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Where I Never Shop For Plants In LA or My Long Lost Nursery Heaven

by germinatrix | September 6th, 2009

the one nursery in los angeles I can really get behind: california cactus centerthe one nursery in los angeles I can really get behind: california cactus center

I got a comment/question from John (no URL, who are you, John?) on my last post, which I tried to answer – and found I couldn’t. So I HAD to post about it. Because it is shocking that I couldn’t answer the question. The question – well, it was really a request – was to for me to list the retail nurseries I recommend in the Los Angeles area.

here is what I wrote in response to John:

“Hello John – hmmmmm… lets see … what nurseries in the LA area do I like ….
(five minutes pass)
I’m going to have to write an entire post about this.”

Now that is awful. Because there was a time when one nursery galvanized an entire community, and I saw it happen. I was a baby gardener at the time, and I think the existence of the long gone horticultural mecca of Hortus in Pasadena did more than anything else to turn me from a hobbyist into a pro.

Every LA area gardener who remembers Hortus does so with misty eyes and a profound sense of loss. It was a place filled with amazing plants arranged beautifully, like each section was a show garden. The staff was not only extremely helpful, they were knowledgeable and passionate, and not at all show-offy. You know what I mean – there are those nursery professionals that make regular people shrink away in fear … they never fail to blister the ear with botanical latin and love to over-explain the nuances of why you are doing everything wrong. Loudly. Well, those people didn’t work at Hortus.

Hortus was where I bought 5 flats of Papaver somniferum ‘Black Cloud’ so no one else I knew would have them – and everyone who worked there understood why I would do that.

Hortus was where I saw Penelope Hobhouse, Pat Welch, Dan Hinkley, Ken Druse, and many other Hort All Stars lecture, in intimate and comfortable surroundings.

Hortus was where I fell in love with Geijera parviflora

Hortus was where I had my first plant-induced out of body experience, at it was a flowering artichoke that did it.

Hortus was encouraging organic vegetable gardening way back in the mid-1990′s, and to this day, their display potager is the most beautiful mix of ornamentals and vegetables I have ever seen. It took the love and care of many people to make this superlative nursery happen, and when it closed its doors, all were heartbroken. I have been looking for my Hortus replacement, but it doesn’t exist.

Of course, I have written of my intense love of California Cactus Center on Rosemead Blvd in Pasadena, but it is a very specialized place – so my quest for a great all-around nursery goes on.

That said, here are the better nurseries I never shop at in LA, because hey still aren’t good enough.

Rolling Greens in Culver City – They have alot of stuff, but most of it isn’t what I’m looking for. Not many perennials or drought tolerants – lots of ‘indoor’ plants and a great selection of glazed pots arranged by color. What they do have is in impeccable condition. This is the place to go for plants you need for a photo shoot.

Sunset Nursery, Sunset Blvd in Silverlake  (no website) – A small place, but they always have something great to buy. For such a small nursery, they have a fabulous selection of Australian and South African natives – good drought tolerants as well. Too much room given over to twee annuals for my taste, but I understand why they do that.

Burkhard’s Nursery, Pasadena – This place is way too expensive and the plant material always looks weary, but in a pinch, they’ll do. But I always leave there pissed off.

There are more places on the Westside, but they aren’t so great that I’ll drive across town to go there. And I would … I’d go anywhere for a sublime plant shopping experience.

That’s it. Sad, isn’t it? I want LA to have options Austin gardeners have! ESP (take note! His awesome blog has been jumping around lately!) takes his kids with him to buy plants and they can get smoothies AT THE NURSERY! Yes, I’m at the point that any one of the above nurseries could win my undying love if they would just give me a yummy drink. This is the 21st Century! I want more than just plants in a parking lot!

I am lucky – I get to go to wholesalers and brokers for my plants. I’ll keep the search alive, John – and if I find more nurseries in the Los Angeles area that really light my fire, I’ll post about them. If  anybody has places they love, let me know, and tell me why … I’ll be there in a flash!

16 Responses to “Where I Never Shop For Plants In LA or My Long Lost Nursery Heaven”

  1. Wow, that really bites. I thought L.A. would be full of great nurseries, seeing as you guys can grow so many fabulous plants in your sunny CA climate. I can name three Austin nurseries that I really love, and there are several others that fall into my runner-up category. Guess I’d better not take that for granted any more.

  2. Hortus sounds like it would have been a fabulous place to visit. I count myself lucky to have so many wonderful nurseries and growers in the Portland area. Sounds like there might be a niche that someone needs to fill there in LA…

  3. wow i’m feeling really sorry for you, and totally spoilt, – here in Surrey(UK) I have probably 10 good retail plant centres within 10 miles, – i’ve also got 3 good wholesale plant nurseries within 5 miles, – plus a whole load of also-rans, that I use from time to time or are further away. Having fewer than that would seriously damage my ability to plant the borders, my clients want and deserve for their gardens, rather than stocking all gardens the same.

  4. Hi dear Pam! You KNOW how jealous I am of you Austin Gardeners! You can’t take your fantastic plant culture for granted – it is extraordinary!
    It is always shocking to plant lovers who visit the LA, and are expecting retail nursery heaven. Not so – and it SHOULD BE! I understand how expensive it is here to have any kind of retail space, and the profit margins in the nursery trade are fairly small – but the nurseries I admire in other cities are places that expand the concept of what a nursery is – I love the idea of a nursery being a gathering place, a place of learning, and a place to explore a whole world of retail possibilities having to do with outdoor living!
    Maybe I need to start a nursery!
    Any investors surfing the garden blogs today?

    Oh, Loree, you would have LOVED Hortus! They had everything – and they would have seasonal festivals where they’d bring out all the best examples of what can be grown in Southern California. I’ve become a little more hardcore succulent since the demise of Hortus, but the plants I discovered there still make up the backbone of my palette.
    I know Portland is another garden mecca – and when you can get great plants at a fair retail price … that is what makes for a city full of amazing gardens. Lucky!!! XO!

    Hello Claire! Omigod, I totally accept your pity! You are in the retail garden epicenter of the world, aren’t you? I mean – ENGLAND! You make such a good point about having access to diverse selections of plants … this is crucial when you are designing! One thing I can’t abide is a designer whose palette is so limited that every garden looks eerily similar. Some people do that to develop a signature look – but others because there aren’t enough options! Luckily, I work with great plant brokers that work had to find what I want. But I miss strolling through a fabulous nursery, looking for inspiration …
    I need to go to England.

    My next extended vacation – I leave for a week in Austin, then I pop across the pond for 2 weeks in England, where I only do garden related things … and then a week in Portland, where I’ll look at gardens and plants during the day and have fab dinners in Portland’s famed restaurant scene at night. Now THAT is a vacation!
    It MUST happen!

  5. I am so, so lucky. Within 10 miles are three retail garden centers who have buyers who love plants and who listen to new ideas for plants from the designers who visit them. None are really inspiring, and only one is a true retail ‘experience’ with animals, coffee and a dog fountain, the rest just garden centers but…when I want something special I can probably find it at any one time at any two of the three. If I really want a great garden center I have to drive for two hours. Like you I’m glad I can buy from wholesale growers, some are brilliant nursery folks–others not so much.

  6. I would go crazy if I had that Ca Cactus Center on my doorstep. Specialized or not. When I gardened in Irvine I used to go to Roger’s Gardens. That was 25 years ago. I never could afford one of their wonderful moss hanging baskets. Our nurseries in Austin are getting better all the time. The choice of plants grows every year. Is this the suppliers or the needs of gardeners I wonder? Every time I travel I always head for the garden centers, home and abroad, just to see what they have. I brought an agave back from DBG in Phoenix and they let me on the plane. Can you believe that?

  7. I hope this post shows everyone how LUCKY they are to have good nurseries around, Susan! While I’d LOVE the retail ‘experience’, I’d be happy with just super cool plants and consistency of quality! You know, I was thinking that maybe I was just being ornery – but NO – LA should have MUCH better nurseries! The closest AMAZING all around nursery is in Carpinteria, CA – about 45 mins way.
    Toronto is so cool, of course there would be great nurseries there!

    Hi Jenny! Oh, you would DIE at California Cactus Center! I did a big post on them when I had my blog at Domino magazine – I think it’s time for me to do another one. Three days ago I was there and was just drooling over the enormous Agave parryi truncatas they had – and the most beautiful huge tree aloes (which nobody can possibly afford!)
    You know, I think the which came first, the nursery or the gardener is SUCH a good question! Because I know from my own experience that I was already interested, but I doubt I would have become an extreme plant lover had I not been exposed to the variety of unusual and high-quality material by my beloved Hortus.
    I can’t believe you carried an AGAVE on a plane with you! That is the best – the mark of a true, die-hard plant fiend! And someone on the flight crew must have been one of us – a kindred spirit, don’t you think? XO!

  8. I think our L.A. nurseries are kind of like grocery stores – you can’t just go to one and expect to find everything. There’s one you go to because they have the best organic veggies, but this one over there sells your favorite brand of popcorn, that one across town because they make cakes to die for, and this one is closest to the office. One store can’t possibly do it all.

    Carpinteria does have the lovely Island View nursery as well as Seaside Gardens. Closer to home, of course there’s Worldwide Exotics in LVT, which you already know. We like Sperling in Calabasas because it’s more like a theme park – you kind of need a map to get around, and it’s hard to see it all in one visit. It’s a fun day.

    I’ve been to Persson’s in Pasadena several times, usually because they are the only place selling something in particular that I’m looking for, so that’s to their credit. They have trees that nobody else seems to sell and a great selection of bareroots (fruit trees, roses, you name it).

    The one we miss is the late, great Steven’s in Valley Village. It wasn’t nearly as awesome as Hortus sounds, but ah, we had some good times (and good thymes).

    About the only place we go anymore is Green Arrow. The plants are fairly basic but they do a good job on supplies, plus their Christmas trees are so inexpensive in December.

  9. I couldn’t agree more with your view on the collective dearth of our los angeles nurseries.

    Paradoxically (and thank goodness) we do have some incredible wholesale growers outside of the city. I feel like the whole stretch on the 101 from carp to goleta is a teeming oasis … its almost painful to drive that stretch of highway without stopping at at least one nursery. And then there are wholesalers like the baron borthers and the berylwoods of ventura county. This dichotomy starts making sense when one takes into consideration the premium of real estate in denser urban situations such as los angeles and then contrast city rents/proterty ownership with the profit margins of a retail nursery (which I would speculate are pretty slim … unless we are talking about ‘inner gardens’ … because with those prices somebody’s goose is getting fat).

    I LOVE the California Cactus Center, and although they are relatively specialized, I am always blown away by the breadth of their selection and the knowledge of the staff (Im pretty sure it is a family run business?). I totally missed out on hortus … I was battling the throws of teen angst during their prime … but your transferal of nostalgia definitely leaves me wanting.

    As an aside, I grew up in San Juan Capistrano, aka the suburbs of Los Angeles, and whenever I go down to visit my parents I am totally jealous of their local retail garden centers which include the’ tree of life nursery’ and a place called ‘plant depot’ (what sunset nursery could be if they had more property and a more complete inventory) that just keeps getting better and better. Not fair! I would do almost anything for a two mile drive to a great garden center, I just wouldn’t live in the suburbs!

    I do feel like you may have left out a couple of noteworthy nurseries … none of which are the one stop shop … in fact, quite the contrary … however all of these little gems are definitely worth knowing about if you are in LA / Hollywood. I am also an eastsider … and for me, generally speaking, traveling anywhere west of La Brea Blvd can be quite painful and unnecessary … especially a retail destination … but these nurseries are worth an occasional exception:

    The Jungle Nursery – this nursery used to be in culver city but has recently moved up to sawtelle, adjacent to hashimoto and yamaguchi (which fyi … has some pretty radical bonsai) … subtropical mostly … good selection.

    La Cienega Nursery – i really like this place for its specimen and exotic plants … it is a beautiful little nursery, the facade of the building is covered with this monster climber native to the jungles of vietnam. the owner is a real plant lover. they have some pretty stunning orchids in the back. Across the street he has some crazy specimens … jurassic dasylirions and kalanchoes, the likes of which make dr seuss seem unimaginative.

    (wholesale)Kobata Growers … torrence isn’t so bad … especially when oktoberfest is going down in alpine village ;)

    … and I dont know if Malibu counts … or if this nursery is even still around … but a few years ago I went to a place called Nagel Nursery .. off Bonsall Road down by zuma beach … mr. nagel has quite a collection of palms and other subtropicals. It is a pretty wonderful place.

  10. I think Rolling Greens is overpriced, and the customer service is hit and miss. Whenever I need some help, I can never find anyone, and when I just want to browse, I’m interrupted every 5 mins with “can I help you…” Plus, they seem annoyed that I take photos of their plants. What the heck am I supposed to do when I am working with a client that doesn’t want to go to the nursery with me but wants to approve of every-single-plant?!

    The only nursery I’ve ever used in LA and can give even 3 out of 5 stars to is Marina Garden Center in Marina Del Rey. They’re overpriced, but they have a decent selection and helpful/friendly staff.

    Maybe I’ve lived outside of LA for too long, but it never ceases to amaze me how much more expensive it is than the rest of Southern California.

  11. Susa!!! You have a point, as always! Yes – LA is a specialty nursery city. Rolling Greens for indoor plants, California Cactus for succulents, Persson’s (I’m SO glad you mentioned it … you are right!) for trees and vines, and (as Melody below points out) La Cienega Nursery for big tropicals (I got the most amazingly huge Monstera here once!)
    But I want that One Stop Amazing Shop! I want to get succulents AND roses AND unusual herbs AND new grasses AND I want to have new things to look at! Maybe I’m asking too much … but other cities have them, why shouldn’t we? Right?
    XOXO! always great having the VP weigh in!

    Melody thanks SO MUCH for this awesome comment! I love that you made me remember La Cienega, which should have been on the list – the caveat being that I still end up having to go elsewhere for the tough drought tolerants that are the backbone of my palette. But I’ve never been to The Jungle, and I’ll remedy that – it sounds great, and it could be a destination!
    I am so with you about that stretch of 101 – starting with Seaside Gardens and ending with San Marcos – I am in heaven! And the profit margins ARE tiny for retail nurseries, but nurseries in other cities offset the small mark-up on plants by selling coffee, smoothies, sno-cones, and making the nursery a great place to be for the afternoon. If you get people to linger over an iced latte, chances are they are going to buy some plants!
    You totally made me laugh with your comment about not going west of La Cienega – I’m worse! I tend to stay this side of WESTERN as much as possible – but for cool plants, I’ll go anywhere!
    Thanks so much for dropping by – we are very much of like minds of the subject!

    Hi Fern! Ha! YES – Rolling Greens is $$$ – and not very nice. I once had to get a bunch of plants for a Bonnie Hunt Show demo, and they gave me SO MUCH attitude, like I was trying to rip them off or something! I think alot of their business is film and photo – they are just into what can dress spaces. That explains the limited selection and out of control prices. And all the FAKE plants! WTF? I always wondered about that… I HAVE heard good things about Marina Garden Center – Michael, the project manager for Elysian Landscapes, swears by them. I need to visit – but that means I SERIOUSLY have to get over my Westside issue! (I am such a baby – the only way I can make myself do a job on the westside is promising myself lunch at a fabulous restaurant!)
    It’s true – we in LA have to start fighting for our rights for reasonably priced plants, a great selection, and an upbeat retail experience! I feel for my non-wholesale garden friends!

  12. I never dreamed that a city in California would be lacking in exceptional nurseries. Maybe word from your blog will get out and a new nursery will open up that really steps up to being “great.” I knew that as far as Texas goes, we here in Austin really are pretty fortunate, but as Pam says, I won’t take it for granted again. In fact, I often take out-of-town visitors to my favorite nurseries, just to see what inspires them. There are a couple of others that I enjoy visiting, but their prices tend to make those visits few and far between.

    And when your extended vacation begins, you’ll have lots of gardeners in Austin ready to take you on the local tours… Better yet, can I join you in England and Oregon?!! :)

  13. Even if someone opens a fantastic nursery in L.A., if it’s on the “wrong side” of the 405, the 10, or whatever freeway marks your personal boundary, half the city won’t shop there. That’s just how we roll.

  14. On the retail side of things I would love to see something like what Flora Grubb has done in San Francisco. That place is dreamy dreamland for me as far as retail garden centers go. She’s done a fantastic job pulling together a great selection of plants and hardgoods and mmm coffee.

    Cal Cactus Center is like a fun house. I never get tired of going there. And yes, that stretch of 101 is a little mecca. Oh I almost forgot. Australian Natives, just outside Ventura. It’s like 10 minutes from my house & I only just went there for the first time and FELL IN LOVE. Bring lunch if you go. You’ll be there a while.

  15. Hi Germi.

    I am a little late doing my blogging rounds this week!

    We really are lucky in Austin and we do have some terrific nurseries. I like the fact that they are like half day outings for us, some have lunch and smoothies, others chickens, donkeys and goats included! I guess I just thought most other places would have something similar…I will, from now on, savor my smoothie!

    I am really surprised that a city like LA would not have more human-driven amenities at their garden centers…Germi? In between all your horticultural design globe trekking I am sure you have time to start such a place? No? You could get it exactly how you want it, and I bet it would be haunted “treat” around this time of year.


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