A Trip to Sierra Azul Nursery and Gardens

Jeff and Lisa Rosendale have been working the 6.5 acres site that is now Sierra Azul Nursery and Gardens and its sister business for wholesale customers, Rosendale Nursery, for 23 years. It was strawberry fields when they bought it. Strawberries, as we know, are grown with just about the worst agricultural chemicals there are, so before they could go into production, they had to give the soil time to recover, planting various cover crops and tilling them in. Then they tried their hand at the cut flower market, growing in a simple grid layout. Their plants became waterlogged. The soil is loam for about 18 inches down then clay for 150 feet! Now they use berms to raise up the planting areas, and they switched business models. Sierra Azul Nursery and Gardens is a retail garden nursery specializing in Mediterranean plants, and it has been in operation for 16 years now. It is owned by the Rosendales, and operates with a small staff.

Part of the demonstration gardens, with informal lawn paths, berms and sculptures
  And BTW Jeff wrote a thoroughly great article on building berms here.

Sierra Azul and Rosendale Nurseries are a very different proposition from the large investor-funded business that my horticulture class toured earlier in the day (see A Trip to Suncrest Nurseries). Jim Marshall (General Manager of Suncrest) is a thoroughly passionate and dedicated nurseryman. But I get the feeling Jeff is viscerally connected to his nursery. He struck me as a brooding visionary, a hard working dreamer.

The nursery truly is a delightful place to visit. If you live near Watsonville, go there - it's just opposite the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds.

The first thing you see when you park at Sierra Azul Nursery is a spectacular border of succulents dividing the nursery from its neighboring property.

Then you enter the nursery itself and find interesting islands of plants, each with a theme like  Succulents, Australians, California Natives, and so on
Wander on through the nursery and you find yourself in two acres of demonstration gardens and picnic tables. Pleasantly haphazard in that wonderful way where you don't know, but anticipate, what amazement awaits you around the next bend. Amazing sculptures are tucked away all over the garden. Jeff works with the Arts Council of Watsonville, and places art from as many as fifty artists in the gardens each year. Here is an extract from an essay Jeff wrote in 2006:
The garden is more alive and more moving because of these sculptures and because the artist's expressions are moving within the garden, they are moving within our minds.
Wow, I really like that.

I love these colorful screens that add mysterious perspectives to the garden

More sculpture in the garden ...

Whimsical dragonfly sculpture

But my main interest here was not so much the pretty retail side of the business - I wanted to see the sister business, Rosendale Nursery, where plants are propagated and grown for sale both at Sierra Azul and also to wholesale customers.

The nursery's dog accompanies us to the other half of the property.
It isn't the deluxe million dollar structure they have at Suncrest, but the propagation house does the job. This is not the peak season so the prop house was not in full swing.

The propagation house, with misters and underbed heating.
In the prop house, cuttings get heat and mist. The temperature is kept to a minimum of 70 degrees at night, using underbed heating. The mist is delivered for three seconds every twenty minutes, or when the weather is cool, every 40 minutes. The amount of mist required also depends on leaf size.

A wide variety of propagules

Jeff explains about the heating, while our illustrious professor, Dave Sauter, listens with interest (I blurred out other students' faces)
This photo shows the underbed heating - hot water runs through the tubes, which are bedded in pebbles (Jeff said they are switching to lava rock) which I expect retains and radiates the heat evenly.

Underbed heating. The crusty stuff on the tubes is no doubt caused by minerals in the well water.

More healthy babies

On to the potting bench...

Jeff's wife Lisa Rosendale, is the chief propagator. Here he's showing us the mixes they use. Interesting that each of the two nurseries we visited uses different kinds of mixes, and different treatment for the propagules.
  • For rooting, they use 75 percent perlite and 25 potting medium (peat? - I missed the detail here sorry). And also Root Shield. It's an anti-fungal powder, itself a "predatory fungus" which we just heard about in our class. Fungus in the greenhouse can be deadly of course.
  • For liner soil the mix is potting soil plus perlite and fertilizer pellets, and I'm sorry that I didn't get the percentage details. 
Jeff said that this mix costs too much to use for regular large pots, but I missed what he uses for the larger pots. I did catch the economic considerations that illustrate the reality of running a small business, though.

The rooted cuttings (or seedlings) go into liners. Tiny liners. If you've read the post on Suncrest, you may recall Jim saying that they now use extra deep liners. At Sierra Azul by contrast, Jeff said they get great results - and save money - using very short liners. Again the economy.

Jeff showing a nicely rooted plant that was growing in one of the tiny liners.

They are also experimenting with selling plants in quart containers instead of gallons. Very successful - and saves money in potting media.

Rooted cuttings (and seedlings) in liners go into the shade house to grow more roots. I like shade houses in general. I like the feeling of airy protection.

We follow Jeff into the shade house where cuttings grow

Growing roots

Propagules that need extra protection and warmth go into a quonset style house covered in shadecloth and plastic.

More plants growing on in a quonset-style shade house.
Students asked various questions along the way. I had a lot of questions too - most of which I didn't think about till after we left. Like - How many hours a week do you work? How do you make a living here? I mean how does it all break down? I'm so curious. But though Jeff was very open, there are certain questions you don't ask.

The tour made me admire Jeff and Lisa greatly. They are doing both what Suncrest does, and what Suncrest's retail nursery customers do. It made me realize that I'll likely never run a nursery as such, not one that pays any bills. Just a "gentlewoman's nursery," like a gentleman's farm. Maybe I can earn my bread and butter by writing a book about living in the WUI. (Wildland-Urban Interface). We in the WUI, I'll call it - It'll sell millions! Millions I tell you!
Here is the very large shade house where the plants are finished off
Jeff did tell us that they've had a 40% drop in sales with the mortgage disaster. Around eight hundred nurseries in Oregon have gone out of business in the past three years, he said. And his main advice to us starting out - don't get into debt! (I wonder if there is some debt he regrets, another question you can't ask.)

Note: After Jeff read this post, he left a comment on the topic of debt - please see his comment at the end of this post.

Very large! There is also a similar area outdoors (see photo above, with dog)

Touring both these nurseries was truly fascinating, and I'm grateful to Jim at Suncrest and Jeff at Sierra Azul for their time and for the information they shared. Such a contrast in the scale of these businesses, but in both cases, such dedication, and such a variety of nice healthy plants they are providing for use in California gardens. I'll close with just one -

Fremontodendron blooming in the shade house - one of my favorite California native shrubs


Town Mouse said…
Thanks so much! The two posts really make me appreciate what goes into growing the plants that seem expensive when I see them in the store. Now they actually seem quite cheap!
Kaveh said…
After doing a 6 month internship at a nursery any sort of romantic notion of owning one myself one day was quickly dispelled. It just seems like a really difficult way to make a living and I think the worst part (to me at least) is it really ties you down. All those little lives are depending on you to take care of them (or to pay someone else to be there to take care of them).
Kaveh is right. It's like having your own private zoo. And you can't depend on hires on keeping an eye on everything. All those vacations go right out the window.
Country Mouse said…
Thanks for your inputs from the real world. I've had other people tell me from experience that nursery work is grinding, and yet some of them have said that if I ever start a nursery they'd work for me - so there is this love-hate relationship. Our instructor said, (paraphrasing) "You don't go into the green industry [by which he means landscape/horticulture related work] if you want to get rich or sit in a nice warm office. You have to come for other rewards than money or a comfortable life. Maybe you just love working outdoors, or working with plants, or working with people. I certainly enjoy all those three. Also, nearing the close of my high-tech career, I'm in a position to not rely on nursery work for income. So I can probably enjoy my hobby nursery and make it pay for itself, and see how the balance works out over time.

Yes, TM, it does make one appreciate the work that goes into those pots of wonder that we pick up so casually at times and plop in our gardens!
Jeff R. said…
Thanks for the story! It is the best account of our operations I have yet to see. One thing about debt in business...I think what I said is that it's not good to have too much debt as opposed to no debt. It is very hard to start or take over a business without any debt. It's important not to let the debt load sink you though. Thanks again....Jeff
Country Mouse said…
Thanks for reading the post, Jeff. I'm honored and pleased you enjoyed it and find it a credible account. Thanks for linking to us from the Sierra Azul FB page too!
Tana Butler said…
You'll be happy to know we've linked it on the front page of the Sierra Azul website, as well. (I am Jeff's web weaver.)
Country Mouse said…
Yes, Tana, I am happy, thanks! My co-blogger and I are passionate about using California native plants in the garden, and we maintain this blog to encourage others to learn about and use more natives in their urban, suburban, or wilderness gardens. Your link will no doubt increase the traffic on our blog. I'll be very pleased if the link to this post supports Sierra Azul's web presence and encourages more people to visit.