For many people, it’s far too early to start talking about Halloween. And then there’s the rest of us.
The holiday decor junkies among us have been pining for Halloween ever since we tucked the Fourth of July-themed tableware away in the garage, and no one knows that quite like Roger’s Gardens in Corona del Mar. The popular gardening and outdoors supply store — think the Disneyland of nurseries — has made a name for itself in Southern California for its wildly creative and meticulously curated pop-up Halloween boutique. Each year, they pull back the curtain before Labor Day.it Yes, before Labor Day.
The theme is an homage to Hogwarts, the wizarding school of Harry Potter (although for copyright reasons, do not expect to see the boy wizard’s name plastered all over the place). Fans of the 20-year-old blockbuster novels will be able to easily identify the different themed rooms, such as the headmaster’s office, the greenhouse and the potion master’s classroom.
Omnipresent clerks slink around dressed in black, some wearing cloaks, strange little hats, and in one case, a realistic rubber snake wrapped around her shoulders like a necklace. The lighting is appropriately dim, so it takes several seconds to realize there are ghoulish figures hovering above you at the entrance, candles floating over one table, and owls frozen in mid-swoop around several displays.
Deeper in we noticed some unusual looking … greenery — a clutch of potted “shrubs” that — yikes! — turned out to have faces. Scrunchy, woody baby faces, to be exact, emerging from the soil with large purple-green leaves sprouting from their little bald heads and scoring a near perfect 10 on the creep-o-meter.
But this is Roger’s Gardens, so after a moment of heart-stopping revulsion, the next step was to check how much one costs ($130) and ask if any were still for sale?
Alas, no. The dozen or so hand-crafted “mandrake” plants, styled after the deadly baby-faced plants in the beloved Harry Potter novels, sold out the same day the boutique opened, as did the eyeball plant, floating candles and the Sorting Hat, perched in a perfect dusty glass case.
Every year the Roger’s Gardens staff creates prop pieces for its displays, based on a specific theme, and every year they’re the first to go, said Eric Cortina, the nursery’s creative designer. By now, that $3,500 hand-painted castle facade that marks the entrance to this year’s Hocus Pocus Halloween Boutique is probably sold too (but you can always ask).
Happily, for those of us who come to gaze, the props must stay in place until at least Oct. 10, so there’s still plenty of time to take in the full effect. Look for a giant hairy spider, a snarling, oversized snake, moving paintings and several other nods to Harry Potter.
The effect is lightly spooky and some young children were clinging tightly to their adults, but most children seemed more excited than frightened by the decor.
Emily Morgan, a member of the nursery’s visual merchandise team, created most of this year’s special props, said head merchant Hedda Staines. The mandrakes, for instance, use dollar-store baby dolls as their foundation, covered with a moldable foam clay and half-buried in a faux soil. “They’re completely unique and absolutely brilliant,” Staines said.
For a more modest $25 shoppers can buy labeled, stoppered bottles with the gelatinous “memories” of Potter characters like Luna Lovegood or Prof. Severus Snape floating inside. Or they can buy empty apothecary bottles for $9 and create their own.
Roger’s Gardens has been creating its Halloween boutique experiences for 15 years, and the displays are legendary. Thousands of visitors trek through the displays each year, and for many a visit to Roger’s helps turn the calendar from unofficial end of summer to that fall feeling.
Why is it so popular? Cortina says the emphasis is on spooky and eerie instead of gore.
“We definitely stay away from blood,” he said. “Halloween is very much a pop culture holiday, so we look to pop culture for inspiration.”
Cortina has already chosen the themes through 2020 — yes, we asked, and no, he’s not saying — and Staines is busy brainstorming merchandise to go along with the idea.
Themes enhance the experience for customers, she said, “and as a buyer, it forces me to get creative.”
That means including merchandise like leather-bound journals just waiting for a quill ($40), life-size swooping owls ($60) and large hourglasses ($37) along with the more standard fare of skeleton-hand goblets ($10), skull bottle openers ($4) and a delightful “doorbell” that turns into a sinister talking eye ($30).
Admission is free. The trick — bwah ha ha! — is escaping while you’re still solvent.
Hocus Pocus Halloween Boutique
Where: Roger’s Gardens, 2301 San Joaquin Hills Road, Corona del Mar
When: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, through at least Oct. 10.
Cost: Admission and parking are free