The mating pair of ornery scrub jays, the cabbage white butterflies, the benevolent bees and the bats all love the garden. So does Samantha, the little black cat with watery green eyes, so much so she recently defended it from a sizable raccoon, even though she has no teeth or front claws and weighs about 8 pounds. Then there’s the Monterey Regional Waste Management District, which taught me how to vermicompost (there’s another free session Saturday; see Quick Bites, right). There are the good people at Ecology Action of Santa Cruz who aided on the graywater system; master gardener Tanja Roos, who helped plan the jungle; and Amanda Burkman, who painted the portrait of the wind-swept lady under the plum tree. There’s the grower who furnished the pink lady apple sapling (Helaine Tregenza), the winemaker who provided the barrel planters (Rich Tanguay), the conservationist who kicked in the composter (Dan Linehan) and the healer who gave it a chiminea (Sasha Spadoni).
Luckily enough, my grateful backyard garden has a lot of friends, including a whole subpopulation of Calypte Anna hummingbirds, who are surprisingly unfriendly to one another, flitting, darting, swooping, squeaking and generally waging territorial war over the long orange blossoms of the cape honeysuckle.
But a number of the garden’s best friends are dying out. Local nurseries are shutting down right and left.
Elkhorn Native Plant Nursery in Moss Landing closed Aug. 31. CypressGardenNursery (373-1625), the hidden oasis of trees, plants and funky-chic gifts behind the El Estero Car Wash in Monterey, closes at the end of September after 65 years. McShane’s Nursery shutters Sept. 30 too (though its landscaping side remains open). Not too far north, Green Thumb Nursery (Los Gatos) closed last year and SummerWindsNurseries’ Mountain View and San Jose locations are shuttering as well.
If there’s some bittersweet news for opportunistic gardeners – emphasis on bitter – most are offering deep discounts; a half-price Latana montevidensis (“trailing white”) from Cypress ran me only $5. Elkhorn owner-operator Robert Stephens is fielding emails (firstname.lastname@example.org) for those interested in his plants, which once covered a good 2 acres.
Steve McShane of McShane’s will resign this month after serving for years on the state nursery board (he also sits on Salinas City Council), so he has wider perspective on the state of the industry.
“It’s the end of an era,” he said when his closure went public. “The nature of nursery is changing rapidly.”
He says fewer people are engaged in gardening, while citing the likes Hulu, X-box and YouTube as part of the shift. “It’s been a trend over the last 20 years,” he says. “Modern entertainment has influenced that. We have more options. Traditional hobbies are in danger.”
The absence of a normal springtime also hit hard, undercutting the boom time for nursery business. McShane adds that the landscape division’s focus on “drought tolerance, low-maintenance and beautiful” – where demand is as strong as ever – will allow it to continue to thrive.
Local builder, businessman and conservative political strategist Don Chapin, a partner in McShane’s and owner of the property, has inked a lease with Grupo Flor. The startup has permits pending with the county for a cannabis grow and dispensary. Of his last meeting as nursery board chair Sept. 18, McShane says, “More than half the meeting was dedicated to cannabis. It was telling.”
While pressure from pot growers seeking greenhouse space contributes to nursery demise, other staffers I spoke with listed finding labor and competition with big-box stores – “nurseries can’t afford to replace a plant like Home Depot can,” one said – as mortal challenges.
Over at Cypress, pale purple pops of color leap from garlic bushes, various leucadendron take spiky shapes, and a wealth of roses – with names like intrigue, cupid’s kisses, olympiad, tropicana and tropical lightning – scent the air. It’s still a sanctuary, but now stocks a bit of sadness on its emptying gift-shop shelves.
Second-generation owner Ray Sumida, who is readying to deed the property to the next generation, didn’t respond to requests for comment, but Monterey Assistant City Manager Hans Uslar confirms the Planning Commission fielded a concept proposal to convert the property into as many as 18 apartments. There are plenty of hurdles to clear and years that will pass before any construction starts, but the days of on-property propagating deer – and drought-resistant plants are done.
Stephens of Elkhorn Native seems dumbstruck at what to do next. “I need to find a younger person to take it over,” he says. “Someone who’s idealistic and doesn’t want to make a ton of money.”
He believes a dearth of habitat restoration projects has slowed business, as has drought and a trend toward smaller yards and less free time.
“Yards do take a lot of time,” he says.
He adds that parting with employees he’s had for two decades is the most difficult piece of the process. He’ll be able to manage one of the other challenges – what he calls his “plant addiction” – with his yard at home, where he can continue to cultivate his favorites, including natives like lilac, red-flowered buckwheat, sage, deer grass, bush anemone, sticky monkey flower and California fuchsia.