San Marcos Growers Celebrates 40 Years

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Spears of Aloe lolwensis on the left, the Lake Victoria Aloe.
Always good to know another summer/fall-blooming aloe.
Acacia covenyi and fishtail palm in the background

On Friday, October 4, 2019, San Marcos Growers opened up its wholesale nursery gates to celebrate 40 years in horticulture. On this Field Day event, the first since 2010, the gardens throughout the nursery were seemingly shouting their own full-throated congratulations, with aloes firing off blooms like roman candles and fall-blooming grasses handling firework display duties for full sun.

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Grevillea ‘Moonlight’ in distance, white flowers on right belong to Cordia boissieri, the Texas Wild Olive.
Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum,’ the Red Fountain Grass, foreground on the right
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Muhlenbergia lindheimeri with Jerusalem sage
(Another wonderful muhly seen on this Field Day was ‘White Cloud’)

What this nursery means to West Coast plant lovers looking for the best and most beautiful plants for summer-dry gardens is incalculable. The website alone is an invaluable public service. In the detailed entries tracing the complicated provenance and origins of SMG’S plant inventory you’ll find many of the names of those who were on hand for the celebration. SMG always emphasizes the community effort that goes into a great nursery; for example, throughout the day you’d overhear exchanges like Marcia Donahue admiring a certain plant, and Randy Baldwin, General Manager and President, responding, “You gave me that.” John Bleck was thanked for Agave shawii ‘Variegata,’ and Tom Cole’s Cold Spring Aloes was credited for Aloe lukeana, named after Tom’s deceased brother Luke. Fremontodendron ‘Dara’s Gold’ was named for horticulturalist Dara Emery, and on and on — the people and stories behind the plants are given as much emphasis as hardiness and growing conditions. In 40 years SMG has become a critical linchpin in the vibrant horticultural community it has helped grow and sustain, with its plants interwoven through all of our public and private gardens. And, fittingly, this 40-year anniversary Field Day was an unabashed lovefest.

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Pennisetum ‘Fairy Tails’ — a John Greenlee selection.
(Just one example of SMG’s incredible website database:
Pennisetum ‘Fairy Tails’ (Evergreen Fountain Grass) – An evergreen fountain grass that was discovered at John Greenlee’s Pomona nursery. This plant forms 2 to 3 foot wide clumps with upright foliage to 4 feet tall (or more with regular irrigation) and dark wheat-colored blooms rising above the foliage in spring and summer. Plant in full sun. Height can be curtailed some by careful irrigation. Should prove hardy and evergreen to 20-25° F and possibly root hardy below this. Can be left alone or cut back in winter to freshen the look of the newly emerging foliage. Though we do not claim it sterile, even in large stands we have not seen any seedlings emerge of this plant. This grass was originally introduced by John Greenlee in 2001 with the name ‘Fairy Tails’ as a play on words with “tails” referencing the long showy inflorescences. San Marcos Growers began growing this plant in 2003. We note that some list this plant incorrectly as Pennisetum ‘Fairy Tales’ but since we received this plant from John Greenlee with the name ‘Fairy Tails’, we have continued to list it with this spelling as the originator intended.  The information on this page is based on research conducted in our nursery library and from online sources as well as from observations made of this plant as it grows in our nursery, in the nursery’s garden and in other gardens that we have visited. We have also incorporated comments received from others and always appreciate getting feedback of any kind from those who have some additional information, particularly if this information is contrary to what we have written or includes additional cultural tips that would aid others in growing  Pennisetum ‘Fairy Tails’.)”
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Muhlenbergia lindheimeri on the right, M. dubia on the left.
A display of lomandras in the background
(keep an eye out for a gorgeous new variegate, large-bladed ‘Lucky Stripe’)
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To the right above Agave parryi is a westringia I wrote about looking for recently, W. fruticosa Grey Box ‘WES04’
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another new one in the Kings line (‘Kings Fire,’
‘Kings Rainbow’) deep orange Grevillea ‘Kings Sunset’
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Grevillea ‘Kings Rainbow’

The day-long celebration allowed for plenty of time to wander among the plant displays and take notes. Tours of the growing grounds were provided, and the Baldwin’s private garden was also open to tour. During a lunch of salads and sandwiches, Randy Baldwin talked about the nursery’s origins on land that was formerly an avocado grove and how episodic, serial droughts shaped the philosophy of the owners James and Marcia Hodges. Announcements included the arrival of another must-have Jeff Moore book, Spiny Succulents, and a great new program by Calscape that works with nurseries on promoting and marketing California natives was introduced by Kristen Wernick (see here for more information).

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Center are the goldenrod yellow flowers of Aloe maculata ‘Jack-O-Lantern’
lower left is a bromeliad I’ve just recently acquired this summer, Orthophytum magalhaesii
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Center is canary yellow flowers of Aloe labworana
Aloe pluridens is arching rosette in the back

Some of the plants that caught my eye were Cheirolophus burchardii, brought to SMG’s attention by Annie’s Annuals (Annie Hayes’ ears must have been burning, because I heard a lot of love directed her way on the Field Day); a new selection of Pseudopanax lessonii called ‘Moa’s Toes’; Tulbaghia violacea ‘Edinburgh,’ a tall society garlic I first saw at the 2018 APLD plant fair brought by John Greenlee, when it was tentatively named ‘Big Violet,’ one of the new tulbaghias he’s trialing in his work with meadow plantings. I asked Randy about another new tulbaghia, ‘Cosmic,’ which stopped blooming for me in August, and he affirmed that it does not have as long a season of bloom as other tulbaghias. He also mentioned that Senecio candidans ‘Angel Wings’ reputedly does really well in Scotland — infer from that what you will for those of us in Southern California. Mine here in Los Angeles lasted all summer then dwindled and disappeared in September. (Check the link to learn why it’s correctly referred to as Senecio candidans, not candicans.) Another striking plant new to me on display was tall, slim, yellow-flowered Texas Shooting Star, Echeandia texensis. A cutting of Aloe pluridens was recently given to me, so it was nice to see a mature plant in the aloe displays. And I will mention for all the fans of Alstroemeria ‘Indian Summer’ that it was still in furious bloom in the Baldwins’ own garden. Randy mentioned that after first seeing it all over Europe it was initially difficult to find here in the U.S. He planted it in the garden for the bronzy leaves and was surprised to find it bloomed nonstop on very little supplemental irrigation.

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Aloe vaombe with portulacaria varieties
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An Agave americana selection called ‘Joanna’ — I’ve been nursing a very slow-growing, yellow-banded americana for a decade which looks a lot like this one.
Second row, far left, Agave macroacantha ‘Pablo’s Choice’
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a xanthorrhoea, one of the Australian Grass Trees, in the Baldwins’ private garden on site
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the tree over the house on the right is the largest Arbutus ‘Marina’ on record.
Matt Ritter at CalPoly San Luis Obispo maintains the Big Tree Registry
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SMG is currently trialing over 40 kinds of mangave, including many of the new Hans Hansen hybrids from Walters Gardens — see SMG’s Mangave Madness page and comments below*
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Bottom row, Casuarina glauca ‘Cousin It’
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Randy Baldwin’s favorite mangaves so far are ‘Silver Fox’ and ‘Lavender Lady’
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Attendees were repeatedly reminded throughout the day that the mangaves were display only and not for sale — (see Randy Baldwin’s comments below*)
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if I understood correctly, due to patent issues, ‘Kaleidoscope’ is the only mangave currently offered for sale by SMG — (see Randy Baldwin’s comments below)*
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Mangave ‘Blue Dart’ (macroacantha/shawii/Manfreda maculosa cross)

I’ll leave you with a few questions from the Attendee Questionnaire:

  • Do you feel there is adequate promotion/marketing of new plants and landscaping ideas in California? If not how might it improve?
  • How do you feel social media sites fit into the promotion of landscaping/gardening? How do you use them yourself and which platform do you prefer?
  • How did California’s recent bout with the drought change the plants you purchase or landscape with?
  • What plants would you like San Marcos Growers to grow that we aren’t currently growing?

*(edited 10/10/19 to add Randy Baldwin’s helpful clarification on the Hans Hansen mangaves from Walters Gardens: “The display plants were actually not for sale because these are our oldest plants of each variety and were sent to us 2 years ago as part of a trial – a couple varieties were actually discontinued after the trial and will never be sold.  All of the newest Manfreda and x Mangave cultivars are those bred by Hans Hansen at Walters Gardens in Zeeland, Michigan (where these plants ALL have to be grown in a greenhouse in winter).  We currently are growing and selling eleven of Hans’ plants and all but ‘Kaleidoscope’ we purchase directly from Walters Gardens as plugs to grow on. All of these plants are patented or have patents pending (PPAF).  In our display we had a questionnaire asking Field Day attendees what their favorite varieties were so we could know which ones to add to future orders from Walters Gardens. ‘Kaleidoscope’ is actually the only Mangave cultivar that Walters Gardens has licensed us to self-propagate. This because it has not been stable in the tissue culture lab, so could not be massed produced by them and so was on the brink of being discontinued.  Interestingly, in our initial trial evaluations, when we put all of these plants in 1 gallon pots in front of our sales office, we found that while some really liked this cultivar, others (myself included) initially thought it a bit gaudy. I may actually have passed on it if not for the fact that others really liked it and realizing it was going to be hard to find elsewhere. We received about 50 plants from Walters Gardens last year and have built this up to nearly 300 plants so far. We think it likely that will be able to release this plant for sale in 2020.”)    

This entry was posted in agaves, woody lilies, garden travel, garden visit, plant nurseries, plant sales, pots and containers. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to San Marcos Growers Celebrates 40 Years

  1. Kris P says:

    You made the most of a great opportunity, Denise. Your write-up brought the event alive and I appreciate both your great photos and the deep dive into selected plants.

  2. Denise says:

    Thanks, Kris. This post took a lot longer to write than necessary because the photobucket links kept breaking. And I note even after publishing a couple photo links are broken. Aaagh! So frustrating…

  3. Elaine says:

    What an opportunity to get behind the scene of such a great grower. Also nice to see a family run operation with local ties to the greater community rather than an industrial grower. To my mind this is how horticulture should be. Great people growing great plants. Thanks for the tour.

  4. 40 years! That’s an achievement indeed. What fun you must have had, great photos!

  5. Hans Brough says:

    Wish I had been there – sounds like it was a very interesting event. Ironically ‘Kaleidoscope’ is my fav mangave (that I’ve seen online – I’ve never seen one for sale)

  6. Gerhard Bock says:

    I’m so happy you got to go–and that you reported about it in such detail. I came thissss close to going but work (the thwarter of all things fun and joyful) thwarted my plans. The plant coolness factor was definitely off the charts here!

  7. Denise, thank you for coming to our 2019 Field Day and for writing up such a detailed report with so many fantastic photos. I think it was a wonderful day that was really made special by all of the horticulturally minded folks who attended. It was also very nice meeting you in person.

  8. hb says:

    You sure know how to have a good time!

    San Marcos is my go-to site for plant info.

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