On Cultivating a Taste for the Back-Yard Nursery

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“Where can I find these plants?” is perhaps the most frequent question to cross my desk, referring to the plants that appear on these pages but sometimes cannot be found at the local nursery.

Occasionally the question comes as a criticism. Some gardeners, frustrated by not being able to find what we write about, say we shouldn’t have tempted them so and shouldn’t write about anything that isn’t commonly available. But that wouldn’t be much fun and certainly not much of an adventure. The trouble here is that nurseries simply don’t carry the variety they could and perhaps should.

Much of the fun of gardening is discovery, but in recent years the trend has been to streamline and simplify nursery stock and to move a lot of what remains, as it has been in many other businesses. There hasn’t been much to dibcover.


Be Adventuresome

An avid gardener learns to be adventuresome, though it may mean putting a few miles on the car. Some good-size nurseries make a point of finding and stocking new plants and they are often mentioned on these pages as a source for something out-of-the-ordinary. And, in fairness to the other nurseries, they too have begun to offer more variety in the last year or so.

There are also many small specialty nurseries that sell only fuchsias or perhaps cacti, and there are the back-yard growers.

These nurseries begin when the owners can’t find the plants they are looking for, so grow their own. Because this usually yields more plants than one can put in the ground, a nursery is born. What makes the back-yard grower especially fun is that the nursery often plays second fiddle to a garden nearby--the garden that started the venture.

This past week I visited two such nurseries in North San Diego County in search of some new plants to try in my garden. I came home with a trunk full. Both are true back-yard nurseries, with the plants lined up beside the house or on the driveway, and both have lovely gardens full of tempting flowers.

They can be more fun than a botanical garden because if you see something you really like, they probably offer it for sale. Their gardens are also not likely to be much bigger than your own, so you will find all sorts of things that are the right size.

These two San Diego growers specialize in unusual perennials. Both could be easily overwhelmed if more than a half-dozen customers descended at once so I strongly advise that first you call and make an appointment. Parking is very limited.


At Judy’s Perennials, I first toured a colorfully planted garden full of flowers and then, properly inspired, went in search of some of the plants I saw there, including some elegant large-flowered alstroemerias that are so common at florists (because they cut so well) but are impossible to find at nurseries.

Hers are hybrids developed by Fred Meyer and are shades of pink and purple. Some of these hybrids grow to 3 feet, others are lower, but all have very sturdy stems that arise from a dense clump of rhizomes that spread very slowly to make a plant about 2 feet to 3 feet across. The flowers look like very colorful azalea blossoms and, according to Judy Wigand, they flower most of the year.

I also discovered a wonderful little pink perennial nemesia, she had it labeled Nemesia fruiticosa , which spreads to make a little bushy plant about 1 foot tall by 2 feet across. It too flowers most of the year.

A plant I had once seen growing at the Huntington Library also went into the trunk of my car. It is called the drumstick flower because from almost grassy clumps of gray foliage arise tall stems with perfect yellow balls on top, the drumsticks. It’s botanical name is Craspedia globosa .

Another treasure I took home looks like a tiny pink hibiscus, Anisodontea elegans , which makes a dainty bush about 3 feet around. These three plants are so rare and new that they can’t even be found in the mammoth “Hortus Third” dictionary of plants.

Judy’s Perennials is at 436 Buena Creek Road, San Marcos, (619) 744-4343.

At Perennial Adventure, Christine Wotruba’s garden and nursery farther south in La Mesa, I found a regal plant I have been looking for for many years, Verbascum bombyciferum , having seen it in so many English gardens.

From a low rosette of huge, felty, gray leaves springs a spire of soft yellow flowers that reach easily to 6 feet. It is the ultimate accent plant, or so I hope, and I know right where I’m going to plant it.

I also found a fascinating columbine with small double, dahlia-like flowers named “Nora Barlow” and a foxglove that is a perennial and grows somewhat shrubby, named Digitalis obscura , which I plan to plant behind another perennial foxglove with an equally puzzled name, Digitalis ambigua . Someone wasn’t too sure of these plants when they were naming them.

Rock Gardens

Wotruba also grows a number of rock garden plants and I carted home a lewisia, one of the native American alpine plants. Her garden consists of long, elegant borders that wrap around the house at the base of a slight hill. At one end is a fledgling rock garden that is blessed with natural rock outcroppings.


Perennial Adventure is located at 10548 Anaheim Drive, La Mesa, (619) 466-1203.

San Diego County, especially the North county area, is peppered with similar small nurseries that specialize in other kinds of plants. On other foraging trips I have come home with everything from proteas to papayas. This is how one finds unusual and exciting plants and finding them becomes an adventure in itself.