Nothing but California natives: Josh Williams’s garden

The third and final private garden we visited as part of Pacific Horticulture Society’s Summit 2016 belongs to Josh Williams, the manager of California Flora Nursery. According to the description in the Summit 2016 driving tour:

[he ] converted the flat lawns and bare soils of his urban garden into a landscape dedicated to the striking diversity of plants native to California, particularly those of Sonoma County. You’ll find the half-acre parcel divided into ecological zones displaying distinct plant communities as they’re found in nature.

I’m not an expert on California natives, and even after reading The Drought-Defying Garden: 230 Native Plants for a Lush, Low-Water Landscape by Greg Rubin and Lucy Warren I wouldn’t know how to begin creating an all-native garden. In addition, I’ve seen some insipid examples over the years that have left me anything but inspired. All this was going through my head as we we were driving from Mary and Lew Reid’s hilltop Eden in rural Sonoma County to Josh William’s garden in Sebastopol. But all my concerns fell away when I saw this:


Josh Williams’s front yard in Sebastopol

I wasn’t able to identify many of the plants (which bothered the analytical nerd in me), and Josh Williams was too busy talking to other visitors to approach with him a list of ID requests, so I let it go. Instead, I focused purely on how the garden looks. And as you can see from the photos below, it’s a stunner. The contrasting textures and colors create a tapestry I found truly beautiful. But beyond that, I finally felt the inspiration I’d found lacking in the other California-native gardens I’d seen previously.

Now I have proof that you can create truly special spaces with nothing but plants endemic to the Golden State. More than that even: with plants native to one county in California—although Sonoma County is not your average county but a true biodiversity hotspot.

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Front yard


Arctostaphylos ‘Austin Griffiths’



This is a hybrid between Arctostaphylos densiflora 'Sentinel' and Arctostaphylos manzanita 'Dr. Hurd'


Arctostaphylos ‘Austin Griffiths’

As you can see in these photos, the Williams garden has many different species of manzanita (Arctostaphylos). I don’t know how many, but my guess is several dozen. Josh is clearly a manzanita collector. I’m just an admirer, i.e. I love manzanitas but I couldn’t tell you which is which. The only positive ID I can give you is Arctostaphylos ‘Austin Griffiths’ above—and I only know that because the California Flora Nursery web site has a photo of the same specimen.



Now we’re walking around the side of the house (to the left of the garage you saw above). The side yard is fully landscaped with more manzanitas and other shrubs, perennials and even trees.






I had never seen different groundcover manzanitas planted side by side like that. The result is very pleasing.



Indian rhubarb (Darmera peltata)


Indian rhubarb (Darmera peltata)

The backyard is large and open, almost like a park. The plantings are dominated by groundcover manzanitas and other low-growing shrubs and perennials. The expanse of green is broken by a circular seating area that allows you to enjoy the beauty all around you.





I need to figure out which manzanitas do well in pots. This is a vignette I’d love to recreate.


My eyes kept going back to what I think is manzanita perfection


I didn’t know what selection this was, but fortunately…


…reader Tracey from Sonoma County contacted Josh Williams, and he says it’s Arctostaphylos manzanita ‘Monica’, originally found growing along Guerneville Road right in Sonoma County


Beach strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis)


Sonoma Coast yarrow (Achillea millefolium ‘Sonoma Coast’) and California coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica)


California coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica)





Prostrate coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), possibly ‘Kelly’s Prostrate’ (see here)


I wonder if this guy knows that he’s in Sonoma County, not in Australia?


Josh Williams talking about his garden

I hope I will get another chance to tour Josh’s garden to get more insight on the plants he chose. From the brief snippets of conversation I overheard, he’s not only extremely knowledgeable but also infectiously passionate.



  1. It is well done and I also have a difficult time saying that about native plant gardens, at least here in California. I wish I could say I've had as much success with natives but, as the book you referenced might suggest, my fault may be in mixing natives with non-natives. I'm surprised by the heavy reliance on Arctostaphylos in this garden but that genus deserves a closer look on my part - a friend has had much more success with manzanitas than I have.

    1. Josh Williams clearly collects manzanitas. There was a new bed next to the driveway that must have had 5-7 different species in there, all still small.

      I think the key to growing manzanitas successfully in a garden environment is to pick cultivars or hybrids that can tolerate more water than the species perfectly adapted to summer drought. I'm going to do more research and write a post.

  2. Well, this is good looking for a CA native plant garden. I regret to say I have never seen a pretty garden with only CA native plants. I really liked the Darmera peltata but found that it loves water. I wonder if I could grow it in a tub. Probably not. So I'll just enjoy your wonderful photos. You certainly got that one at the right season! I think that one of the successes of this garden is the massed low-growing evergreens. He didn't try to have flowers.

    1. You could probably grow the Darmera peltata in a tub. It does look heat--it grows by the side of creeks in far Northern California.

      Yes, massed evergreens is the secret here. I bet the garden still looks fantastic in the dead of winter.

  3. Great pictures. Notice how green the garden looks, and this is after a long dry summer. Can you imagine what this garden must look like in early March after the winter rains? Josh is the Manager of California Flora nursery so he must know his plants. Someone should talk to him about writing a book. Thanks again for posting the pictures.

    1. I hope I'll get a chance to visit Josh's garden again next year.

      I also think he should write a book--maybe a guide to the best manzanitas for gardens!

  4. Thank you so much for this! It's so nice to see others' native gardens, in other parts of CA (I'm in san diego). Lots of great ideas here. Just gorgeous, stately and tasteful and lush. Thanks again!

    1. A realy eye-opener for me. I didn't expect it to be this beautiful.

  5. Well that was just gorgeous! I love all the different leaf colors of the Manzanita he's chosen. If I had it to do over again I would have worked in a blue leaf, mine are all so similar.

    A question...what is the purpose of that wooden "stage" in the front garden?

    1. There are some manzanitas with bluish leaves. Not sure if they tolerate garden conditions. That's often the problem...

      The wooden stage is just a bridge over a dry creek, probably for runoff in the winter.


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