Travels with Gary

By: Sharon Cohoon
Sharon Cohoon

Sharon Cohoon retired from Sunset Magazine in 2011 after being their primary Southern California garden writer for nearly seventeen years….

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Gary Hammer harvesting what looks like Jatropha

Gary Hammer left this world on August 7, 2011. But our favorite plant collector had already largely disappeared from the Southern California gardening scene before then.

Hammer, as all his friends knew, had a fervent desire to live in Mexico one day. During the first decade of the 21st century he bought property in Orizaba, Veracruz, established a nursery, and began spending more time in Mexico and less in the States.

How does a nurseryman—as we know too well, no one goes into this business to get rich—accumulate enough money to buy several acres in Mexico? His industry, for one thing. “Gary was the hardest-working person I ever met,” says John Greenlee, ornamental grass nurseryman. Secondly, thrift. Gary was notoriously frugal. Well, let’s be honest, cheap.

“We used to tease him his van was so old you could see the stripes on the highway through the floorboards,” says Steve Brigham, former owner of Buena Creek Nursery in north San Diego County. Nor did Gary waste much money achieving sartorial splendor.  “T-shirt and shorts only, always,” says Greenlee.  “And for a long time, no shoes.” Food was mostly there for fuel. “He loved Fat Burgers,” says Brigham.  “I think because it provided the most calories for the least money.”

We have a glimpse of what Gary’s life was like in Veracruz thanks to plant broker Matt-Dell Tufenkian who accompanied Gary there on a plant collecting tour  in 1999 and took the snapshots we’re sharing here. Gary was toying with an eco-tourism idea—inviting horticulturally inclined guests to join him on collecting treks, says Matt. “And I was his guinea pig.”

Travels with Gary photo gallery

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