The Mountain Gardener: The wonders of a hillbilly garden
by Jan Nelson
Apr 11, 2013 | 2124 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print

The self-described “Hillbilly Gardener” lives in the banana belt above Scotts Valley Civic Center.

Technically, Richard Hencke says he is a quarter German, a quarter Irish and half hillbilly from his childhood in Texas and Oklahoma.

A true gardener at heart, Hencke spends much of his time as an emergency-room doctor at a local hospital and the rest of his time tending his garden.

With trees and plants collected in his early days as a Boy Scout in Port Arthur, Texas, as well as plants acquired from the far corners of the earth, he has created a spectacular landscape surrounding his home.

He clearly loves his personal arboretum.

"They'll carry me out of this property in a pine box,” Hencke says.

On a recent clear spring day, he gave me the royal tour. I also visited this garden two years ago, and I couldn't help but be impressed with the growth he has coaxed from his many blooming trees, conifers and vines.

Pride of Madeira spikes glowed in the sun, some cobalt blue, others vivid purple. Early spring-blooming shrubs and perennials offered color at every turn.

One of his passions is to allow flowering vines to grow up into the canopy of his trees, which adds one more dimension to his landscaping.

A blood-red trumpet vine is happily inching up a redwood trunk, while a butter yellow banksia rose (Rosa banksiae) scrambles into an oak. On a fence along a walk, a spectacular blooming double-white pandorea vine has found a home in a butternut tree he got in Pennsylvania. A rose-colored anemone clematis nearly covered the trunk and branches of a dormant catalpa.

Fragrance and color as well as good "bones" or structure make Hencke’s garden breathtaking. He nurtures each seedling with the same care he gives to the large trees. I laughed as he pointed out a 15-foot-tall Aralia elata that was transplanted from a tiny dish garden he received many years ago as a gift.

One of his favorite trees is a white pine gleaned from his grandmother's place in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia.

The garden also includes a black cottonwood he picked up in New England, two maples that hail from New Orleans and a sisal agave that grew from tiny pups he found at a rest stop on Highway 280 that he could use to make rope or twine.

Hencke also likes to naturalize Hawaiian native plants, starting them mostly from seed collected while he vacations.

He has several sacred koa — aka a’ali’i — growing on the property. As this dodonaea species grows at 5,000 feet elevation up Mauna Loa in Hawaii, they have adapted nicely to his Scotts Valley climate. I wouldn't be surprised if he goes into the canoe or lei making business when his trees grow up.

A small portion of Hencke's garden is fenced, but most is open to the deer. So far, the branches growing through the fence of his bright golden, pea-like Eutaxia obovata have not attracted them.

Also known as egg-and-bacon shrub, this plant is a compact shrub originating from western Australia. Its graceful fountain shape really shows off the thousands of flowers adorning the branches.

Like all devoted gardeners, Hencke likes to share plants with others. A couple of years ago, he sent me home with one of his F-2 hybrid Douglas iris, and this year a dendrobium orchid.

I'm hoping more of his cuttings of sacred flower of the Andes (Cantua buxifolia) take, and maybe I'll be lucky to get one of those, too.

A day in Hencke’s garden is always a magical experience.

- Jan Nelson, a landscape designer and California certified nursery professional, will answer questions about gardening in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Email her at, or visit to view past columns and pictures.

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