Home & Garden Columns

Garden Variety: Westbrae Nursery: Your Chance to Start a Trend

By Ron Sullivan
Friday March 28, 2008
Tree peony blossom the size of my dainty hand at Westbrae Nursery.
Ron Sullivan
Tree peony blossom the size of my dainty hand at Westbrae Nursery.

All you gardeners within striking distance of northwest Berkeley: Here’s your chance to be influential. Westbrae Nursery on Gilman Street changed hands in January and just had an official Grand Opening. Jeff Eckhart, who owns the business now along with his sister Chris Szybalski, told me he has a few definite ideas about new directions and he’s open to more.  

One thing that has already surprised him is the number of edibles people want—vegetable seedlings and such—so he might give more space to those. There’s already a decent stock of ornamental and kitchen-garden seeds, but I noticed that the number of herb starts as well as the veggie sixpacks was considerably reduced from before the turnover.  

One pleasant surprise was finding succulents—just a few, including a Hesperaloe whose name I’ve forgotten—from the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek. That’s a trend I’d like to encourage because they certainly have interesting plants out there. It’s the first place I ever saw the gorgeous Antioch Dunes evening primrose in bloom, just for an offhand example. Westbrae has a direct pipeline now: Szybalski volunteers at the garden.  

There’s clearly an interest in succulents, demonstrated by a good bunch of little bitty ones on display including a few I don’t think I’ve seen before. If you like originality, that’s a good way to go; lots of plant families seem to have crazy aunts in the succulent attic.  

Another new aspect to the nursery is the “fountain court,” with traditional Euro-drooling sculptured types and some really handsome newer forms such as twisted black columns with alternately polished and rough surfaces for the water to run down to a cobbled base. The sounds these make are more subtle, too, than a spout-into-pool fountain’s.  

The new nursery owners have a little less space to work with, as some of the lot has been reclaimed by its landlord. Still, there’s room for a perfectly hilarious spiral-trunked whitebark birch. Eckhart says he intends to feature more such high-drama focal plants. He’s already got lots of foliage color, spiky, domed, umbrella-shaped, and other arresting forms.  

Goodlooking flowering stuff too, arranged on compact tiered tables in inspiring combinations. At the gate was a short, lush tree peony with the biggest blossoms I’ve seen on that plant. Annie’s Annuals is still well-represented. 

Houseplants, soil amendments, containers (and Paradise Pottery is right next door), trellises, and tools including Felco pruners are there already. If you want to have a nursery that fits your garden, go on over there and tell Eckhart and Szybalski what you want.  

If you cherish the weird and wonderful, you have two more of Merritt College’s Saturday plant sales this spring to check out: April 12 and May 10, 9 a.m.-3 p.m. The propagators up there lean toward Mediterranean-climate plants: Californian, Australian, South African, well-adapted here.  


Westbrae Nursery 

1272 Gilman St, Berkeley 



Closed Mondays 

Tuesday-Saturday 9 a.m. 5 p.m. 

Sunday 9 a.m. 4 p.m. 


Merritt College Landscape Horticulture Department 

12500 Campus Drive, Oakland 





Ron Sullivan is a former professional gardener and arborist. Her “Garden Variety” column appears every Friday in the Daily Planet’s East Bay Home & Real Estate section. Her column on East Bay trees appears every other Tuesday in the Daily Planet.