Nurseryman Ric Dykzeul stands at the entrance of Palos Verdes Begonia Farm, reflecting on the landmark Torrance nursery's announcement that it will be closing its doors for good in early October.
"People walk around red-eyed while they're shopping for their last plants," observes the soft-spoken Dykzeul. "They call on the phone saying, 'How can you do this to me?' One woman told me she'd been buying plants here since she was a little girl. Her grandmother used to bring her here."
As Dykzeul speaks, a woman stops to touch him on the arm. "My two favorite department stores, Buffums and Bullock's, are both closed," she announces with growing passion. "They've discontinued my favorite brand of lingerie. My bank branch has been shut down because it merged with another bank. And now this."
Like other Southern California nurseries, the 56-year-old Begonia Farm suffered tremendous losses during the region's drought in the early 1990s. "The drought really kicked everything into gear," recalls Begonia Farm's owner, John Bauman, 47, whose great-grandfather started the business selling tuberous begonias to locals in the 1940s. "In 1990-'91 with the water rationing, our business dropped 45% overnight. People didn't water so they didn't buy plants. It was a badge of a good neighbor to have a brown lawn. We hoped when the drought ended, business would pick up but since our area was hit so hard by the recession and the aerospace cutbacks, we couldn't regain momentum."
Further complicating matters is the fact that everybody from supermarkets to behemoth home improvement centers now sell plants.
"I have--I mean, I had--40 employees," says Bauman. "I used to have 70. People came in here expecting service and we gave it to them. But you can't make a living, or keep up payroll, when your competitors are selling plants at a loss to attract customers."
Begonia Farm's customer service often went over and above the call of duty. Dykzeul was known to drive past customers' houses just to see how new plants were faring, and one customer recalls bringing up a tame-looking echium only to be gently quizzed by the cashier: Do you know how big this plant gets? Are you sure you have room? Only after she was satisfied that the customer understood what she was getting into did the cashier ring up the sale.
Situated just off Pacific Coast Highway in a prime residential location, Begonia Farm--which was, in fact, for many years a working begonia farm--used to be surrounded by celery fields, Walteria Lake and little else. "I grew up in the business," says Bauman. "People would wander around and when they found a begonia they wanted to buy, they'd place a colored flag next to it so the nurseryman could dig it up for purchase. Well, when I was a kid, I used to run out and switch the flags."
Bauman admits he only recently confessed this prank to his parents.
"On the weekends everyone in the family--even those who had other jobs--would get out to plant seedlings and take the little paint brushes to pollinate the begonias," he says. "And this is still a family-run business. My wife has worked here since 1975 and my son started working here the last few summers."
As Bauman speaks, his father, Jack, pokes his head in to say good night. The elder Bauman still comes in to work, sitting in his "plant doctor" chair inside the nursery and chatting with customers about crab grass, beneficial insects and debating the virtues of sod versus seed lawns. On any Sunday afternoon, you can see people waiting patiently in line to ask Jack Bauman a question or to confer with him about a rascally looking bug.
"There's something wonderful about walking through a family-owned nursery, especially on a quiet weekday morning," says Lili Singer, a Los Angeles-based horticultural consultant and editor of Southern California Gardener. "It's a feeling you can't get when you have to walk past a warehouse store's ladders and the screen doors to get to the plants.
"It's a shame Begonia Farm is closing its doors." she says. "Not only for the people in the South Bay who patronized the nursery for years but also for what the loss of another independent nursery means to Southern California. Once all the good nurseries are gone, where will we go to find different plants? And who'll be left to fill those orders when wholesale growers are forced by economics to grow the same cookie-cutter varieties?"
As they pick through a box of leftover holiday ornaments, Charlie and Roma Thompson agree that they're going to miss this place. "Especially at Christmas time," says Roma. "It always looked so beautiful the way they decorated the trees."
Charlie nods solemnly. "Coming here always felt like an outing."