different shades of purple were evident here and there as multiple varieties of clematis climbed the six-foot sprinklers. A rock garden is taking shape - just waiting to be planted.
These lovely areas are such a contrast to what this area was like just a few years back when it was an overgrown jumble of willows, blackberry bushes, oaks, and nettles.
The creek was one of the first challenges that had to be faced. The first winter it turned into a raging torrent and flooded its banks. It almost drowned the entire collection of azaleas housed in a Quonset hut as it covered them with two feet of water. So flood control and soil erosion were two issues that had to be faced immediately.
The north part of the property was being cleared of the willows and blackberry bushes and the debris was being hauled away when the county soil conservation man suggested that instead they should use the branches to line the sides of the stream to prevent further erosion. Stakes were driven into the bottom of the embankment and a fence of chicken wire was made. Further stakes were driven in at the top of the bank and wired to the fence to keep it in an upright position. The space between the bank and the fence was filled with the branches to stabilize the banks. During the following years silt has filled the crevices and a firm wall has been formed preventing further erosion.
The south side of the creek is the site of the original nursery which has been expanded again and again. It's like an ocean of green with different groups of rhododendrons making the waves. It really tickles me that just a few years ago these huge plants were little cuttings. All of the plants are planted in pure fir bark so the contrast of green and bark is very pleasing.

Sonoma Horticultural Nursery pond
Pond Garden.
Photo by Polo DeLorenzo

On the other side of the ten-foot hedge of redwoods - yes, a hedge of redwoods - is the newly terraced area devoted to maddeniis. It is reached after passing the little stream, flowing down from the pond, which is planted thickly with hostas, ferns and lilies. The pond has a picnic table where one can sit and enjoy the view of the 'Loderi King George' leaning over the lower end of the pond, and the planting of rhododendrons across on the opposite bank under more redwoods and crabapple trees.
The forty-seven year old Davidia involucrata (dove tree or handkerchief tree) in front of the house has been designated a permanent county landmark. It is now a Sonoma County Heritage Tree. The blossoms in the spring look like white doves resting among the green leaves or like handkerchiefs drying on the branches.
The magnolias, over which one could originally see the Sierra mountains, have grown so tall that the only time the range of mountains can be seen is in the winter when the leaves have fallen. Beneath the magnolias, near the aviary where canaries are kept, is a newly developed miniature rose collection made up of shades of white and cream, blending to pink and deep pink.
Sebastopol is about forty-five minutes from the Pacific Ocean and about sixty minutes north of San Francisco. Temperatures average in the high seventies and low eighties in the summer, sometimes reaching one hundred degrees. In the winter it ranges between thirty and sixty degrees sometimes going as low as twenty degrees at night. My favorite place!

The Sonoma Horticultural Nursery will be featured on the garden tours during the 1991 ARS Annual Convention to be held April 10-14 in Oakland, California.

Barbara Campbell is busy serving as California Chapter vice-president and tour chairman for the 1991 convention.