Ventura’s Back Roads are Abloom

Discover a Stunning Array of Flowers, Trees and Shrubs on a Tour of Growing Grounds

By Nan Sterman, Special to The Times
April 26, 2007

Not long ago, the Los Angeles area was filled with specialty nurseries that grew nearly every kind of landscape plant imaginable — orchids, roses, cactus's. The rise in property values during the last few decades, however, has pushed growers, especially the smaller ones, to the fringes.

Some migrated north to Ventura County, setting down roots in the flatlands and foothills along Highway 118 in Moorpark, Somis and the eastern edge of Camarillo. Others headed farther north to Fillmore. Together they constitute a garden tour of sorts, a route where flower lovers can get a behind-the-scenes peek at the places where plants are grown to see what they are offering this spring. Some nurseries operate special seasonal hours, and rose grower Otto & Sons Nursery is holding its annual open house this weekend.

So fill your tank, pack a lunch and take lots of water. Although nurseries are plenty, services are few. Better yet, slow your pace and enjoy the tour over two days. Just leave room in your trunk for plants to take home.

Maravilla Gardens

An old-fashioned barn and windmill mark the entrance to Maravilla Gardens, a 2-acre jewel on the outskirts of Camarillo. Beneath the weeping canopy of California pepper trees, shoppers browse new introductions and interesting plants suited for Southern California, all presented with country charm and in inspired groupings.

Owners Jo and Tony Maravilla, who started the nursery in 1980, grow some plants themselves. Others come from local growers. Most are 4-inch and 1-gallon flowering perennials and shrubs, with a few smaller trees thrown into the mix.

"We skew toward women buyers," Jo Maravilla says, "so we carry smaller sizes that are easier for women to work with and fit well into color bowls."

Those colors bowls are imaginative combinations of foliage and flowers in unusual containers. Saleswoman Karen Olsen points out an old, rusted barbecue overflowing with lime green Sedum 'Angelina,' white-flowering Santa Barbara daisy, mauve-leaved Sedum 'Vera Jameson' and tiny, pink oxalis flowers. "Anything we can drill a hole in, we can plant," Olsen says, and that includes containers brought in by customers.

Baron Bros.

Whereas Maravilla Gardens is small and intimate, Baron Bros. Nursery is big and bustling. Richard and James Baron started their nursery in 1979 on half an acre, and today plants in the retail nursery represent trees, shrubs, roses, palms, perennials and bedding plants grown by Baron Bros. on 200 acres nearby.

The company includes wholesale operations as well as a landscape installation and maintenance, but the specialty here is trees. Sculpted trees. Big trees. Topiary trees.

Spiral topiary junipers stand 15 feet or taller, encircling nearly life-size bronzes of elk, horses and eagles. Nursery beds end at leafy green privets trimmed into three- or six-tier pom-poms. Walkways are lined with more sculpted junipers, some green, some blue-green, each requiring up to 10 years to train.

Retail manager Katie Nelson walks through a 15-foot-tall cypress arch, past red-berried pyracantha growing in the forms of elephants and giraffes. A weeping atlas cedar stands forlornly in the corner, not far from 3-foot-tall cones and balls of clipped boxwood. Eventually she reaches the back of the nursery, where the biggest trees are kept.

Samples of Baron Bros.' mature oaks, Tabebuia, peppers, pines and coral trees stand in boxes up to 10 feet long. The brothers planted many of the trees as saplings in 1989. Others are orphans, rescued from construction and remodeling sites where they would have been destroyed.

When landscape architects request mature trees for projects — Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A., Downtown Disney in Anaheim and the Bellagio in Las Vegas are a few examples — Baron Bros. will dig, box, deliver and place these giant specimens in just the spot in the garden.

Greenwood Daylily

Many iris and daylily lovers know they can order plants year-round over the Internet from Greenwood Daylily Gardens, but not all realize that they can visit Greenwood in person to select from thousands of field-grown plants.

On Saturdays, from April to June, the daylily growing grounds are open to the public. Owner John Schoustra cuts sample flowers to display in his packing shed. "Customers find it helpful to see the flowers and match them to fabrics, or to other flowers already in their gardens," he says.
You can select plants based on the cut flowers, or wander through 15 acres of fields to see plants in the ground.

Schoustra and his specialists are on hand to help, offering suggestions based on climate needs. If your selections are not among the plants that have been potted, he sends workers into the fields to dig them up.

Schoustra also offers specialty geraniums and pelargoniums, including the hard-to-find, ever-blooming 'Angel' hybrids.

Matilija Nursery

Bob Sussman invested years in banking before he gave it up to grow native plants. A native of the Golden State himself, Sussman spent his childhood hiking in the Santa Monica Mountains and falling in love with California native plants.

"A native garden," he says, "can look as nice or nicer and far more interesting than any garden you can ever create with nonnative plants, and with far less effort."

Sussman has a broad selection including oak, manzanita, monkey flower, sage and, of course, the fantastic Matilija poppy with its huge, fried-egg flower.

One of Sussman's specialties is the Pacific Coast iris. These petite beauties bloom in pale yellows, ruby reds, dusky purples and bright white. They grow in full sun along the coast, in filtered light elsewhere and with a bit more water than other natives.

Otto & Sons

Rows and rows of roses, all neatly organized and labeled, greet visitors as they pull into the parking lot of Otto & Sons Nursery, the Fillmore operation of Scott and Cindy Klittich.

The 15-acre growing grounds are opened to the public during the nursery's annual Rose Days this weekend. The Klittiches expect the plants to be peaking, forming a rainbow of yellow, pink, silver, mauve and more — with at least 900 varieties.

During the open house, customers can roam the grounds and select roses to purchase, discounted 20%. The nursery also will set up a tent for seminars on new varieties, managing pests, fertilizers, maintenance and other topics. Rose societies from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara will answer questions and offer advice.

If you have time, make a little detour to Cactus Mart in Piru, where plants trump presentation at what can best be described as a very rustic nursery on a wedge of land between Howe Road and Highway 126. Inside the chain-link fence lie 3 acres of incredibly cool cactus and succulents.

Behind a locked gate are larger, field-grown specimens that the sales staff will dig upon request. If you don't see what you want, the staff will look for more plants in the 8-acre growing grounds in Fillmore.

And the prices? They can't be beat.

— Nan Sterman


Roadside must-sees

A route through the outskirts of Camarillo, Somis, Moorpark and Fillmore is dotted with specialty nurseries, some of which are holding special spring hours or open houses. Consult a detailed map or call for exact directions from the general route illustrated here. Among the must-see stops:

1. Maravilla Gardens: 8620 Santa Rosa Road, Camarillo; (805) 491-1400; Open 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays.

2. Baron Brothers Nursery: 7568 Santa Rosa Road, Camarillo; (805) 484-0085; Open 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays.

3. Greenwood Daylily Gardens: 8000 Balcom Canyon Road, Somis; (562) 494-8944; Open 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays, April to June only.

4. Matilija Nursery: 8225 Waters Road, Moorpark; (805) 523-8604; Open 8:30 a.m. to noon Mondays through Thursdays, 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

5. Otto & Sons Nursery: 1835 E. Guiberson Road, Fillmore; (805) 524-2123; Rose Days 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Regularly 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays.