Officials at Coast Nursery in Gardena recently looked up from their flower beds and realized that the one-time nursery capital was no longer a garden spot.
Suddenly, Coast was surrounded by industrial complexes. With no affordable property near its 5 1/2-acre site, it began acquiring property in Ventura County.
Its entire operation within the next five to six years will move to 32 acres outside of Saticoy. Already, Coast has put in the bedding plants there that have been its staple for more than three decades--petunias, marigolds, pansies, begonias, zinnias.
Coast is by no means alone in its move.
In light of increasing costs of land and water in Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego and Santa Barbara counties, much of the state's nursery business is being transplanted to Ventura County, where agricultural land is not cheap by statewide standards but is still relatively inexpensive for the Southland.
"A lot of us have been pushed out by increasing land values," said Burney Burton, Coast general manager. "We have nowhere to expand."
Nursery stock--plants grown to be replanted in farms or backyards--has become the county's fastest-growing commodity, averaging an increase of 15% each year at a time when the rest of the county's agricultural commodities are fighting just to stay even, according to Earl McPhail, county agriculture commissioner.
Although there is little chance that poinsettia and hydroponic cucumbers will ever overtake the vast citrus groves that still produce the county's largest commodity--lemons--local experts say Ventura, of all the counties, is poised to become the state's largest producer of nursery stock within 10 years.
Thus, if California remains top-seeded as the country's top nursery-stock producer, Ventura County would be the hot petunia of the nursery world.
"Eventually, we'll be the leading county in the whole country in nursery stock, both in terms of the number of plants produced and dollar value," said McPhail.
He points to the pending relocation of Monrovia Nursery of Azusa, the nation's second-largest nursery. Monrovia plans to uproot its headquarters during the next five to seven years and move to Somis, where the company has already acquired 350 acres and is seeking up to 150 acres more, says company president Robert Moore.
"It's getting to be city down here," he complained from Monrovia's San Gabriel Valley office.
Jack Wick, executive director of the California Assn. of Nurserymen in Sacramento, stops short of McPhail's prediction, pointing out that Ventura "has a ways to go" before becoming No. 1. But he agrees that Monrovia's move will definely stack the deck in Ventura's favor.
"They're a huge factor," he says. "They represent a $30-to-$40-million increase. That will jump Ventura's figures fast."
Los Angeles County has long been the capital of the country's nursery-stock production and still accounts for $121 million of the state's $786 million traffic in sod, ornamental trees and bedding plants.
Last year, nursery production in Ventura County increased by nearly 40%, to $54 million, making the county the fifth-largest producer of nursery stock in the state. Just the year before, Ventura had ranked eighth statewide, Wick said.
From Somis to Oxnard, Ventura is sprouting an entire spectrum of wholesale nursery stock, including sod, ornamental trees and bedding plants that later appear in supermarkets, hardware stores and retail nurseries across the country.
A Saticoy nurseryman even is experimenting with jojoba, a desert bush with purported curative properties, and a pair of farmers in La Conchita are growing potted bananas for suburban backyards.
Ventura's primary attraction is that land costs $17,500 to $20,000 an acre--less than half the cost of property in Santa Barbara County's Carpinteria, another popular nursery area.
Low water costs are another important draw. Relatively bountiful aquifers keep irrigation to an average cost of $78 an acre in Ventura County--among the lowest in the five leading nursery-stock counties, according to a study last year by the state Department of Water Resources. By contrast, agricultural water averages $300 an acre in San Diego County, the same study shows.
Then there are the natural attributes of a county where flowers bloom year-round. "It's the gorgeous sunshine, the lack of smog and the nice soft rain," said McPhail. Growers themselves cite the temperate coastal climate, where the lows average 40 to 45 degrees and the highs 70 to 75 degrees, and where humidity ranges from 45% to 50%.
Young plants and sensitive bioengineering techniques that clone thousands of seedlings from a single sliver of plant tissue cannot tolerate swings in temperature and may require up to 90% humidity. Maintaining moderate growing conditions even within the confines of a greenhouse can prove prohibitively costly in harsher environments.