Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Garden photos

Here are early winter photos from my Oakland CA garden. My latest project has been to re-imagine a front yard bed as a Mediterranean climate Australian shrubs bed. Planted there currently are two grevilleas, a melaleuca, brachysema, a wax flower shrub (chamelauchium), a white flowering swainsona, a wooly bush (adenanthos) and a variegated correa. Recently I've added driftwood, stones and shells to give it a natural look. I even added a recently found pelvis bone of a small animal. Two photos of the bed are included here. The photos are:
Top: Buddha's Hand citrus, considered to be the most ancient of all cultivated citrus.
2nd line: The two photos of the Aussie shrubs bed
2nd line right: A Japanese maple showing its fall glory.
3rd line left: The bed lining my front walkway, with plants such as ratibida, trachelium, scabiosa, oenathera and rudbeckia still in bloom.
3rd line right: Two recently created succulent bowls (doing very well).
Below right: A staghorn fern mounted on a square piece of wood.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Winter Bulbs

Winter bulbs may seem like a contradiction at first glance but in fact winter is the flowering time for the large and impressive category of bulbs hailing from South Africa. Before you think, well, what could those be and where the heck would I find them, it's worth noting that freesias, ixias and gladiolas all hail from this region. The first to bloom from this group are usually the lachenalias. My L. viridiflora, with its otherworldly milky blue flowers, is in bloom now. Flower colors range from nearly pure white to vivid tricolor varieties. Cape cowslips as they're known are some of the most vigorous bulbs around. That description would apply to babianas as well, curiously known as baboon flowers. They produce sprays of lavender to purple to pink cup shaped flowers in mid to late winter. Around that time ixias (corn lilies) begin to flower, showcasing vertical sprays of pink flowers. Also early to bloom are freesias and sparaxis (Harlequin flower). Everyone is familiar with fragrant freesias but sparaxis are one of my favorite bulbs. Very colorful, with differently colored centers and/or inner margins, these cheerful bulbs begin flowering in my garden in early March.
Everyone knows gladiolas but did you know that the bulbs you buy in the store are hybrids of original S. African species? There are a host of species glads that have sprays of smaller flowers that make up in color and interesting patterns that they lack in size. One of the more charming ones is G. alatus, showcasing apricot colored flowers with striking chartreuse markings.
Lastly, look for Moraeas this time of year. This hardy bulb flowers in late winter/early spring. Most striking of all is the aptly named Peacock moraea (M. villosa), which has to be both one of the most striking flowers in nature but also the owner of the most vivid turquoise blue 'eyes' ever witnessed (thus its common name). Check out an article I did for the SF Chronicle earlier this year on South African Bulbs.
Look for these bulbs or live plants at your local nursery. For those in North Oakland and Berkeley, Grand Lake Ace nursery on Grand Ave has an excellent selection of these bulbs in 4" pots.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving

Let's face it, very people are keen about change. This holds true for our gardens, whether that be minor (a plant dies and you need to find something else for that spot) or more substantial (you need to completely redo an area). The truth is, these unplanned changes also provide opportunities. We may not always follow through on our visions for the perfect garden but when an area in our garden requires reworking it provides the impetus to put a new plan into action.
Recently my landlord had to put in a new walkway and that meant me digging out the bed adjoining it. It was traumatic at first, removing bulbs and perennials there, but in putting it back together after the job was complete, I was able to modify the bed and improve it.
Sometimes, a tree is cut down on an adjoining property and completely changes the light pattern in one of your beds. That may mean re-evaluating the area and changing out some of the plants there.
While some of these jobs can be a lot of work -- I had to remove a great volume of cement and concrete from the corner of my back yard in order to get it ready to plant a semi-tropical bed -- the end results can be very satisfying.
So, embrace change. Consider it an opportunity to do something more creative in the area that needs reworking. Don't be afraid to think big or do something simple and clean. Our gardens are a reflection of Nature, constantly in change. Evolving. You sometimes are afforded the opportunity to not just go with the flow but to help it along.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Winter prep

Though we're enjoying the last of our Fall weather, now is the time to begin preparing our gardens for the winter months, or rather for next year's spring season. For vegetable gardeners now is the time to grow a cover crop like fava beans, in order to fix nitrogen into the soil. Otherwise, it's a good time to add compost materials to enrich the soil. For those of us with primarily flower gardens, we can top dress our perennial beds with soil amendments, to let these nutrients naturally settle into the soil. This is a good time of the year to finally get around to covering planting beds with bark mulch, or to replenish beds that have lost some of this covering.
Now is also the time for all you bulb lovers to get to work. Buy your favorite bulbs now before they've disappeared from your local nursery. For those of you that don't get a winter freeze, you'll need to refrigerate tulips, crocus and hyacinths. The other bulbs you can plant in the next month. For those of you who've discovered the joys of S. African bulbs, you probably are already seeing some new growth. I have babianas, lachenalias and moraeas above ground. Add to that list freesias and sparaxis, which some may not realize are also native to S. Africa. Perhaps not wanting to be left behind, the first of my Dutch iris have popped up as well as the early blooming ipheions. Ahh, the promise of spring.
November is also a good time to clean up your beds and pots, removing any dead annuals or plants that clearly are on their way out. I also rotate my potted plants, moving ones that are going to bloom in the late fall to early spring into valuable sunny locations.
And winter is always a good time to prune and/or cut back deciduous shrubs. And for rose lovers, mid December is the time when the fresh crop of bare root roses arrive in nurseries.
I always think of late fall/early winter as a "looking back and looking forward" season. The looking back part is the cleanup from all the summer blooming plants and the looking forward is the soil prep, the bulb planting and the other prep for next year's spring season.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Garden Snapshot

Our gardens are in constant flux, most notably from season to season though this notion disguises the reality that these changes are more of a continuum, month to month, week to week, sometimes even day to day. I record in my journal what is new in my garden every week or two and in a way these provide a snapshot of the garden at a given point in time. There's no need to do this of course, one can simply enjoy the garden as it changes but for some people taking note of the details of this change provides its own pleasure. I also photograph my garden, in this case a visual moment. I find keeping a journal, which for me starts with walking through the garden with pen and paper noting new developments, to be a peaceful way to appreciate the fruits of my labors.
In this light, here is a snapshot in time, what is blooming or new in my garden during the week of 10/15/11.
* My Mahonia lomariifolia has a cluster of stubby flower spikes which will soon grow to sprays of bright yellow flowers.
* The Mina lobata vine is concluding a season of spectacular blooming, having climbed a metal arch.
* The Plectranthus Mona Lavender is finally getting its first flowers. Kind of late this year.
* The Angelwing begonia (a cane type) is in full bloom and much happier this year.
* The red & purple Justicia seems to be recovering and is in bloom.
* The red flowering mandevilla is still blooming its head off.
* The first of my S. African bulbs are up -- one lachenalia, two homoglads and some babianas. This seems to be especially early for them to appear.
* My lavender double form calibrachoa (Million bells) is still blooming away.
* The new Oenothera from Annie's Annuals, Endless Orange, has settled in nicely and is producing the loveliest peachy-orange flowers.
* My helichrysum species from UC Botanical Garden is blooming its heart out, the yellow flowers contrasting nicely with the silver foliage.
* The 7-Up stachys (foliage smells like 7-Up) continues to bloom.
* The Lysimachia atropurpurea has lovely bluish foliage but where are the flowers?
* The Itea virginica is showing off fabulous red fall colors
* This has been the best showing yet for flowers on the Shell ginger (Alpinia Zerumbet). They're supposed to be fragrant but I get very little aroma from them.
* The first flowers have appeared on the new variety of dew flower (Drosanthemum 'Pele'). Telltale red centers but this variety is fringed with purple.
* The Clematis niobe is putting out a second set of flowers. Very odd. Also, the C. Belle of Woking, which never did anything this spring, is suddenly putting out lots of new growth. Is this a result of the cold wet weather this spring? I doubt it'll bloom this much out of season but who knows.

So, this is a snapshot of some of the things going on in my garden this week. Just one man's garden. On one week. A moment in time. And yet, a record for posterity in case I want to refer to it for any reason.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Garden photos

From the top the photos are:
Top: Adenanthos sericea (Wooly bush)
2nd line left: Penstemon Tubular Bells Rose
2nd line right: Hedychium greenii (Red ginger)
3rd line left: Haworthia venosa
3rd line right: Orange sedum
4th line left: Protea eximia (King protea)
4th line right: Alpinia Zerumbet flower
5th line left: Glechoma
5th line right: Tricyrtis (Toad lily)
6th line left: Brugmansia Charles Grimaldi (Angel's Trumpet)
6th line right: Lily Schezerade
Bottom line: Schizostylis

Friday, October 7, 2011

What to Plant for Fall

We are lucky enough (most of us) in the Bay Area to be able to garden for most of the year and that means that the Fall is a good time to both add seasonal color and to engage in a little P&P (prepping & planting) in advance of spring. For some Fall planting suggestions follow this blue link to my article in the San Francisco Chronicle. There are a wide range of plants available to add color for the season plus for those in milder zones, plants such as gaillardias, wall flowers, heliotropes and abutilons will bloom nearly year round. Now is a great time for adding a fall-blooming vine or two, with plants such as thunbergia blooming well into winter.
Fall is also an excellent time to plant shrubs. On top of the usual suspects, late fall is an excellent time to find and plant Australian shrubs such as grevilleas, leptospermums and correas and also South African plants such as Protea family members (proteas, leucospermums, leucodendrons, banksias). We may sometimes think of Fall as a time to rest but for those willing to roll up their sleeves there are rewards aplenty to be found in local nurseries.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Northward bound

Being up in Canada visiting family reminds me that we Bay Area gardeners enjoy a gardening experience unlike most of North America. That is, to garden year round if we so choose. As I drove up through Idaho and saw the roadside nurseries, some were already making preparations to close for the winter. While I appreciate having my garden as company in December and January, there is something to be said for having a period of rest, of allowing Nature to throw a blanket over the land during the winter. Seeds having fallen to the ground will wait for spring rains and warmth; perennials likewise lay low and wait for their horticultural clocks to wake them up at just the right time. At no time have these natural triggers been more in evidence than in 2011, when our crazy weather has caused havoc with vegetable and flower gardens alike. Boundaries between spring and summer and between summer and fall were blurred, if not dismissed altogether.
And yet plants will find a way no matter what we throw at them in the way of obstacles. Bulbs still bloomed; perennials returned, if perhaps not as vigorous; some plants waited out the cool, wet spring and bloomed a month or two later. And now certain deciduous trees and shrubs are losing their leaves earlier than usual. As usual, we gardeners roll with the flow, making our mental notes as to what's taking place. Our gardens certainly show the benefits of our attention, the composting and the pruning and the feeding. And yet, one of the maddening yet rewarding aspects of gardening is that Mother Nature is so much more in control of what happens and surrendering to this can be a wonderful lesson. And I find that for every disappointment (a plant's poor performance) there are many wonderful surprises -- plants mysteriously reviving themselves, plants rebounding after a poor year, plants bucking the dismal weather to put on a magnificent show. I'm learning to appreciate it all and to realize I can't make it perfect, don't want to make it perfect. Commune and enjoy.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Bulbs, bulbs, bulbs

Spring may seem like a long way off but in one regard it's already here. That would be in the arrival of spring blooming bulbs at your local nursery. There are of course a large variety of tulips, crocus and daffodils but these are just the tip of the iceberg. Spring favorites include fragrant hyacinths, which come in an increasing variety of colors, including a yellow for 2012, sweet smelling freesias and all manner of irises. Dutch irises are always popular and they too are broadening their color spectrum beyond purples and yellows. One of my favorites is Bronze Beauty, which combines bronze and purple tones. Then there are the bearded irises, with larger and more colorful blooms. They can be a bit more finicky but the reward is great. There's a reason there are bearded iris societies. I can also recommend some less common irises. Start with ensata (Japanese) irises, which feature enormous flowers. Siberian and Louisiana iris offer some fun patterns and are available as corms. Iris pseudacorus is a water loving iris with striking markings and delicate petals. Want to go native? Pacific Coast iris are a west coast native with flowers covering the entire color spectrum, many with attractive streaking.
There are lots of other colorful spring bulbs available in bulb form. Sparaxis (Harlequin flower) are an early blooming, very hardy perennial. Count ixias (corn lily) in that same category. Super easy to grow, will multiply and offer a bit of height to your bulb bed.
Got onions? No, not cooking onions bu the ornamental kind. To the uninitiated, it's hard to believe that this family could produce attractive flowers but they do, everything from tiny little guys like Allium neopolitanum to the giant globe alliums like Cristophii and Schubertii. It's really quite astonishing, the variety in this genus.
There are to many spring bulbs to list them all but eying the colorful boxes in the nursery holds out the promise for a spring not too far in the future, a promise that can sustain us through the long winter.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

August garden photos

Here are photos of my garden shot during the week of August 19th. The focus as always is on the individual flowers but I'm about to shoot photos of beds in progress for the curious. The flowers are as follows:
Top left: Cynoglossum. I love true blue flowers and wanted to shoot this plant to include flower buds, not just opened flowers.
Top right: Mandevilla. You just don't get any redder than this saturated red mandevilla vine. It's just now kicking into blooming, having waited out our cool summer to date.
2nd line left: Tiger Woods lily. Well, at least something with Tiger's name is doing great!
2nd line right: Angelwing begonia. This cane-type begonia took a little time to rebound this year but is now flowering again. It's one of the spotted types but there are many, many other larger-leaved cane begonias out on the market.
3rd line left: Begonia sutherlandii. This smaller, cascading begonia is a real cutie and I love its coral-orange flowers.
3rd line right: Purple and white hanging type fuchsia. A classic!
4th line left: Tradescantia 'Concord Grape.' A lovely spiderwort, with a vivid purple flower.
4th line right: Dianthus. This peach colored carnation is a real show stopper, even if the flowers are small. Fabulous coloring.
Bottom line left: Sphaeralcea grossulariifolia. Big name for such a small flower but the color is lovely, especially when it's backlit by the sun here.
Bottom line right: Neomarica caerulea. My absolute favorite member of the iris family. The flowers appear on three foot tall stalks and as you can see showcase the most vivid colors and patterns.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Shade Plants Article

Most of us have shady spots in our garden and are on the outlook for interesting plants for those spots. In an attempt to address that need, I recently wrote an article for the Oakland Tribune/San Jose Mercury News/ CC Times. The article covers the different kinds of shade and the plants that do well for each of those environments. So check out this Made in the Shade article and hopefully you'll find one or two plants that capture your fancy or help to solve a need.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Plant of the Month

As has been mentioned I have a large garden filled with quite a variety of plants. The selection covers the entire spectrum but I have a fondness for bulbs. One bulb I had been meaning to grow and just never got around to it was the cormous perennial Bessera, known as Coral Drops. This Mexican native is proof that good things do indeed come in small packages. Reaching only a foot tall (though RHS says it will get to 24") and having inconspicuous foliage, the plant is wholly unimpressive until it flowers. Tiny little 'drops' open to the most gorgeous pendent, umbrella-like flowers. The color is out of this world -- a rich orangish-coral -- and creamy yellow ribs on the inner sides of the petals only add to the allure. The package is given an explanation point with turquise-green stamens. I am often disappointed between the real world flower and the photo on that plant's sign or package but in this case the real flower exceeded expectations!

Monday, July 25, 2011

New Garden Photos

Here are some photos from my garden, shot on 7/24. A little sun has brought out some late flowering.
Top left: Agastache species. As you can see it's completely filled this wine barrel, all started from one 4" plant! A favorite of bees and hummingbirds.
Top right: King protea flower. Aren't these the most amazing flowers? So architectural!
2nd line left: Hibiscus cisplatinus. I love the spiralling pattern of these flowers.
2nd line right: Calycanthus (Spice bush). These have the oddest smelling flowers I've ever encountered. They smell like wine vinegar! Not pleasant to my nose but interesting.
3rd line left: Centaurea gymnocarpa. Not a perfect shot but I love the splay pattern of these flowers!
3rd line right: Double Azalea Apricot snapdragon. My FAVORITE snapdragon and the hardiest, most floriferous I've ever encountered.
4th line left: Verbascum Arctic Summer. Love the velvety gray foliage on this mullein!
4th line right: Campanula primulifolia. One of the tall campanulas. I love the flowers and its ramrod verticality. It works well in a narrow front yard planting strip.
Bottom line left: Coreopsis Roulette. A new coreopsis from Annie's Annuals that's showy and carnival-esque.
Bottom line right: Variegated houttunyia. This water loving ground cover is just as pretty in a pot, which is where I'm keeping it (to keep it from running wild in the ground).

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

SF Chronicle Ground Covers article

I was recently asked by the SF Chronicle to write an article on ground covers and thought that a good opportunity to introduce readers to a wider range of options that the thymes and baby tears that are often chosen. You'll find this ground covers piece at this link, along with seven photos that showcase some of the attractive options available to us here in the Bay Area. Late summer and fall is an excellent time to plant ground covers, so that the winter rains will get them established. Summer and fall also offer gardeners the greatest number of choices at their local nursery.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

BBQ and begonias?

Happy July 4th to everyone! I also want to celebrate another great American July 4th weekend tradition -- getting out in the garden. Whether you're wanting to add some color to your back yard for a get together you're hosting or using the extra day off to work in the garden, beautifying the yard is a time honored tradition. As we enter this long weekend, expecting the heat, I also think of staying cool in the shade. And shade brings to mind great plants for these shady spots. There are many but here I want to draw your attention to two groups of plants that hold surprises. Say begonias & fuchsias and many people think of the bedding begonias, or perhaps the colorful tuberous types, and for fuchsias the pink, red & purple hanging basket fuchsias. These plants are just the tip of the iceberg. For begonias, consider adding one or more cane-type begonias to your garden. These mostly upright species can reach six feet, although most are in the three foot height range, and feature striking, large leaves. Right at the top of the list for me is Begonia 'Irene Nuss,' which showcases attractive palmate leaves with gorgeous purple undersides and clusters of pink flowers. The list of Angelwing begonias as they are sometimes referred to is a long one, many with spotted leaves, some with white flowers. All are showy, make great container plants and are easy to care for.
And then there are the species fuchsias. The choice among these generally larger-sized fuchsias is impressive. My favorite is F. Nettala, a vigorous semi-climbing fuchsia that can reach seven feet, has attractive red stems and has unusual but super cool red flowers. Seemingly a world apart, F. thymifolia has tiny delicate leaves and cute little bright pink flowers and forms a dense bush to four feet tall. The list of these true species fuchsias is a long one but places like our Grand Lake Ace Garden Center have a good collection to peruse. And unlike some of the hybrids, species fuchsias are much hardier and less prone to fuchsia mite. As the saying goes, so many flowers, so little time!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Summer photos

As the summer slowly creeps in, perennials begin to show themselves in our gardens, even as the last of the spring annuals put on a colorful display. Here are some recent photos from my garden, showcasing a mix of both.
Top left: Centaurea 'Blue Boy.' I love this particular strawflower because it is the most vivid purplish-blue. The color is so saturated, it seems as if they emptied a whole can of paint into each flower.
Top right: Campanula medium. Canterbury bells are common flowers but the insides of each bell-shaped flower are quite gorgeous. This view reminds me a bit of Georgia O'Keefe's work.
Second line left: Helipterum 'Pierrot.' Another kind of papery flower, this is a simple but elegant flower that provides such a delightful tactile experience.
Second line right: A simple clarkia variety, this one offering the richest of magenta red colors. Count me as a clarkia fan -- I have two others in bloom right now, including my favorite, C. amoena 'Aurora,' with its bounty of salmon colored flowers.
Lower line left: There are a number of interesting Silene species out there but this starfish type has been a reliable perennial in my garden for six years running. It's my 'red' fix and is a tough guy to boot.
Lower line right: Here's a plant many have not heard of, Dracocephalum argunense. It has the loveliest purplish-blue flowers, with tiny hairs that give it a fuzzy appearance. Unlike almost any other color I've ever seen. It's a low growing perennial native to China but can easily make itself at home in our Bay Area.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Drying Out

I think many of us are ready for the dry season (if in fact it's really here) but of course that means back to watering. Now might be the time to put in that irrigation system you've been promising to do. In the very least, It's time to mulch various planting beds, which will not only mean less watering but fewer weeds. And the weeds that do come up through the mulch are generally easier to pull out.
Though it doesn't seem like we had a spring, our gardens are already transitioning to summer. That means some of the fall and winter annuals are done and even some of the shorter lived spring annuals like poppies & baby blue eyes. It's time to plant things that like and can take the heat, like gaillardias, coreopsis, salvias, rudbeckias, yarrows, wall flowers (erysimum) and various kinds of daisies. It's also a good time to start that herb garden, if you haven't already. Why not try a few new things, like lemon verbena, an unusual mint or a less common basil? I just bought a deep purple basil that is worth growing just for the color.
This is also the time unfortunately to get out the pruners and do a lot of neatening, especially tip pruning. For those of you with limited ground space but a lot of pots, it's time to rotate plants that are your summer bloomers into valuable sunny spaces.
And don't forget to fertilize! It makes a huge difference in the strength of your garden's blooming.
Okay, summer's here. No more procrastinating. Get thee out in the garden!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Behind The Veil: A Look Inside the Nursery Business

I recently wrote an article for the SF Chronicle, on working inside the retail nursery business. Due to space limitations, only one part of that feature piece made it into print. Here is the complete article, as originally written, which gives a fuller account of the interesting world that is the business of selling plants.

Behind the Veil: A Look inside the Nursery Business
“Oh, I’d love to work in a nursery!” As a Bay Area nurseryman, I get that comment from gardeners on occasion and my thought, if not actually spoken, is “If only you really knew.” The retail nursery business is a far more curious business than most people outside of it could imagine. This article peels back the curtain, examines with an eye that is both realistic and bemused the weekly and monthly cycles of a neighborhood nursery.
The first truth about the nursery business that surprises many customers is that plants are big business. Nursery and garden center sales account for nearly $40 billion worth of annual sales at nurseries and plant centers. That includes all the non-plant sales, such as pottery & baskets, plant stands, soil products, fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, irrigation supplies, statuary, all the way down the line to wind chimes and bug zappers. Now imagine that a nursery is a grocery store for plants and garden supplies. As with a grocery store, retail garden centers have limited space and that necessitates a dizzying array of purchasing decisions.
Agribusiness model
These decisions are often the most interesting when it comes to the plants themselves. To the average gardener walking into a nursery like ours, Grand Lake Ace Garden Center in Oakland, the plants are just ‘there.’ Yes, someone had to have ordered them, but it isn’t until they visit a much larger commercial garden center, say Home Depot or CVS, that an observant shopper sees a dramatically different selection of plants. For many of these adjunct garden centers, plants are simply another product and the goal is to buy large quantities of a limited selection, sell them cheaply and move on to buying more product. They buy from a limited number of vendors and because of the sales volume involved there is tremendous competition among growers to be selected as one of these businesses’ approved vendors.
If there was ever any doubt as to the big business side of the gardening world, one only need look at one of the industry’s biggest growers, Proven Winners. This is the agribusiness model of plant production, where acres of greenhouses and sophisticated, automated systems mass produce trademarked plants for the market. Yes, Proven Winners trademarks plants much in the same way as Monsanto trademarks certain grains they’ve developed. This means that retail nurseries must buy these particular varieties from Proven Winners and no one else. Proven Winners does a very effective job of marketing their plants, using full page ads in gardening magazines to feature their plants. “One thing I find curious about these ads,” horticulturist and nursery managerTom Nelson says “ is that Proven Winners has largely stopped using the botanical terms for these plants, using instead only the common names – say Fan Flower for scaevola -- and their trademarked variety name.” Thus, Fan Flower ‘New Wonder’ TM.” Clearly Proven Winners is targeting these ads at the weekend gardener, trying to establish branding for their particular product.
Neighborhood Nurseries
Grand Lake Ace nursery is, by contrast, a low-fi business, reflecting the neighborhood it serves. Our buyers tend to look for the ideal balance between variety and saleability. Though we’re known for carrying an impressive breadth of plants, especially perennials and shrubs, we can’t afford the luxury of buying plants that we think are cool but don’t sell. Like supermarket produce buyers, there is no returning plants to the growers. Complicating this scenario, nursery buyers must order certain groups of plants, including roses, fruit trees and rhododendrons, four to six months ahead of delivery! Hey, has anyone seen my crystal ball?
We also share another dilemma of small-sized nurseries. There are only so many plants we can shoehorn into our outdoor area and that becomes a significant buying factor as well. That limitation notwithstanding, Grand Lake and other neighborhood nurseries use a homegrown formula for buying: equal parts what’s sold in the past, what’s new and interesting and what’s creating buzz in the gardening world. It’s truly amazing what the mention of a certain plant in a high profile magazine article or on a TV show can do to drive people to seek it out.
The Plant Desirability Koan
And that begs the real 64 million dollar question, why is a plant popular? The question may sound simplistic and perhaps unanswerable but on the contrary, it’s a complex and answerable koan, one that gets to the very heart of the massive plant industry. Because we as gardeners don’t need plants in the way that we need food or shelter, we must be enticed to buy them. And that is the simple goal of the growers, of the plant shops and of intermediaries such as marketers and the media they have a symbiotic relationship with. They seek to enchant us and to portray plants as symbols of beauty, refinement, even status. Even the humblest garden says something about its owner and given how much time, effort and money we invest in our gardens, plants have acquired an elevated significance in many people’s lives.
The typical Grand Lake customer gives thought to what she purchases, reads magazines, notices neighbors’ gardens, perhaps goes on garden tours. Meaning they want their garden to look a certain way. This is garden as personal statement and whatever else a plant does, it needs to fit into this general scheme. I call this element “visual appeal.” But a plant’s no good to a gardener if it doesn’t perform well, especially within the micro-climate of its intended destination. Certain groups of plants are popular, bucking trends, because they’re tough, durable and anchor garden designs.
Black & Blue
And as any landscaper will tell you, one aspect of a plant, such as the color of its foliage, can drive a plant’s popularity. Louis Armstrong could have been talking about this element with his song “Black & Blue.” Dark-leaved plants will always be popular for the contrast they provide and as soon as a new one comes on the market, such as was the case with Euphorbia ‘Blackbird,’ it becomes a must have for many gardeners. Blue tones also drive up a plant’s desirability. Witness the popularity of blue hostas, blue grasses such as blue fescue and blue oat grass and any plant with a blue flower. There’s no more telling sign of the hypnotic allure of the color blue than the fact that growers use some form of blue in the description of hundreds of flowers, when in fact only a tiny percentage of them are actually a true blue color.
Then again if a new plant gets enough press, people will march into nurseries and demand it, even it doesn’t exactly fit into their design scheme. Whenever a customer brings in a garden photo from a glossy magazine and more or less says “I’d like this garden,” I always feel like pulling out my ‘Your Results May Vary’ button. In short, the decision of which plant to buy is often more multi-layered than even the customer herself may realize and all of that is factored into which plants are grown to begin with, who carries them and whether they get ordered once in a blue moon or on a regular basis.
And I’ve left out one very important factor in a customer’s buying decision – what the nursery they’re frequenting actually displays. People may have an idea of what they’re going to buy as they walk in our nursery but as I soon discovered, even the most resolute shopper is prone to impulse buys if they see something that delights them. Does the phrase “I’ll find a place for it” mean anything to you as a gardener? And this is where the displaying of plants can influence buyers. At Ace, we use our center aisle to create special designs on the end caps. Cottage Growers in Petaluma features attractive layouts of their plants and Flora Grubb in San Francisco takes plant design to a new level. These “mini-gardens” show gardeners possibilities, showcasing plants in natural settings. And it works!
Pulling Back the Curtain
Back to my customer’s original innocent comment about the joy of working with plants. Yes, it can be fun and rewarding, especially if you love plants. Pulling back that veil, however, reveals something a lot less glamorous. To begin with, during the warmer months we often spend up to half the day watering. Have you always fancied spending hours tugging hoses up and down cement aisles watering thousands of six packs and four inch pots? Then nursery work is for you!! Do you have fond dreams of spending hours unloading heavy plants from trucks, then getting on your knees to staple price labels to these plants? In the rain? Does the proverbial prison yard job of moving piles of rocks from one spot to another and then back again give you a special tingle? Why commit a felony for the privilege? A big part of a nurseryman’s work is to move hundreds of plants from one location to another, making space for hundreds of new plants. This fulfilling job will be repeated in another week or month when another large shipment arrives.
The nursery business is all about cycles; seasonal cycles for the plants themselves of course but also natural rhythms in the business of keeping a nursery on track. Spring is the Christmas season for nurseries. A bad spring, most notably because of rainy weather like we had in 2010, can cause serious economic distress to a nursery. Some nurseries will make almost as much money in the four months of a good spring as they do the rest of the year. As a nurseryman I both look forward to spring and dread it. Spring weekends bring a crush of customers and inevitably we nurserymen are exhausted at the end of these days. Late summer is slow – admit it, how much time are you spending in your garden during July & August? – then it begins to pick up in mid-September. Coastal nurseries have the great advantage of serving customers who may work in their garden nearly year round. By mid-February, we’re already seeing the ‘early birds’ and lately, with the great uptick in urban vegetable gardening, people begin streaming in about this time to buy vegetable starts.
But here’s one thing I really like about the nursery business, at least working at Grand Lake: the customers. We really do reflect the neighborhood, attracting a diverse mix of people. Different ages, ethnicities, income brackets, lifestyles. That’s the wonderful thing about gardening; it has a tendency to level the playing field and unite people. And really that’s one way of looking at the power of plants. They have a way of worming their way into nearly every heart.
It’s the People, people.
Grand Lake Ace has wonderful customers and yet, like any retail business, it has a few idiosyncratic shoppers. Here are ten of the most interesting classic shoppers that frequent our nursery.
#10. The ‘Five minutes before we close’ shopper. We’re pulling racks in, practically locking the gate to the outdoor nursery and people will still come in, looking for “just one plant.” Of course, they don’t know what that plant is …
#9. The ‘Whatever you think’ customer. Bless their hearts, these gardeners want our advice on which plants will look good in a spot in their garden, we help them and they’re eternally grateful. Mind you, once in awhile we get one of these “whatever” customers who don’t agree with our suggestions, which begs the question of why they’re asking our opinion to begin with.
#8. The ‘Collectors.’ These are some of my favorite customers (maybe because I’m one myself). They know what they want (and don’t want) and will ask you with that glint in their eye “What’s new?” Ace gets its share of these types because we carry an amazing variety of plants.
#7. The ‘Oh, did I come in to buy plants?’ customer. This is the chatty customer who seems to have misplaced the notion that they came in to, you know, buy plants.
#6. The ‘Aren’t you my personal landscaper?’ customer. These people are rare but each of us nurserymen has helped customers who announce something like “I have half an acre, what should I plant there?” Umm, you have what? These people actually expect you to come up with an entire landscape plan for them, then pick out all the plants and then when you’ve spent an hour showing them some of the plants, announce “Oh, that’s way too much money. I guess I’ll go buy them at Home Depot.”
#5. The ‘Specialists.’ These gardeners have a fondness for a particular category of plants, such as succulents, South African plants or tropical plants. I swear, they must have set up surveillance because not long after the truck rolls in they’re there like pigs sniffing out the latest tasty truffles. We love ‘em!
#4. The ‘Planners.’ Another one of our favorites. These people know what they’re doing, come in with a blueprint and ask you to help them find things. They actual listen to your input, know enough about plants to be open to substitutions and appreciate your help. Then they buy the plants (see #6).
#3. The ‘No, not that plant’ customers. I always swore that if I ever wrote a book about the retail nursery business, this is what I’d title it. This customer has a plant in mind but doesn’t know its name, can’t describe it very well, thus leading us to suggest possibilities. Each suggestion is followed by some version of “No, not that plant” implying that we really don’t know anything about plants or we would have been able to extrapolate from their vague description. Why do these people always show up right before lunch time when my blood sugar is already low and as Elton John once opined in a song “I can’t think straight no more.”
#2. The ‘Can I Ask you a Question? (phone call division)’ customer. This call typically starts out with “Do you have this plant, how many do you have, what do they cost?” but then doesn’t end there. More plant inquiries follow or a detailed questioning of what the plant’s needs are and on and on. I’m tempted to say “Have you heard of this thing called the internet? Fascinating resource!”
And the #1 iconic customer. The ‘My pants are on fire and I have too much money on me’ customer. Okay, just kidding, but this most welcome type is on a mission. She or he grabs a cart, makes a beeline for plants she’s already decided she needs, makes spontaneous decisions to add intriguing surprises, talks to no one (other than maybe to say a friendly hi), fills up the cart and heads to the checkout. Certain of our landscaper friends fall into this group but there are regular gardeners who also have it straight what they want and limited time to get in and out. Gold stars all around!
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