Famed Bay Area garden became one couple’s $1.75 million pandemic project

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When the pandemic forced people indoors, many bought plants to spruce up their living spaces. A married couple from Berkeley went one better: They bought a 3-acre nursery.

But not just any nursery.

Stitched between rolling apple orchards and redwood forests in rural Sonoma County is the Western Hills Gardens, a world-renowned pocket of horticultural history. Founded in 1959 as one of the region’s first nurseries, it became a model for display gardens everywhere.

“At one time, this was the mecca for old landscapers,” said Dick Miner, a retired microbiologist at UC San Francisco who leads Western Hills’ composting regimen as a volunteer. “It’s such a special place.”

The property is known in part for its hundreds of exotic plant species, densely packed and artfully arranged into a thriving botanical cornucopia.

“Some of the most exquisite plant varieties in American gardens were introduced here,” according to a 2005 article in the New York Times.

But 12 years ago, Western Hills fell into disrepair and then foreclosure. A major revitalization was under way until the pandemic struck, pushing away the garden’s crop of older volunteers who performed critical maintenance, its once spectacular flora left to languish.

Longtime garden consultant and volunteer Mary Zovich observes plants in the Western Hills Garden in Occidental, Calif.  Friday, July 15, 2022.

Longtime garden consultant and volunteer Mary Zovich observes plants in the Western Hills Garden in Occidental, Calif. Friday, July 15, 2022.

Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

Last fall, the 3-acre property — which includes a main house, outbuildings, a greenhouse, several ponds and dozens of wooden walking bridges — sold for $1.75 million to Hadley Dynak and Kent Strader, who purchased it on a lark. They’d recently sold a family property in Utah and were looking to invest in real estate closer to home. A friend who knew about Strader’s fledgling pandemic gardening hobby sent them the listing for Western Hills.

“We thought it was kind of a joke,” said Strader, 55, a partner at a San Francisco law firm.

“We didn’t know much about homesteading or landscape architecture or anything,” said Dynak, 52, a nonprofit consultant and creative producer.

But the more they read about the land’s background — having inspired generations of gardeners and romantics — the more entranced they became. A national garden preservationist once told The Chronicle that Western Hills was “probably the most influential garden and plant nursery in North America.”

Here was an opportunity to acquire and restore the old mainspring.

“We immediately felt a deep connection to the story of this place, and we feel our skill sets can help move it forward,” Dynak said.

Western Hills Garden owner Kent Strader prunes vines near the greenhouse on the 3-acre property, which includes a main house, outbuildings, ponds and dozens of walking bridges.

Western Hills Garden owner Kent Strader prunes vines near the greenhouse on the 3-acre property, which includes a main house, outbuildings, ponds and dozens of walking bridges.

Jessica Christian / The Chronicle


To people in the “hort” industry, Western Hills is synonymous with its founders, Lester Hawkins and Marshall Olbrich. The couple moved to Occidental from San Francisco and are regarded as pioneers of California’s mid-century back-to-the-land movement as well as being at the vanguard of gay men from the city migrating to the Russian River area.

“They were post-beat, pre-hippie people, appreciating the solitude and quietude of the country outside the city,” Miner said.

The land they purchased in 1958 was then a tract of grasses and oaks with a small swatch of redwoods. They got quickly to work on their organic homestead, reshaping the landscape and erecting the property’s main house.

“Over the next 30 years, their unique combination of skills and personalities led to their development of the property into a garden and a place for sharing ideas that inspired a generation of horticulturists and landscape designers,” according to a write-up in Pacific Horticulture magazine.

Hawkins especially garnered attention for his gardening acumen; he was later commissioned to design the Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek.

A rowboat sits on the edge of a pond at Western Hills Garden, a 3-acre nursery that is a model for display gardens everywhere.

A rowboat sits on the edge of a pond at Western Hills Garden, a 3-acre nursery that is a model for display gardens everywhere.

Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

“During its heyday, (Western Hills) was the place to be,” said Ryan Guillou, director of collections and conservation at the Gardens of Golden Gate Park, which manages the San Francisco Botanical Garden, Conservatory of Flowers and Japanese Tea Garden. “This was the place where everyone went for inspiration, the awesome rare-plant nursery where they went to find plants for their garden that they don’t normally see.”

The garden is credited with cultivating and popularizing certain conifers and shrubs that are still found around the Bay Area today. It has contributed to what Guillou calls “meta collections” of rare plants supported by arboretums in San Francisco, Berkeley, Sonoma and elsewhere.

“From a conservation point of view now, gardens are making a concerted effort to share certain species with other gardens so that rare plants aren’t getting lost forever,” Guillou said. “We’re essentially creating insurance policies for these plants.

“I’m sure some of our plants have ended up (at Western Hills) and several things they were growing ended up back in our garden,” he added.

Bees enjoy the pollen of a blue puya berteroniana, one of hundreds of exotic plant species at Western Hills Garden.

Bees enjoy the pollen of a blue puya berteroniana, one of hundreds of exotic plant species at Western Hills Garden.

Jessica Christian / The Chronicle