Nourishing Berkeley’s Horticultural Obsession

Tuesday July 22, 2003

Berkeley may not be the Garden of Eden. But for anyone who loves flowers, exotic trees and whiling the hours away with a shovel and a gardening hose, it doesn’t get much better.  

Backyard gardens—ornate and simple—are aplenty, and Berkeley’s remarkable network of lush, family-owned nurseries have played no small part in building a garden paradise in these parts. 

“Some of the best retail nurseries [in the country] are in the East Bay,” said Anthony Garza, supervisor of horticulture and grounds at the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley. 

Berkeley, which claims about 100,000 residents, plays host to no fewer than seven nurseries, not including wholesale outfits. Owners say the concentration of flowers, fauna and expertise attracts green thumbs not only from Berkeley, but from all over the Bay Area and beyond. 

“We get a lot of people from the Peninsula,” said Aerin Moore, owner of Magic Gardens Nursery on Heinz Avenue. “We even get people from Sacramento.” 

Paul Doty, president of Berkeley Horticultural Nursery, said locals bring out-of-town guests on Berkeley nursery tours. “It’s kind of like Auto Row,” he said, with a laugh. 

Garza said a Mediterranean-style climate has created ideal growing conditions and helped support the plethora of local nurseries. 

“It never gets extremely hot and it never gets extremely cold,” he said. “The Bay Area is really a mecca for horticulture.” 

But Garza, whose botanical garden is well known for its large sales of rare plants in April and September, said there’s a cultural factor at work as well. “In Berkeley proper, there’s definitely been a move toward more natural and naturalistic lifestyles,” he said. “People try to get closer to nature even in this relatively built-up urban area.” 

Doty’s family has owned the Horticultural Nursery since 1922, when his grandfather George Budgen opened the McGee Avenue business. His father, Ken Doty, was a nurseryman from Oregon who met Budgen’s daughter, Connie, on a sales trip and married her in 1954. 

“She was the boss’ daughter and they just met,” said the younger Doty. 

The family’s long-term ownership of the nursery is not unusual in Berkeley. The Lasagna family has owned the Westbrae Nursery on Gilman Street in North Berkeley since 1911 and the Davis family has owned the East Bay Nursery on San Pablo Avenue in West Berkeley for more than 60 years.  

Remarkably enough, they all seem to be friends. 

“I think all the nurseries here in the East Bay work together,” said Doty. “We’re pretty much good friends.” 

Gerald Acree, a manager at Westbrae, said the long-term friendship spawned a plant-buying cooperative 50 years ago among the three old-time shops that still survives today. 

Still, every outfit tries to differentiate itself. Magic Gardens offers classes, East Bay Nursery specializes in trees and Westbrae carries a large selection of garden arts, from waterfalls to wind sculptures. And, within their specialties, all the nurseries look for something a little out of the ordinary. 

“Berkeley ... appreciates more of the unusual, less of the mass-produced—whether it’s the window on your home or the craftsmanship on your door,” said Rob Davis, general manager at East Bay Nursery. 

A stroll through the East Bay Nursery’s rows and rows of trees and plants turns up everything from a pyramidal limber pine to a leatherleaf sedge, a bronze-brown perennial grass. 

Davis said he hasn’t noticed any drastic changes in buying habits this year. But he said local gardeners have snatched up several new varieties of heuchra, a fern-like perennial with white and pink flowers and all sorts of leaves—from chocolate speckled to lime green with white speckles. 

“It’s appropriate for Berkeley,” he said. “It’s kind of a whimsical flower—a wand-like flower.” 

Just around the corner, at Yabusaki’s Dwight Way Nursery, co-owner Kenneth Yabusaki specializes in bonsai trees ranging from 6 inches to 15 feet. He said customers building Japanese gardens travel from all over the Bay Area to buy supplies from his store. 

The Yabusakis have only been in business for 19 years—neophytes by local standards. But their nursery may be able to claim the deepest Berkeley roots of all the local garden shops. 

A slightly tattered city map hanging on the nursery’s office wall, dated 1891, has a small inset in the lower left-hand corner highlighting the “Dwight Way Nursery.”  

“I believe we have more nurseries in Berkeley than any other city,” said Yabusaki. “Everyone in this town really likes to garden.”