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Quick Takes With: Flora Grubb

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Quick Takes With: Flora Grubb

May 26, 2024
Flora Grubb

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Plantswoman Flora Grubb is here to dispel rumors that she sold her beloved namesake nurseries in San Francisco and Marina del Rey. They are not under new ownership. “In fact, you can still find me working (like most nurserymen) at least fifty hours a week. I’m still both pulling weeds and poring over spreadsheets. My fingernails are still perpetually dirty,” she tells us. “Along with my business partner Saul Nadler, who co-founded the nursery with me twenty years ago, I do whatever it takes to keep my independent nursery growing.” 

Thank goodness! For as long as our site has existed, we’ve been inspired by Flora and her keen eye for interesting plants (in particular succulents). Today, she’s sharing her thoughts on gardening, including why there’s no rest for the weary gardener in California and the reason she makes room for some non-natives in her landscape.

Photography by Caitlin Atkinson, courtesy of Flora Grubb, unless noted.

Flora, pictured here at her LA nursery, was one of the judges in Gardenista&#8\2\17;s Considered Design Awards contest in \20\14. 
Above: Flora, pictured here at her LA nursery, was one of the judges in Gardenista’s Considered Design Awards contest in 2014. 

Your first garden memory:

My first garden was a patch of Gerber Daisy grown against a scruffy rental house in Austin, Texas, where I grew up. My dad would take me and my four siblings to the nursery and let us each get one plant. I’ve been gardening ever since.

Garden-related book you return to time and again:

Designing with Palms by Jason Dewees.

Instagram account that inspires you:

The account of a wonderful wholesale grower in New South Wales, Australia: @exotic_nurseries.

Describe in three words your garden aesthetic.

Textures and shapes take center stage in her own garden. From left are Acacia cognata ‘Cousin Itt’, the silvery Leucophyta brownii, Buxus ‘Green Mountain’, Ceanothus griseus var. horizontalis ‘Diamond Heights’, Aeonium ‘Mint Saucer’, Santolina virens ‘Lemon Fizz’, and Peperomia ferreyrae.
Above: Textures and shapes take center stage in her own garden. From left are Acacia cognata ‘Cousin Itt’, the silvery Leucophyta brownii, Buxus ‘Green Mountain’, Ceanothus griseus var. horizontalis ‘Diamond Heights’, Aeonium ‘Mint Saucer’, Santolina virens ‘Lemon Fizz’, and Peperomia ferreyrae.

Lush. Textured. Cohesive.

Plant that makes you want to run the other way:

After 20 years of being surrounded by thousands of plants every day, I’ll say… I just like plants. Plants I thought I didn’t care for have surprised me by turning up in places I don’t expect them looking perfectly lovely. What makes me want to run the other way are plant combinations. Mostly, multi-colored six packs of annual plants never end up looking beautiful in any context.

Plant that makes you swoon:

Cussonia paniculata
Above: Cussonia paniculata

Cussonia. We grow cussonia from seed at our farms in the Rainbow Valley. We’re growing a few different types, and we’ve experimenting with raising them in our greenhouses for our customers to put in their homes as well as their gardens.

Favorite go-to plant:

Above: For Flora Grubb’s growing guide on Dudleya britonii, go here. Photograph via Flora Grubb Gardens website.

Dudleya britonii, a beautiful chalky white California native succulent.

Hardest gardening lesson you’ve learned:

In our coastal Californian climate, gardens don’t “rest” in the winter time, and neither can I. When we have mild and wet winters,the garden must not be ignored. The plants love the rain and the coastal California version of “cold” does not slow them down much. By the time the sun comes out in spring, the plants I’ve nurtured may be buried under plants I don’t like as much. The lesson: pick any dry-enough, warm-enough winter day and get out there!

Unpopular gardening opinion:

The beauty of the California garden comes from the liveliness that natives contribute when combined with the forms, colors, and wonder brought by well-adapted plants from around the world. For building resilience to climate change, particularly in the dense coastal cities where my customers live, “California Natives Only” is not a good strategy. This may seem self evident to some, but in some circles this is an unpopular opinion.

Every garden needs a…

Flora has a bed in her garden.
Above: Flora has a bed in her garden.

Every garden needs a comfortable place to be in the garden. The garden should always be planned with an eye for inhabiting the garden. I love to have a covered place with a comfortable bed for lounging. The bed in my garden is a luxury, and I spend as much time in it as I do in my living room.

Gardening or design trend that needs to go:

Fake lawns. A plastic carpet that becomes so hot when the sun shines on it that it burns children’s feet is not a good alternative to a lawn. We can do better.

Old wives’ tale gardening trick that actually works:

The best way to get rid of slugs without harming other wildlife really is to put a few bricks around the garden and then gather and dispose of the slugs that have gathered on the bottom of the brick.

Favorite gardening hack:

My favorite gardening hack is to do everything I can to make it easy and fun to weed my garden. Weeding is a fact of gardening without harmful chemicals. So get every weeding tool you might like to use…whatever it takes to make it easy. But there is no “hack” to get rid of the need to weed the garden.

Favorite way to bring the outdoors in.

I love making bouquets from my garden. Most of them have just a few flowers and are mostly foliage colors and textures.

Favorite hardscaping material:

Above: A neat path of pea gravel and basalt stepping stones.

Good old fashioned pea gravel, mixed with permeable pavers made in California by ORCA. [See Ask the Expert: Molly Sedlacek of ORCA, on Permeable Hardscaping.]

Tool you can’t live without:

With a Felco pruner, I am all-powerful.

Go-to gardening outfit:

Above: Mi Cocina’s Natural Canvas Apron is $190; Imperfects’ Courier Pants are $159.

Since I work at one of my nurseries every day I have a bit of a uniform: Work pants from Imperfects, utility shirt from Alex Mill, with my Mi cocina apron. As for actual gardening in my own garden, which I grab a little bit of time for most mornings, I’m likely to be found in my pjs and barefoot….

Favorite nursery, plant shop, or seed company:

I think a lot about other people’s nurseries. If I had to pick a favorite, I’d say the venerable San Marcos Growers, which will close in 2025 after more than four decades in business. San Marcos has had an important role in the introduction of new plants into the California nursery trade. If you live in coastal California, your garden has been impacted by their work.

On your wishlist:

I want to grow Casuarina ‘Green Wave’. Seems I might need a trip to Australia to get one!

Not-to-be-missed public garden/park/botanical garden:

Off the beaten path and offering limited appointments and parking, but so worth the effort: Western Hills Garden in Occidental.

The REAL reason you garden:

Above: While Flora Grubb’s San Francisco nursery has been around for more than two decades, its Marina del Rey location, pictured here, is relatively new, opening just last year. “We grow most of the plants we sell on our farm in the beautiful Rainbow Valley in Northern San Diego County,” says Flora. For more on her new nursery, see Shopper’s Diary: Flora Grubb, Now in Los Angeles.

At this point I’ve spent the majority of my life in the garden trade. My enthusiasm for my nurseries keeps me up at night, pushes me out of bed in the morning, and is the driving force behind almost everything I do. I can’t say for sure that this level of obsession would not have followed me into whatever profession I chose, but I am glad that if I am going to fall asleep and wake up thinking about my work, that my work is gardens. My own home garden is the keystone of my work. My respite, my lab, my playground.

Thank you, Flora! Follow her on Instagram @floragrubbgardens.

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