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Spring Greening | The dirt on the East Bay’s current crop of garden stores. | By Jeanne Storck

In late spring, when the unsteady rhythms of sun/shower/sun finally give way to unbroken stretches of warm weather, the cat and I linger in the garden. She basks while I check for vegetable seedlings and clear out my winter crops—kale, spinach, chard. I’m a novice, having started just two years ago, but my garden (and confidence) have grown and my repertoire now includes everything from chioggia beets to radicchio to ranunculus. I’m not alone in cultivating my green thumb. East Bay nurseries these days are seeing a marked increase in new gardeners, especially those trying their hand at edibles. I’ve taught myself with books and seed catalogs, but going to a garden center for some serendipitous browsing is one of the best ways I’ve found to learn about the backyard arts.

Tools of the trade

With a shopping list of herbs, vegetables, and bee-friendly plants in hand, I head out to the mother of all East Bay garden centers, Annie’s Annuals and Perennials, located deep in the industrial backstreets of Richmond. Annie’s distributes its plant starts through many East Bay nurseries and mail order, so a trek to Richmond isn’t absolutely necessary. But for gardeners seeking ambience and inspiration, there is no better place. Founded 20 years ago by Annie Hayes, a cottage garden hobbyist, this open-air nursery now stretches over two-and-a-half acres with 40 aisles of rare and native plants from South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia—all well-suited to the East Bay’s Mediterranean climate. A demonstration garden rings the perimeter, sweet peas tumble from a vintage washing machine, tea roses climb the outer fence, and the perfume of a snowy brush tree in full bloom fills the air. Hayes cultivates relationships with rare plant growers, botanical gardens, and collectors, which results in little-known varieties showing up on her stands—like a bright purple-and-yellow dune daisy, Felicia echinata, that one of Annie’s horticulturists discovered at Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco. At Annie’s, the emphasis is on organic—no hothouse flowers, no growth suppressors to extend shelf life—and all of their seedlings are strengthened by exposure to the wind and rain. Navigating the vast nursery, which also sells supplies like pots and tools, can be daunting, but directories at the end of each aisle list plants alphabetically by their botanical name. So brush off your Latin or better yet, before your visit, check the website, which features descriptions and images of many of Annie’s wares.

To set off all that new greenery—or to anchor it in place—Annie’s regulars sometimes make a second stop at nearby American Soil and Stone in Richmond. On the pragmatic side, there are piles of mulch to peruse here, and dozens of different kinds of soil. Then there’s the aesthetic angle: patrons enjoy pondering rocks, boulders, and multicolored stepping stones, as well as fountains and terra cotta pottery.

Next on my list: finding a replacement for a pair of worn-out garden shears at Hida Tool. This bite-size Japanese hardware store on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley, with blue and white curtains flapping out front, started selling Japanese carpentry tools in 1984 and now offers garden ware as well. In keeping with a certain Zen simplicity, Hida does not sell any power tools. I stand marveling at a wall of Ikenobo scissors used in traditional Japanese flower cutting. Made from high-carbon steel and stainless steel, their blades and elegant curved handles look like exotic insects. On the next shelf over, I spot rows of hori hori, a type of trowel that resembles a samurai weapon but that gets rave reviews on the online gardening boards. With a price tag of $21, it’s shaped like a blade; the serrated edge cuts through roots while the straight edge is good for opening bags. The pruning shears are a bit pricier than I anticipated—$25 to $125—and I opt for one on the lower end.

For those with a decorative bent, The Gardener on Berkeley’s Fourth Street offers an appealing array of pots, baskets, vases, and platters to set off a growing garden’s bounty. The shop also stocks a curated selection of tools.

Backyard living

Looking for some Baker Heirloom seeds, I head to Magic Gardens in southwest Berkeley. “Our focus is on the sustainable backyard,” explains landscape associate Stefani Bittner. “We can’t compete with the big box stores and their rows upon rows of pansies and impatiens. We focus on the idea of using your backyard as an extension of your home and making it a healthy, sustainable living space.” Magic Gardens’ consulting service, Co-Creations, offers an affordable option for those who crave hands-on participation in landscaping their own gardens. In addition to promoting plants that are drought-tolerant and attract beneficial insects, says Bittner, “We’re also encouraging people to think about incorporating edibles.” For example, she says, “If you’re looking for a colorful border, why not use peppers?” Magic Gardens relies on local, sustainable producers such as Fred Hempel and Jill Shepard of Baia Nicchia Farm & Nursery in Sunol, whose unique, organic varieties of tomatoes (Maglia Rosa, Spike, Blush, and Vesuvio) sell out at Bay Area farmers’ markets.

Scattered throughout the grounds are striking stepping stones that at first glance resemble redwood with their rings and grain. In fact, though, they are a mix of cement and other recycled materials, designed by Sebastopol-based Studio Replica to be more durable and sustainable than wood. Tucked away at the back of the nursery sits a tiny one-room building, a pre-fab structure by Modern Cabana, that serves as a backyard escape, art studio, or meditation room. Ranging from $12,000 to $70,000, the cabanas do not require a permit in most areas. I’m not in need of a cabana at the moment, but I head out with a seed packet of Baker Creek “Little Marvel Garden Peas” and an unusual red-and-yellow striped “Tigger Melon”—both for $2.50—as well as a yarrow plant that, Bittner advises, will offer lots of red color and attract beneficial bugs.

The antique rose bushes in my backyard have been showing spots this spring, so I stop off at Berkeley Horticultural Nursery (Berkeley Hort for short) for a diagnosis. With its classic brick facade, the sales and information center has the patina of age and after 90 years in business, it’s a North Berkeley institution. Today, the front counter is abuzz with customers seeking advice: “What kind of soil does this species of grass need?” or “How often do I fertilize this fuchsia?” Sprawling over an entire city block, the center includes a hothouse with orchids and air plants, a koi pond, and selections of everything from natives and Mediterranean plants to roses, camellias, rhododendrons, tropicals, cacti, bulbs, fruit trees, and organic vegetables.

Budding notions

Novice gardeners are warmly welcomed at Berkeley’s Westbrae Nursery. “We want to appeal to people who haven’t gardened before but are curious, and we definitely want to make it a fun, approachable activity,” says Jeff Eckart, who co-owns the business with his sister, Chris Szybalski. Hour-long design classes offered on Saturday mornings lay out the basics of selecting and placing plants. Eckart and Szybalski have also developed a system of color-coded flags—red for deer-resistant and blue for drought-tolerant—to help first-time buyers in search of hardy, low-maintenance varieties. For the increasing number of customers looking to get started with edibles, they now carry the MinifarmBox, a 4-by-4 prefab raised bed for $145—it doesn’t include the veggies or soil but comes with planting instructions. A sense of fun also runs through the wide selection of garden decorations such as glazed ceramic mushrooms with bobbleheads that nestle in plant pots ($4.95) or multicolor metal geckos ($9 to $19) that provide a streak of color running along a fence.

For timid or time-strapped gardeners, low-water plants provide an easy entrée to gardening. At Cactus Jungle in Berkeley, the focus is entirely on cactus and dry gardens. Owners Hap Hollibaugh and Peter Lipson started growing the spiny plant in Alaska, of all places, and figured if they could grow it there, they could grow it anywhere. In 1996, they ended up in Berkeley, where they now offer drought-tolerant landscaping services and sell cactus, succulents, and bamboo in a lot covered with red lava gravel pathways and terra cotta pots. “As long as cactus has the right soil, good drainage, and water about once a month, they’re pretty low-maintenance,” says staff gardener Keith Gordon. “We also help first-time cactus growers amend their soil, which in the East Bay is predominantly clay.” Cactus range from $5.85 for a 4-inch euphorbia to $385 for a large column cactus, and on the high end, $3,200 for a rare 60-year-old barrel cactus that Hollibaugh rescued from the grounds of a South Bay estate. Inside their garden supply shop, they carry Perch! ceramic wall vases for $35, as well as tiny Japanese-inspired Tokidoki toy cactus figures and small-scale robot sculptures by Lipson’s brother.

To finish off my expedition, I stop by Oakland’s Thornhill Nursery in Montclair, the perfect foil to the hustle and bustle of an Annie’s or a Berkeley Hort. Set in a grove of redwoods and cherry trees, the nursery sits along a rushing creek and can be reached by a wooden footbridge. Tired from shopping and with my errands complete, I simply wander among the colored annuals and enjoy the woodsy scenery. After all, gardening is as much about enjoying the fruits of your labor as it is about the work.

Bloom Bazaars
American Soil and Stone, 2121 San Joaquin St., Richmond, (510) 292-3000;
Annie’s Annuals & Perennials, 740 Market Ave., Richmond, (510) 215-1671;
Berkeley Horticultural Nursery, 1310 McGee Ave., Berkeley, (510) 526-4704;
Broadway Terrace Nursery, 4340 Clarewood Drive, Oakland, (510) 658-3729;
Cactus Jungle, 1509 Fourth St., Berkeley, (510) 558-8650;
The Dry Garden, 6556 Shattuck Ave., Oakland, (510) 547-3564.
East Bay Nursery, 2332 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, (510) 845-6490;
Flowerland, 1330 Solano Ave., Berkeley, (510) 526-3550.
The Gardener, 1836 Fourth St., Berkeley, (510) 548-4545;
Hida Tool, 1333 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, (510) 524-3700;
Magic Gardens, 729 Heinz Ave., Berkeley, (510) 644-2351;
Mt. Diablo Nursery, 3295 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette, (925) 283-3830;
Native Here Nursery, 101 Golf Course Road (in Tilden Park across from golf course), Berkeley, (510) 549-0211;
Orchard Nursery Lafayette, 4010 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette, (925) 284-4474;
Thornhill Nursery, 6250 Thornhill Drive, Oakland, (510) 339-1311;
Thomsen’s Garden Center, 1113 Lincoln Ave., Alameda, (510) 522-3265.
Westbrae Nursery, 1272 Gilman St., Berkeley, (510) 526-5517;
Yabusaki’s Dwight Way Nursery, 1001 Dwight Way, Berkeley, (510) 845-6261;

Jeanne Storck is a freelance writer and art critic for The Monthly.



Backyard bliss: Magic Gardens in Berkeley emphasizes drought-tolerant and edible plants for home gardens. Photo by Spiral-A Photography.




Mediterranean medley: The open-air nursery at Annie’s Annuals in Richmond has 40 aisles of rare and native plants. Photo by Spiral-A Photography.



Pretty prickly: Berkeley’s Cactus Jungle specializes in dry garden plants. Photo by Spiral-A Photography..


Bloom Bazaars

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