Hot, Cold, and Wet Nursery Days

A frequent contributor to Pacific Horticulture, Bob Cowden loved to tell stories from his forty years as a nurseryman in the Bay Area. Urged to share some of those reminiscences with our readers, he submitted the following, intended to be the first of several installments. Sadly, it will be the only one, as Bob passed away before completing more.

For three years after I began working at the then-new McDonnell’s Nursery in Walnut Creek, California, I lived in Berkeley and commuted to work. I had always liked Berkeley and found it had a wonderfully equable climate for all the plants I enjoyed growing—fuchsias, tuberous begonias, camellias, rhododendrons and azaleas, wonderful roses, hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis), princess flower (Tibouchina urvilleana), angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia), and even jacaranda.

Walnut Creek was another matter. Heading east in summer at seven in the morning, I felt a blast of hot air hit the car the minute I emerged from the Caldecott Tunnel, which passes through the Oakland hills and connects the immediate Bay Area with the suburbs of eastern Contra Costa County. In winter, there were mornings when the nursery hoses would be filled with chunks of ice, and bedding plants would be frozen stiff. This was a decidedly different microclimate from that of Berkeley.

The nursery opened in 1949, one year before I started to work there. As it was a branch of the main nursery in Oakland, it seemed reasonable to stock the new venture with Berkeley-Oakland plants. In December of 1949, there were three successive mornings of 17° F temperatures. Many plants froze in their containers, including scarlet-flowering gum (Eucalyptus ficifolia), Victorian box (Pittosporum undulatum), princess flower, Indian laurel fig (Ficus microcarpa), the ubiquitous mirror plant (Coprosma baureri, now C. repens), angel’s trumpet, hibiscus, Erica canaliculata, bougainvillea, and coastal standbys such as Myoporum laetum and Griselinia littoralis.

We took stock of that winter’s shock by remaining conservative for the next thirty years; we never sold hibiscus, even as an annual.

On the positive side, we learned that the cold winters provided deciduous fruit trees with the dormancy they required, and that we were, indeed, in lilac and herbaceous peony country. We also learned to harden off our plants before winter arrived by withholding water in late September and October.

Shortly after opening, we made the acquaintance of customers from Stockton, a long established farming town that is even farther inland and more removed from the modifying effects of the ocean. We learned from ranchers and their wives what might grow in the hot summers of interior California. On trips to Stockton, we were amazed at the lawns, most of them a foot below grade so that they could be flood irrigated as if they were pastureland. We saw huge white oleanders (Nerium oleander) looking cool in the heat; many were trained as standards, some as multi-trunk trees. My first sighting of crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) was on a Stockton street. Oleander and crape myrtle soon became our stock-in-trade.

During the occasional severe freezes, we seldom had customers in the nursery, but we received hundreds of phone calls with questions on how to protect plants against the cold. The talisman of the time was the jade plant (Crassula argentea), which was usually grown in a container on porch or balcony. We advised callers to bring such plants indoors, if possible. Usually, the advice was a day late.

The customers I wondered about most were those who seemed to come alive in the heat and would boast that “this is what we came out here for.” One June, we suffered an extraordinary hot spell, when even the nights were hot. It lasted for weeks—so long that the western side of a row of Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens) turned brown. Our days were spent keeping plants alive and watering the asphalt and concrete paths to raise the humidity and cool the air.

As I returned from lunch one day during this prolonged heat wave, I saw a tall woman, dressed in white with an enormous wide-brimmed hat on her head, standing by a table of bedding plants. I walked toward her, taking my glasses off to wipe the perspiration from them. When I got close, she seemed to be a figure made of alabaster or marble. Her face was serene and cool, as though she had her own internal air conditioning system.

“I think this is an ideal day to plant a flat of pansies,” she said calmly. The pansies were gasping for breath, hanging limply over the sides of a flat. Later, after paying for the pansies, she opened her car trunk—a virtual oven at the rear of her sedan. A blast of exceedingly hot air hit me in the face as I put the pansies inside and closed the lid. I never saw her again, but, to this day, I occasionally wonder what she did with that flat of dead pansies when she returned home.