Hard work turns a vision into a real garden

In northern California, Don Phillips fell in love with 118 acres of land and enhanced its beauty

Some landscape architects insist that the entryway to a garden is nearly as important as what you will find inside its boundaries. It heightens the interest and prepares the visitor for the splendor that lies within.

That's particularly true of Big Springs Garden, which lies nestled in the Sierra Nevada mountains of northern California, a few miles from the rustic community of Sierra City.

Visitors approaching from either direction will be driving along the edge of the North Fork of the Yuba River where the scenery is reminiscent of the famed Yosemite Valley.

The blue sky enlivened by puffy clouds; the clean, fresh air; the sound of the river; and the sight of granite peaks rising through forest greenery make travelers ease back on the accelerator, breathe deeply, and simply enjoy their surroundings.

That's what happened when entrepreneur Don Phillips first visited the 118-acre parcel he purchased some 40 years ago. And if the sparkle in his deep blue eyes is an indication, his love for Big Springs is just as intense now as it was then.

"The first time I heard of the property was through some friends who had purchased it simply because it was beautiful," Mr. Phillips recalls. "They had thoughts of logging it and had put in a logging road. There was also an idea of developing it into small lots with vacation homes, but they never really pursued the idea. I think now what they really wanted was to find someone who would be a sort of custodian for that scenic beauty."

Phillips envisioned creating his own personal paradise on Big Springs, with a house and extensive gardens. But when Phillips explained to his friends that he was unable to come up with the full purchase price, the owners accepted a small down payment and monthly payments so reasonable that they were jokingly referred to over the years as "the grocery check."

Finally, in 1988, Phillips asked his friends how much he still owed and paid it off so he could begin building a home there. "I'm looking into the title history now," he says, "and I think there have only been three private owners of the property over the last century. Before that, it might have been in the hands of a railroad company."

Visitors to Big Springs, which is now open to the public, listen to the story, look around, and say things such as, "I can certainly see why you would have bought a place like this."

But it didn't always look this way.

"You wouldn't believe the way it was," Phillips says with a laugh. "I had to climb up and under and over the fallen trees and fight through the brush just to see what I'd purchased. It truly took hours to go where you can walk in a few minutes now."

The first projects were to hire noted architect James Babcock to design a two-story manor house and a contractor to build it at the edge of the one-acre pond. Next came the lawn, along with an arched, blue, Japanese-style bridge reminiscent of the one in Monet's garden at Giverny, France.

With advice from the owners of the nursery that has supplied the majority of the plants he's used, Phillips created the pond by capturing water from numerous small springs on the property, and then hired master landscaper Harold Inouye to place boulders along its edge.

Finally, he stocked it with rainbow trout and further enhanced its charm with plantings of water iris, waterlilies, and arrowhead plants.

Bordering the pond and providing a visual link throughout the garden and picnic area are elaborate rock walls created by a local craftsman.

The pond is surrounded by a seven-acre core garden of lawn and hardy perennial flowers. It includes a sizable fenced vegetable patch that provides food for Phillips in season and, often, salads for his guests.

It has taken about 15 years for Phillips to dramatically transform the property from the way it looked when he first visited.

Like any truly great garden, it can best be appreciated by visitors who stop at random points along the nearly three miles of graveled walkways and examine their surroundings.

They can admire 23 acres of painstakingly maintained "wild gardens" featuring Indian rhubarb, marsh marigolds, native azaleas, and ferns blending artistically with old-growth pine, cedar, and fir trees.

Further enhancing the landscape are plantings of aspen, mountain ash, sweet gum, dogwood, and maple trees, which create an arboretum atmosphere.

How long it takes to view everything depends on the walking speed of individual visitors, but few leave without having spent most of a day there.

Last summer, as Phillips led a group of about 80 guests along the pathway bordering the 1,000-gallon-per-minute spring that gives the property its name, one woman in the group sighed and said in a voice loud enough for her companions to hear, "If heaven is as beautiful as this, I want to go there."

That sentiment is likely to be echoed time and again now that Big Springs is open to the public. Reservations are required for lunch or dinner Wednesday through Saturday from May through September.

Like any other garden, Big Springs is "not quite finished" in Phillips's estimation. Despite the way the garden seems to swallow up truckloads of plants, he's always making mental notes on where to add more, or what to use to replace plants that succumbed during the winter. Recently he helped complete a landscaping project around a waterfall.

He's also dreaming of the future. There are portions of the property that might lend themselves to further expansion, he has decided.

"I think you could say it's 90 percent finished," he says. "I just hope people like what they see."

• For a brochure and further information, contact Don Phillips at 32613 Highway 49, PO Box 192, Sierra City, CA 96125. Phone (530) 862-1333.

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