“It wasn’t love at first sight,” according to Don Phillips, when he bought a 118-acre parcel near Sierra City in 1964, but it certainly was for this reporter who visited the property for the first time last week.
On Phillips’ initial visit he had to crawl over downed trees and thick shrubs, but now visitors can walk along meandering trails lined with lush foliage and wildflowers.
Phillips opened Big Springs Gardens to the public in 2002. “I was walking on a trail and looked around and thought ‘There is too much here; it should be shared,’” he recalled.
Phillips transformed 30 acres of the property nestled at the bottom of the Sierra Buttes using nature as his guide. He set out to simply clean up the property a little, but it gradually evolved.
Sitting on the deck of his 3,300-square-foot home, which many visitors mistake for a lodge, Phillips looks across the vista and talks about the past, present and future.
In the early ’60s, Phillips was the assistant dean of instruction at Stanford’s school of business.
He had just purchased a 13-acre waterfront property to develop near Monterey, and the owners of that property talked him into the Sierra County acreage as well.
For 17 years, Phillips made monthly payments, but was too busy to do much else with the property.
He and his sons would camp out there during the summer. “We just slept on the ground under the stars,” he said. And eventually he added a road and built some platforms for tent camping. Each year several couples would get back to nature for a week or so. “I have such great memories of that time,” he said.
In 1970 a fire burned a small portion of the acreage, but it actually turned out to be a fortuitous situation.
“I never would have cut down that many trees,” Phillips said. The site of the fire is where his house and the pond now sit.
By 1985, Phillips decided to build his home and in ’87 the ground floor had been excavated. Phillips served as owner/builder and hired a superintendent to oversee construction details.
When county inspectors came to check on the progress, Phillips said they seemed more interested in the heavy equipment that was excavating the large area in front of the cabin. He soon received a letter and visits from the California Department of Fish and Game and the Water Resources Board.
When he was told that he needed an environmental study, he asked if he could write it and they agreed. “That would never happen today,” he said.
The pond is stocked with rainbow trout and visitors can feed the fish and watch them swim among the lily pads. At the far end of the pond, a blue walking bridge, reminiscent of Monet’s bridge in Giverny, France, provides a stunning backdrop for photographs.
Phillips carefully selected large boulders to place around the pond and throughout the property. “I wanted a feeling that a glacier came down the side of the mountain and left the boulders,” he said. “Nature is the senior partner here; I just embellish it.”
Phillips said he is very proud of what he has achieved. “It’s far more difficult to make a natural garden than a flower garden,” he said.
Big Spring Gardens is open to the public by reservation only Wednesday through Sunday at 10 a.m. Details are available at bigspringgardens.com or by calling 862-1333.
The gardens are open June 15 through the end of September. Admission is $12 per adult and $8 for children.
Visitors can also enjoy a buffet lunch Wednesday through Friday, a barbecue dinner Friday evening with live music and hors d’oeuvres, and Sunday brunch.
Visitors dine on a terrace overlooking the pond, with the sound of a waterfall and soft music in the background.
On my Thursday visit, lunch included barbecued salmon, a variety of salads, fresh fruit, cheese and crackers, as well as Swedish meatballs. Iced tea, lemonade and coffee are included in the lunch price, and wine and beer are available.
Diners needed to save room for dessert, which included carrot cake, brownies, peach cobbler and ice cream. The peach cobbler alone was worth the price of admission.
Phillips encourages visitors to take advantage of the beautiful setting and the home-cooked food.
This Friday evening, the Kepple Family, of Quincy, will perform. Hors d’oeuvres will be served at 5 p.m., followed by dinner at 6. Reservations are required.
Phillips is worried about the future of Big Springs Gardens. The 88-year-old wants to ensure that it will be available for future generations to enjoy.
He wants to set up a foundation to run it in the future and fears that if he dies before the foundation becomes a reality the property would sell to a private individual and be closed to the public.
Phillips has two grandsons, but both men, who are in their late 20s, have careers that don’t lend themselves to maintaining such a property. Phillips and a crew of a dozen or so work from snowmelt to snowfall to keep the grounds in their pristine condition.
“It’s extremely difficult to take on an area as remote as this,” Phillips said. “There’s no one in the family who could do it.”
Each year, Phillips sends out personal letters to 3,000 people on his mailing list and he broached the idea of a foundation.
“There are people who want to see it happen,” Phillips said. “But it’s going to take a major donation or two.”
This winter, Phillips plans to focus on the foundation and on completing the book that he is writing on the gardens.
“I feel the urgency to get this done,” he said.
But last Thursday as he was enjoying lunch with his partner of 18 years, Claudette, and a group of friends, there was no sense of urgency. Just a man who was enjoying the fruits of his labor.
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