The Art of Home: Roots run deeper in nutrient-rich soil

Gary Matsuoka talks about the variety of apple trees he grows at his Laguna Hills Nursery in Santa Ana.
(Don Leach / Daily Pilot)

When horticulturist Gary Matsuoka learned that the main ingredient of the locally bagged soil sold in garden shops was composed of wood and bark, he wanted to develop a long-term potting soil that would meet the essential plant needs for water, nutrients and oxygen.

“It’s just amazing to me how many plants are dead,” Matsuoka said. “You see plants in stores dying, the cheap soil is rotting faster, and homeowners are being blamed for overwatering, but it’s not their fault.”

Matsuoka, owner of Laguna Hills Nursery in Santa Ana, has witnessed the decline in the quality of most of the plant material sold at retail nurseries over the past two decades.


Most plants, he said, are grown in cheap materials like wood shavings, ground bark and peat moss. The compost starts out healthy but eventually the wood rots and, after about five months, the chips become sludge and lose air flow. The roots suffer, and the plant, if it survives, never grows.

To solve the problem, and help plants perform at their maximum potential, Matsuoka collaborated with a NASA soil researcher and learned that the soil had to contain peat moss, pumice, charcoal and sand.

Since the charcoal holds the nutrients best, the potting soil would not shrink or break down with time.

The nursery began selling the potting soil and, to educate customers on how the mix of soil would benefit flowers and edibles, Matsuoka would hold garden-class lectures

For years, Laguna Hills Nursery gained a reputation among customers as the bountiful source of fruit trees, ornamental plants and top potting soil.

But after closing in 2010, Matsuoka continued to think of his customers who needed the soil, and after deciding to find a new retail location, reopened the nursery in 2014.



Matsuoka was always a child of nature.

Growing up in Los Angeles, he’d watch his father grow and sell plants at the family run nursery in Pasadena.

When his father bought land in El Toro, and opened Laguna Hills Nursery 45 years ago, Matsuoka would work there, watering plants on weekends and during summers while in high school.

But he initially wasn’t interested in running the family business.

He went to graduate school to practice medical research at the University of Texas, but returned to the nursery, determined to implement a holistic and sustainable approach to using the family land.

Matsuoka took over his parents’ business in 1994 with his wife, Nancy. He’d write weekly newsletters, detailing his view on how local weather was affecting gardens, which pests to be aware of and what garden chores should be finished.

But in 2007, both of Matsuoka’s parents, the founders of the nursery, had died, and the garden of 8 acres on Jeronimo Road had to be sold to settle the family’s estate.

The nursery was moved to Foothill Ranch a year later, but was leased back at the original property and remained there until 2010, when the poor economy eventually shut down the business.


They held a sale and the most purchased item was Matsuoka’s potting soil.

“People would buy 60 bags of soil so they wouldn’t run out,” Nancy said. “We’d go on walks around the neighborhood and spot bags on porches.”

Not wanting to disappoint their customers, Matsuoka and his wife sold their products at farmers markets in Orange County for four years and searched for a new and permanent location.

An employee, who had worked at Laguna Hills Nursery for several years, was lunching at a restaurant in Santa Ana when he noticed a vacant building across the street.

The property featured a wooden canopy and looked like a facility that once displayed plants, shrubs and trees. The Matsuokas visited the location off North Tustin Avenue and found the half acre of land to be sufficient for their nursery.

They opened the garden center last year, and customers from South County have followed Laguna Hills Nursery to the new location.

Matsuoka, his wife, daughter, son and a few employees, still sell products at farmers markets throughout Orange County three days a week. And the favorite product, they said, continues to be the potting soil.


“We’re still doing business because the industry has a philosophy of soil that we don’t agree with,” Matsuoka said. “The satisfaction of helping customers grow their plants is the best part of the business. The feedback from them is always appreciated.”

If You Go

What: Laguna Hills Nursery

When: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday

Where: 1829 N. Tustin Ave., Santa Ana

Information: (714) 542-5600 or visit