|Jim Marshall, General Manager, and propagation staff|
Along with my horticulture class, I recently enjoyed touring Suncrest Nurseries, in the company of Jim Marshall, general manager of the nurseries.
As it happens, I come to this nursery one Sunday morning a month to work with the CNPS propagation group. It's quiet then - now there were workers all around, doing various purposeful things, taking a break at the ring of a buzzer, and beginning work again at the next buzz.
The propagation team above was sitting at a stainless steel table, in the propagation prep area of the greenhouse. The table is sanitized daily at least with a solution of quaternary ammonium. Another way is using a half to two percent solution of bleach. In general everything in this nursery was clean and neat.
In the room next door, another team was expertly popping rooted cuttings into two and a half inch "liners" or "rose pots," which are three and a half inches deep. Jim said they have had better success and healthier plants with the deeper liners, and in general with hand propagation rather than mechanized propagation.
Jim gave us a short history of the nurseries - which have been continuously operating since the 1880s. They were started by Leonard Coates, one of those sickly young Englishmen (born in 1855 in Saffron-Walden - lovely English country town name) who came out for the healthy life in California. He learned the horticulture trade and thrived, having most of his nurseries in Napa county. He produced 150,000 fruit trees per year for the burgeoning orchards that filled Santa Clara Valley and other fruit growing regions of California with heavenly scent every spring. He also enjoyed native plants, and propagated them too. He sold the nursery to to Ray Hartman (Heard of Ray Hartman ceanothus?), and the nurseries passed through various hands and existed in various locations before settling here near Watsonville, under the ownership of horticulturist Stan Iversen and a group of investors. Stan was named Santa Cruz County Farmer of the Year this year. I enjoy learning about the history of my adopted region, and about these horticultural pioneers.
The Watsonville area was also singled out by Luther Burbank as one of the best growing regions in California.
|One of the best growing regions in California|
As Jim talked, I was observing with interest the professional cutting cutters' technique (see first picture). They were snipping the leaves with small clippers, not stripping them by gripping and running down the stem with their hands like I do. They were working on some kind of nepeta, I think?
|Expertly prepared. Lower leaves and apical (top) bud snipped, and larger leaves cut.|
I should have asked them if they use the same approach generally or just for tender cuttings.
|Not sure what all these cuttings were. Pretty though.|
|Our native fuchsia flowering gooseberry, Ribes speciosum 'Rana Creek' was in one of the baskets|
The market for Suncrest Nurseries plants is independent nurseries, some retail and some wholesale, and landscape contractors. Eighty percent of their business comes from the surrounding 100 miles, but they sell up and down the state also, and have four or five large trucks to deliver their plants.
I enjoy unloading the Suncrest truck at our CNPS plant sales; it's like Christmas twice a year! This nursery is very kind to the native plant society indeed, with the support they provide. They care for all the plants that we work on each month. Jim said he enjoys walking through the area they have set aside for our plants, to see what we've got growing there.
Suncrest is a propagation nursery, and they sell about half their plants to other nurseries to grow out. They have about a hundred workers in the full swing of the season, and forty-five or so of them are full time workers.
Suncrest also grows an unusually wide variety of plants, about half of them California natives, and most of the rest from other Mediterranean climates - Australia and South Africa mostly. While other nurseries grow 400 to 1000 varieties, Suncrest grows about 3000, in smaller batches. This makes them more resistant to a financial crisis if a crop fails. In monoculture greenhouses, a crop failure can spell disaster.
|The propagator has cut a trench for the cuttings, with a flat blade tool|
|And here is where they go to grow some roots - Wow!|
Mist in the propagation house was the big breakthrough that made growing by cuttings feasible in nurseries. Before World War II, propagation was done by hardwood cuttings only, which was time consuming. But with mist, nurseries could grow from softwood cuttings. Much faster and easier.
In the prop house the minimum temperature is around 65 degrees. They don't heat the air, just use bottom heat, which alone costs about $8K a year. Most of the rest of the electricity cost comes from pumping well water, which is used here. I should also mention that when the nursery was being redeveloped by the Iversen group, a lot of drainage infrastructure was installed, and all the runoff drains to a pool for reuse. This place has been thoroughly thought through.
|Tubular underbench heating.|
With humidity come fungi. Circulating horizontal fans are used in the prop house to eliminate grey mold, - aka refrigerator mold - which is everywhere, but is deterred by just a bit of air flow.
This is as good a point as any for some dry facts about Suncrest's potting media:
- Rooting mix: 90% perlite 10% peat moss.
- "Canning mix" - i.e., general potting mix for liners and larger pots. I think 25 percent each of peat, sand, bark, and perlite. Or anyway 25 percent perlite and the rest some combination of the other ingredients. Plus a little slow release fertilizer.
The greenhouse doors and main passage ways are wide enough to allow access to small vehicles. But wait, this isn't just anybody's small vehicle...
This is the small vehicle of famous horticulturalist Nevin Smith, one of the leading lights of the native plant gardening tradition, and I was very happy to be able to shake his hand.
|Nevin wasn't casting a spell upon the cuttings, just talking to Jim about irrigation (as I recall).|
Nevin has his professional home here at Suncrest. Suncrest also has a relationship with an Iris expert, whose name I didn’t catch, and with John Greenlee, who won the American Garden Writers award for his book The American Meadow Garden, photographs by Saxon Holt. Suncrest and John Greenlee are jointly developing a "graminetum" for grasses (like an arboretum for trees). Next year, they'll have an open house. I'm curious!
In general, Suncrest grows a lot more grasses than they used to; grasses in the landscape are definitely popular these days.
|Rooted cuttings. Plants are also grown from seed|
This huge and amazing greenhouse complex was installed three years ago by a local company. In fact, the owner of that company lives on a hill overlooking Suncrest, so Jim figured he'd have to do a great job for them, since he'd have to look out on his handiwork every day! The greenhouse was built in Holland and assembled on site. It took twenty workers two weeks to assemble. Every piece had a serial number. It cost $800,000 and another $200,000 for the fittings. It is certainly a beautiful greenhouse, really a pleasure to walk through. Everywhere is impeccably clean, functional, and unfussy.
It's called a "venlo" style greenhouse. Where a traditional greenhouse might have one steep peak, a venlo style roof would have three shallower ones. This design allows for more peak vents, which improves circulation, and provides more convected cooling. (Sorry, I didn't get a photo of the outside but you can see some images of this type of greenhouse by clicking the link above.) It's made of a galvanized steel and aluminum framework, with acrylic bi-wall glazing that comes with a 50 year guarantee. Are we drooling yet?
Outside the greenhouse itself are other large protected areas for the next phase of growth, in the liners.
|Liners in the shade house. Less protection begins to harden off the young plants.|
|They are experimenting with a topping of crushed walnut shells.|
Major aha for me! I didn't realize that you can keep plants small for a long time in liners and they won't become stunted or root-bound. I've been doing the wrong thing, immediately potting on plants that have filled their liners in spring, when I won't be planting them till fall. Now I do recall Denise in the prop. group saying something similar. It can take a stubborn brain a while to overcome preconceived notions. Well, live and learn (eventually).
|Another view of the shade house.|
|More of the crushed walnut hulls, here topping gallon pots.|
|One of the few machines: it fills pots and punches a planting hole|
|And finally, off they go, neatly stacked.|