Addendum to the works of Maestro Tom Perlite
regarding the location of greenhouses
August 26, 2020

The nursery that I started off working in was at the San Francisco Botanical Garden. I worked there as an assistant nursery manager (grunt) under the direction of Dr Don Mahoney. This was from 1995-1997. The nursery was built in the lowest part of the garden, next to the California native plant garden, redwood grove, water reservoir and pump house. Cold air is denser and tends to gather in the low spots. On cold winter days all the bunchgrass meadow in the native garden would be white with frost. There were a few freezes too but not many. When a really cold snap was forecasted Dr Don would go around wrapping the really tender plants with blankets or plastic tarps and the like. Why they put the nursery there in such a cold place I do not know.

On the nursery grounds, there was a small glass greenhouse, an enclosed area with plants outdoors, and other structures that housed ferns, epiphytes, rhododendrons, the electric cart, and so on. Half of the greenhouse was used for plants. The other half was the boiler for heat, potting tables, a tiny gas burner for making morning coffee, a tiny bit of office space, and a meeting space with a table. It was the break/lunch room for the workers.

Next to the greenhouse was another covered structure that used to have fiberglass roofing which was replaced with polycarbonate. It was protected but cool, with no heat. It had doors that could open if too hot, and closed if too cold. In this room were more cutting beds, palms and cycads, vireya rhododendrons, begonias, vines, bromeliads, and others.

In spite of the somewhat shady and cool conditions we grew a great diversity of plants. So rather than growing things that needed a lot of light, we grew things that needed less – like cloud forest plants and under the canopy shade plants. Plants that were adapted to the weather in the western part of San Francisco, inner Sunset district. Specific genera that did well included Cuphea, Tagetes, Cestrum, Iochroma, Fuchsia, Salvia, Psychotria. Alpines such as Raoulia, Edelweiss, Sempervirens, Androsace.  The fertilization regime was mild, it was not like some nurseries that are fertigating every single day. We would use both synthetic fertilizers like osmocote, as well as organic ones like blood meal.

The nursery was split. Part of is was overseen by the chief nursery specialist growing plants for the garden itself. The specialist was an employee of the City of San Francisco, a civil service job. The other part of it was overseen by the society, managing garden volunteers who were growing plants for the plant sales to raise funds for the society (was the Strybing Arboretum Society, now San Francisco Botanical Garden Society). When I started, the nursery specialist was a gentleman who loved to grow orchids named Alek Koomanoff, he is a friend of Tom Perlite’s. Later, this position went to a nice lady named Jeanne Rich.

It was neat because the plant specimens we grew were unlike those grown in the wholesale and commercial nurseries. The goal was conservation of and education about plants. Many plants were collected in the wild – brought back from expeditions by Don, botanists and curators, or local enthusiastic plant nerds who kept good records. Some plants were truly ornamental and had that horticultural potential, others were just down right weird or obscure but oh so interesting. “Have you ever seen anything like this?!” was a common refrain on the lunch table when some lil ol lady brought in a flower that bloomed for the first time. Sometimes we knew that it probably wouldn’t sell but that did not stop us from growing it. By “it probably wouldn’t sell” I mean that it might have had small not so showy flowers, a habit that was not tight and compact and garden like, a size that would only work in a large arboretum, it appealed to birds and butterflies but was otherwise lackluster, or it was difficult in cultivation. So it was appropriate for a garden full of plant and nature lovers, but would not work out for people who are looking for something that was low maintenance or commonplace and ‘easy’. There was that experimental edge – not necessarily looking for what always looked good (what the chinese call ‘saving face’), but more the feeling of ‘try it and see’. And of course, with plants, you may not know the results until thirty or forty years later. So this philosophy of planting is a more plant centered view of the universe so to speak…

There was a huge book shelf of specialized books and Hortus in easy reach. Wandering traveling botanists and gardeners would somehow show up at the door and engage in excited plant discussion about the awesomeness of the flora here in California and specifically San Francisco. Don would answer most or all of the questions and often set off for the garden in one of them flat electric carts in search of or in reference to some unusual unheard of plant from Indonesia. Or upland Mexico. Or hinterlands of China. Conservation in action.

don

Location wise it was convenient for volunteers who would drive down the service road and park right in front of the nursery. At that time there were maybe 10-15 regulars, split up over three days, and so everybody somehow fit okay. It was a fringe thing basically that had little to do with fashion trends. There were volunteer work days every Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. Volunteers were in charge of the various plant departments: orchids, ferns, California natives, perennials, rhododendrons, alpines, roses, passion vines, salvias, geophytes (bulbs corms and rhizomes), grasses and grass like plants, cactus and succulents, fuchsias, and trees. The average age of the volunteers was something in the range of the 80’s, like 82 or something. Most were ladies but some men also. They were treasure houses of knowledge in their particular realm of expertise, and had a passion for flowers which seemed to make them immortal and full of the get up and go. Just think of it, a Salvia master who was growing two hundred plus species of Saliva, helped out by one or two apprentices. Making cuttings, sowing seeds, weeding pots. Every department was this prolific. All done for free. I do not remember any of of them ever complaining. Although sometimes they would have quibbles and tussles over territory and space with each other. So then Dr Mahoney would have to play referee. Lucky thing he worked for many years in a mental hospital before committing himself to the garden.  The volunteers came, worked hard, left with smiles. Eighty ninety year old elders with dirt in their fingernails.

There was very little vandalism back in the day because most vandals and thieves really do not target plants. They did target the nursery when we got a high pressure sodium grow light, and broke the windows on a couple of occasions to steal the light. Other than that it was a very mellow and secure place. The main ‘pest’ was algae, algae growing on the roofs and algae growing on the walkways inside the greenhouse. My job was to scrub the walkways with some bleach, and to scrub the roofs with a brush attached to a really really long stick so that I could reach the top of the roofs while standing on top of a ladder. Then get the hose and rinse it all off. Another pest was mice eating the seeds. So a plexiglass wire cage was built to keep the seeds safe.

As more and more plants were grown, and the sales grew, the nursery expanded to encompass the higher upper terraces above the greenhouse. Volunteers rigged PVC pipe, bamboo, and polyfilm to create several makeshift greenhouses, mostly for the cactus and succulents which like it with a little bit more heat and a little bit more dry. Very very DIY style.  The posts are galvanized steel fence t posts connected to the white curved PVC pipe.  cross supports are bamboo and more pipe.

IMG_4185

All in all it was a good location because it was a happy place where people were able to gather together and share their love of plants. Our plant sales would all be down there next to the nursery. So before the sales we would pull out tables and fill them with plants, in anticipation of the Saturday shoppers who would walk down to the nursery. So in a sense it was restricted and constricted – in traffic and in cash flow. You could not pull right up with your car and load it with tons of plants in a frenzy. You had to carry the heavy potted plants in your arms back up the hill through the garden, or bring a little red cart with four wheels past the bamboos and dawn redwoods and monkey hand tree and silver tree and manzanitas. It had that old time feeling of civility and camaraderie.  A place that worshipped not the king who is money but a place that paid homage to the queen who is the earth and plants.

At the time, the only employees on the society payroll working in the nursery were Don full time and myself part time three days a week. It took Don ten years working there to get enough raises so that his pay was equal to that of a gardener. That is as a PhD botanist in range management from UC Berkeley. Funny. So like Mr Perlite says, “You are not going to get rich in this field”. It was very low key and you might say low pressure but highly productive and highly energized by great energy and fantastic people.

In the early 2010’s the society fundraised for a long time to build a new nursery up top by the Children’s garden on the west end of the botanical garden. This would have made a lot of sense since there is already a gated entrance there which would be useful for supplies and delivery and construction and such. Additionally it is sunnier and a much larger space. For one reason or another it never happened and time ran out on that project. Then recently they decided to build a new nursery where the old one is currently and that is what is happening now. Operations have temporarily shut down. The nursery volunteers are no longer there, Don Mahoney retired to his double lot apple orchard botanical wonderland in the east bay, and the nursery sits empty for now. Architects have drawn up plans and there is active fundraising in the works. Stay tuned… This is a picture from the final days.  Some of these volunteers have been there for over thirty years.  And you know what?  They look the same youthfulness as when I was working there in 1995?!  Plants I tell ya, they are amazing healers.

IMG_1665

A few other greenhouse location stories are as follows. These are as accurate as my memory serves. If I have made mistakes in the telling of these stories I apologize. Let me know and I will make corrections. Thank you.

One year we went out to visit Four Winds Growers in Fremont, around year 2005. They are a citrus nursery. Location wise they sit right next to the pipes that conveyed Hetch Hetchy water from the Sierras to Crystal Springs Reservoir and San Francisco. In the early years they were able to tap the water and use it to grow their plants. This was great! It is high quality water with little dissolved salts. No contaminants. Then later, the city tightened up and the nursery no longer had water access anymore. And had to go to regular groundwater which is how most counties and municipalities get their water in the Bay Area. San Francisco’s water rights and allotments are changing as well as money centers shift away from the City. A neat thing I remember about Four Winds was their greenhouse cuttings room. They had stock plants growing in the ground, both for the dwarfing rootstock as well as the scions for different citrus fruits. They would graft the two pieces of almost leafless rootless wood with a rubber band, and leave it in a greenhouse with 95% constant humidity. They said in 6 weeks it would be a joined plant with roots that they could then pot up and put outside. I was amazed! Think about where citrus trees originate in the subtropical wet monsoon climate of southeast Asia it does make sense. Checking on their website it appears they have moved operations to Watsonville.

When I worked in the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Natural Areas Program, our main goal was the restoration of native vegetation throughout San Francisco Parks. I was the nursery person for three or so years, collecting seed and growing them in a shade structure, not a greenhouse, in the Park Nursery in Golden Gate Park. At the time I was also in charge of the natural areas of McLaren Park. Next to McNab Marsh in McLaren there was a whole block of greenhouses that were rented out to a scattering of peoples. There was one grower of shiitake mushrooms, and another orchid grower. But for the most part the greenhouses seemed a little bit abandoned and in disuse. The people who owned the greenhouses offered them to Recreation and Parks for super low rent, like a dollar a square foot, but Recreation and Parks did not want them. I told my boss Lisa Wayne, c’mon Lisa! Lets get em! We could grow all kinds of mushrooms there! For bioremediation! For medicine! For fun! But Lisa who works in the refurbished emergency hospital where Dirty Harry went to get cleaned and stitched up, Lisa who is John Wayne of Peacemaker Colt’s niece. She said no. And looked at me firm, shaking her head side to side. No Thomas. Oh well. I tried. So the land got sold and if you go back there now it is all houses. Somewhere close to Bacon or Cambridge or Amherst street.

Lastly there are some greenhouses in Richmond that were worth checking out. There is a really inspired lady named Robin Parer who runs a nursery called Geraniaceae. She is in love with all the members of this family. She grows both the garden Geranium and Erodium as well as the ones from South Africa called Pelargonium. We would always see Robin and her booth at the San Francisco Flower and Garden Shows. We went to tour her greenhouse in Richmond by the railroad tracks on a field trip with CCSF students. They were a series of long wooden greenhouses, similar to Tom’s. I recall her saying the rent was $500 a month for a whole green house. $500 a month!! What a bargain. This was back in 2005. Still.

In the greenhouse she had every Pelargonium you can imagine, and more. In hundreds of scents and textures and forms. She regaled us with stories of wild collected seeds and specimens, and many students bought plants from her that day, including myself. Before this I had only seen like the same five six species of Pelargoniums everybody has. I’d witnessed fancy new hybrid cultivars but not totally different species!  That day blew my mind a little bit more open about what is out there in the world.  Diversity and possibilities!

There is another very successful grower in Richmond who runs a shop called Annie’s Annuals. It is certainly worth a look if you like plants. But last we visited, she does not grow in a covered greenhouse so that is off topic here for this class. But investing in a slightly more inexpensive location, making it secure, then finding a way to direct traffic to your site safely (in person or by internet and mail order), that is certainly relevant to location.

Found this on the internet about the Richmond greenhouses:

https://nextcity.org/features/view/richmond-bay-area-transforming-brownfield-into-green-development

as well as this PDF about the Sakai Nursery:

Click to access ca3549data.pdf


This last and best story comes to us from Jeanne Rich, the former Chief Nursery Specialist at San Francisco Botanical Garden. In her own words:

I went to school at Butte Community College originally to become a landscape designer because I had a four year degree in Art and I loved plants. Thought it would be a great fit using my drawing skills-back then there was no Autocad programs or a lot of computer design programs. That tells you how old I am. Luckily I had an awesome teacher like Thomas who recognized my abilities and steered me in the right direction. He first encouraged me to join the Hort Club and then asked me to become the Horticulture Manager in the greenhouses and Plant Sales Manager. I was hooked immediately and I never looked back. I was responsible for three large single gable greenhouses-at the time state of the art with all the bells and whistles.

After I got my degree I knew that my passion was for taking care of plants and starting my own nursery. I was living in a small town in the Sierra Nevadas and had a small family-one son and husband. I was full of ambition and took my savings and a small refund from taxes and started my own business in my back yard in Chester, California. It is a place that sits at about 4500’ on the western side of the Sierra’s, where huge amounts of heavy snow can occur any year. I managed to have great success with my business and put up a Quonset style 20X50 greenhouse in my back yard. Many years we have very little snow and some years huge amounts. We call it Sierra cement-heavy with water. When the Sierra cement came down we would have to go out and shovel the snow from around the sides of the greenhouse to allow the snow to shed from the roof, so the greenhouse would not collapse. I managed to go for twelve successful years with my business, despite having to get up in the middle of the night to stoke fires in the wood stove, and keep the snow cleared. But unfortunately one bad year with super heavy snow did me in. I was drinking my coffee one morning and getting ready to go shovel some heavy snow off the roof of the greenhouse. I looked out my window and saw that the greenhouse was gone? The whole greenhouse not only collapsed but it inverted itself! It was amazing, and it only took seconds. Moral of the story, even if you have great ideas and a good business, you need to study what greenhouse structure will work best for your needs, your location and your climate.

After that experience I got pretty discouraged because I hadn’t had the smarts to have insurance. I decided to sell my business and move to a much better growing climate. I got a job as a gardener with the GGNRA at Fort Mason for 2 years, then was encouraged to apply for a gardener’s position for the City of San Francisco. It took a while, but they hired me and I worked at Buena Vista Park for a few years. Then my boss at the time knowing my background in Nursery Management, told me to apply for a greenhouse position for the City. I started work at the Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco as a Horticulturist/ Nursery Specialist-which I loved. But then my boss recognized my experience with outdoor plants and took me aside and offered me a position at the San Francisco Botanical Garden as the Nursery Manager. It was a much better fit for my knowledge and skills and I accepted immediately. It was a great experience in propagation as well as greenhouse management.

The greenhouse that I was responsible for was an old Lord and Burnham glasshouse from the late 50’s or early sixties. Aluminum purlins and glass. I believe it was made in England, and I suspect at the time it was top of the line. In todays’s standards it is old and outdated and is being replaced by more modern, state of the art technology. What I liked about it was the simpleness of design and ease of operation. Sad to see it go but it fulfilled many great years and memories for Strybing Arboretum and now San Francisco Botanical Garden. I am now retired and have moved back to my home town in Chester, California and will always have great memories of my career in the Nursery business. Although it is a much more complex world these days, I still believe if you have a dream of being in this industry you can be successful if you are willing to study hard and work more hours than are in the day! Just kidding, maybe 12 hours a day? Good luck!

– Jeanne Rich

IMG_4182