A Home-Based Organic Nursery

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Photo by Roberta A. Fanning
Hand-watering is still Donn's preferred method.

Two years ago this spring—with no money, no publicity and virtually no plants—Donn and Rachel Tickner started a retail organic nursery. All they really had going for them was a healthy stock of reverence, know-how and determination.

Today, the Tickners’ Organic Home Nursery is a showplace of the natural movement and Donn and Rachel’s business is doing well enough to put ample food on their table and allow them the luxury of stopping occasionally to savor their rewarding way of life, proving once again that people of good faith can build the life they want if they try.

The Organic Home Nursery began and remains at the Tickners’ home outside Santa Cruz, California, where the couple rents a family-of-three sized cottage and 2 1/2 fertile acres for only $100 a month. Doom-and-gloom people originally prophesied failure for the Tickners’ new business because of its semi-remote location, but of course that prediction turned out to be wrong. The nursery has flourished. Donn now says, “We would have been out of business long ago if we were in town. I figure we save $200 a month in this location since in-town rental for nursery space runs a minimum of $300.”

In several ways, Donn and Rachel’s natural nursery—the only one in the Bay area—is perfectly located. For one thing, it’s not that far from “civilization:” only 12 miles south of Santa Cruz (in a countryside rich with counter-culture folks) and within outing distance of San Francisco. For another, the thermal belt along the coastal range in northern California has excellent “grow weather.” Tickner’s plants thrive on both summer morning ocean winds that roll in light fog to bathe the foliage, and the relatively frost-free “inland” California winters.

When the Tickners decided to turn their homestead into a nursery, the only stock they had on hand was 15 ivy clippings that Rachel had rooted. They obviously needed many more plants, sets, and seedlings than that to launch the business, but which ones? And how many? And most important of all, how would they pay for that original stock since they had hardly any money at all? It was a large problem … which they solved quite handily by scouting out greens to propagate from homes and school yards.

Rachel would knock on a door, flash a charmingly respectable smile and say, “My, what a beautiful plant! Would you mind if I took a little cutting?” She was never refused, possibly because she managed to contain her enthusiasm and never snip anything off at ground level!

Slowly, the Tickners filled the corners and windows of their tiny cottage—they had no greenhouse—with flats of vegetable seedlings and moss runners, coffee cans of citrus trees, and pots of herbs. Once, when they did have a few extra dollars, a friend—thinking the new nursery was to be a wholesale operation—advised them to stock 300 bottle brush plants. They did, and some of that purchase still lurks around their property lines today. Retailing means selling only one or two plants at a time, and 300 seedlings go a long, long way.

Rachel uses this experience to point out that you don’t need a degree or training to open a nursery. “You just DO it and make mistakes, then learn from them.”

Rachel had had no real training in the field when the Tickners opened their business. Her experience working in a wholesale nursery (“Factory is a better word,” she says), dipping cuttings in plant hormone and sinking them into wet sand, wasn’t much help. “They even got mad at me for asking the name of a plant I was propagating,” she remembers.

Obviously, though, it does take a certain amount of familiarity with plants to operate a top-notch nursery and to answer the hundreds of questions that customers ask. Donn, who was raised on an apple orchard in the area and has picked up an incredible knowledge about growing things over the years, has that familiarity. For instance, I recently heard a lady customer query, “I had the most delicious fig last week, but it wasn’t a Kadota or a Genoa. What did I eat?” Donn immediately ran through a list of probable names and hit on the right answer.

Next to plants, a nurseryman most needs to know about balanced blends of potting mix. Initially, even Donn wasn’t always sure of himself in this area. At first he even tried a trial and, sometimes, error method of throwing in a little of this and a pinch of that — on one occassion he added so much cottonseed meal to a planter that the potting soil began to decompose and burned up a fuchsia plant!

If you plan to formulate your own potting mixture, Donn now suggests that you consult the nearest state or university agricultural extension service and translate their information into organic terms. He also recommends The U.C. System for Producing Healthy Container-Grown Plants (Extension Service Manual 23, $1.00 from the University of California at Berkeley).

When the Tickners had enough properly started and potted stock on hand, Donn contacted the Santa Cruz County agricultural commissioner and obtained the license necessary for a home nursery (starting with a fee-exempt permit that allowed him to sell a maximum of $500 worth of plants). He also went to the State Board of Equalization, paid the required $65 advance and obtained a resale number (which amounted to a promise that the Tickners would collect the state sales tax).

A retail business means retail prices. Donn established his by hanging around other nurseries and making comparisons. From the start, he made sure that what he charged his customers was competitive and, if possible, less than the figures quoted by the next guy. For example, the Tickners’ tomato sets are 10¢, eggplant seedlings 15¢ and bottle brush starts (Anybody? Please?) are $1.30.

In the beginning, with no advertising and only word-of-mouth customers, Donn and Rachel were strapped for rent and food money. Winter—a hard time for any nurseryman—was especially tough, but somehow they managed to make it through that crucial first slow-business season. Donn pruned apple trees, sold the crop from his own small orchard and survived a horrible two-month stint inspecting tomatoes for the Department of Agriculture. Rachel tended the family garden and newly arrived daughter Celeste, and used her canning skills to keep food bills to a minimum (the Tickners are vegetarians).

Since every penny the new business earned was plowed back into more plants, Donn soon learned to provide for other needs by becoming a master recycler. The Tickners’ greenhouse, for instance, cost only $11, a feat managed by using one side of the garage as a wall and by salvaging wood from various piles. Donn even found free nails. His only expense was the four-mil polyethylene covering which he lathed in place. The Tickners are now gradually replacing the plastic—which wears out in six months—with fiberglass siding (used, of course).

For added greenhouse heat and light, Donn strung a connection from the house and hung up a $2.50 infra-red bulb. He says that he could have heated the greenhouse with chicken manure dug into a deep trench and covered with a layer of soil but he didn’t because the manure must be renewed four or five times a year and, when wet, is too difficult for the necessary bacteria to decompose.

In his recycling fervor, Donn learned that wholesale nurseries are a good source of low-cost materials. “Get your flats and pots there cheap,” he advises. “Such places are always using new materials and will sell their second-hand containers for very little.”

Probably Donn’s most valuable salvaging job (although a bank wouldn’t agree) was a cache of well-rotted rabbit manure from an old hutch on another farm. The Tickners put it right into the huge batches of compost that they were then making for their special potting mix.

At that time, gardeners in the area contributed to the Organic Home Nursery’s compost by dropping off their clippings and waste at the Tickners. “Now, though,” Donn explains, “the neighbors are hip to the value of their organic waste and no longer bring it to us. We can make only enough compost for our own garden. I guess our lesson in organic education was a success.”

As the Tickners increased their activities, customers began to trickle in. Still, there was no stampede to the nursery. Then, about a year after they first opened their business doors, Rachel and Donn were invited to exhibit at an ecology fair in Santa Cruz. Thinking the exposure would firmly establish their new venture, the Tickners worked long and hard to build a horseshoe- shaped, walk-through display. There they demonstrated forms of insect control with live praying mantises and ladybugs (from their own orchard). Donn also arranged a grouping of organic fertilizers for the show and labeled the levels of a mini-compost heap in an aquarium. Rachel set up a sensory exhibit of plants with signs saying “pollinate me” (dwarf lemon tree with paint brush), “feel me” (felt plant) and “taste me” (mint).

The Organic Home Nursery display created much interest and excitement with the fairgoers that Donn and Rachel danced home, exuberantly expecting promises and customers to materialize. They received a rather rude letdown of almost total no-shows. “But it wasn’t all bad,” Rachel says. “Customers from the exhibit DID appear … as much as six months later. It all worked out well eventually.”

Slowly, word about the Tickners continued to spread and Donn and Rachel gradually built a steady clientele of repeat customers. Thanks to those regular “old friends” who come back again and again, the Tickners no longer have to “sell a plant to buy dinner,” and Donn now has more time to do the landscaping he feels is the most creative aspect of the plant business.

Probably the major advantage that Donn and Rachel’s expanded income brings them is the labor-saving machines the Tickners can now buy. A 15-year-old Oliver tractor ($660) enabled Donn to put in 120 artichoke plants, cultivate around his apple trees, and turn under 200 pounds of mature Bell horsebean (an excellent ground cover and source of green manure). Other boons include a ’64 Dodge van ($400, used), heaters for the greenhouse, and a three-horsepower posthole auger to speed up the initial process of turning natural materials into a customer’s soil (Donn’s whole approach is “feed the soil to feed the plants”).

Not everything at the nursery has been or will be mechanized, however. It takes about two hours a day, but Donn still waters his plants by hand because he feels that that’s the most efficient and beneficial way to do it. He also prunes his apple trees with hand shears.

The Organic Home Nursery has come a long way from its original 15 clippings. The Tickners’ 2 1/2 acres are covered with plants and they can offer a customer a complete stock of fruit trees, vegetable and herb seedlings, flowers, ornamentals, house plants, and organic fertilizers and sprays. They also continue to sell apples from their orchard (10 tons from two acres last year) and the artichokes will be coming along soon.

The panorama inside Donn and Rachel’s nursery is most impressive. As you travel up their dirt drive lined with flats of petunias and calendulas, pots of Chinese pistachio and Norfolk pine, you suddenly come upon an unbelievable vegetable garden filled with huge, succulent fruit. The paths in the garden are kept free of weeds and mud by a thick layer of newspapers covered with soil and sawdust, the produce is mulched by something that looks good enough to eat, and herbs and onions line the garden’s edges. This is the Tickners’ own food supply. Off to the right, more gardens lie spotted under the apple trees … though these are hard on the orchard and will be moved later.

A garage stacked high with large containers of tanglefoot and bags of cocoa bean hulls, blood meal, lime, and bone meal stands at the head of the drive. To the right of the building is the Tickners’ small house—now crammed with indoor plants—and to the left, Donn and Rachel’s greenhouse. Behind the garage, the land slopes gently upward in terraces covered with pots of plants set on black plastic to keep their roots out of the ground.

In the distance are a pair of peacocks and Rachel’s pottery kiln and—clear at the back of the property—are the artichokes, bee hives, a newly planted crop of alfalfa for the two dozen hens the Tickners share with neighbors, and some serious erosion problems from the people on the hillside above. ‘The Tickners are fighting the erosion by burying everything biodegradeable in the eight-foot gully that snakes down the slope … and Donn will someday use native plants, grape vines (for wine) and winding paths to create a private arboretum for friends and customers. The additional ground cover should also hold the hillside in place.

I sneaked a look at Donn’s bookcase on my last visit to the Organic Home Nursery. He has five shelves of titles like Plant Propagation by Hartman (a pre-1950 botany textbook which Donn says is more useful than later books on the subject), Handbook of Plant Disease, loads of Sunset books, another load of Rodale books, the 1952 Department of Agriculture Yearbook on insects, Nursery Manual by Bailey (something of a bible in the field, I gather), Landscaping With Vines and The Magic of Trees and Stones: Secrets of Japanese Gardening (the Tickners hope to visit Japan soon).

As Celeste tripped happily about, Rachel then led me out of the house past flats of Scotch moss, cans of dwarf citrus, and an old wringer washer planted with herbs to a mattress under an apple tree where we had tea garnished with fresh mint as we talked.

The future, we agreed, looks great for the Organic Home Nursery. The Tickners are doing well enough to move away from the pressures of pure retail selling (they even close the business on Wednesdays now) into other things. Donn even has time to do a biweekly column for a local newspaper and have a little fun trading plants for services and products that he and Rachel want. The Tickners, however, are not especially impressed by their newfound dollar success.

“For us,” Donn says, “what is important is whether or not we enjoy what we spend most of our days doing, whether we are sane in doing it, and whether we maintain our human dignity. We feel that having a reverence for ourselves implies the same for the earth and her fruits.”

Reverence, you’ll recall, was one of those “minor” attributes that the Tickners started with.

Hey gang! Donn and Rachel prefer to spend their time outside, not on the telephone. Please be kind.

Tips From the Tickners

Buy a soil test kit (about $6.50). You can run more than 20 tests with it and your garden will love you.

For every 100 square feet of garden, turn in:

50-100 lbs. composted manure
10 lbs. bone meal (or, in winter, phosphate rock)
10 lbs. granite meal or 2 lbs. kelp meal
3 lbs. trace elements

If you buy plants from a commercial nursery, transplant them into your own mix. Most will have received a water-soluble chemical fertilizer through a sprinkling system, so for the poor plants’ immediate benefit, spray the foliage with a powdered kelp meal like Seaborn (sort of a methadone treatment to bring the addicts off gently).

Put a dormant spray (lime-sulfur and oil, maybe) on apples in late February (in California) and prune them with hand shears. When the trees are in full blossom, spray them with Thuricide (a bacterial spore) to prevent the coddling moth from laying her eggs.

In California, the green lacewing is an effective means of controlling aphid and mite damage in the orchard. We use 10,000 egg cases a year … ladybugs fly back to the mountains and we end up releasing five or six thousand annually.

If you must use snail bait, Cory’s—a metaldehyde—is relatively safe.

Don’t try to compete with commercial nurseries for the holiday trade. Your Easter lilies will bloom in August and your Christmas cactus in April because you don’t use force-bloom hormones. Needless to say, we sell live Christmas trees.

You can make good extra money starting vegetable seedlings (especially tomatoes) in the winter for sale in the spring. Here in California we start the seeds around January.

Be professional in your dealings. Too many farmers and businessmen that we know are reluctant to deal with organic distributors because they haven’t proved to be reliable. Our own apple crop was all “contracted” to one natural food store this year, and they never showed.