Now that the six-year statewide drought is history, one would expect a greener year for the area's nurseries, sod farms and landscapers.
And in fact, some homeowners have cautiously begun to indulge in the springtime rite of laying flower beds, potting plants and tending trees. That's welcome relief for businesses that sell plants and landscaping services in the San Fernando Valley area, which have seen their sales decline from 10% to more than 50% during the past few years.
"Business is definitely back on the incline," said Mike Connell, general manager at Green Thumb/Arrow Nursery and Hardware in Canoga Park, where sales fell 10% during the last year of the drought. Customers lately have been buying the types of colorful flowers--geraniums, marigolds and impatiens--that they previously shied away from. "You can see the smiles on people's faces now because they're out there planting."
But the local plant industry isn't out of the woods yet, and by some accounts it's just as dry as when the drought was in full swing. Southern California's lingering recession and a sluggish housing market continue to dampen plant sales. So even though the drought is over, nurseries and other plant-related businesses won't see a complete recovery this year.
"As long as the housing industry is off, our industry will not fully recover," said Mickey Strauss, president of American Wholesale Nurseries in Simi Valley and Newhall.
In a sign of the times, the California Assn. of Nurserymen, a Sacramento-based trade group, has seen the number of its member firms plunge 20% since 1990, to 863.
The decline reflects an industrywide consolidation, as struggling independent nurseries close their doors or sell out to large chains, said Ross Hutchings, an association spokesman. In addition to the recession and the drought, he said, small nurseries have also been hard hit by growing competition from mass merchants such as Home Depot, Wal-Mart and Kmart, which are more aggressively marketing nursery items.
Michael Kunce, president of Armstrong Garden Centers Inc., a Glendora-based chain with stores in Glendale, Northridge and Sherman Oaks, said that in the past few years he has been contacted by about 60 independent nurseries asking if he'd be interested in buying them out. But Kunce said he isn't risking an expansion right now. "The mortality rate is very high among garden centers."
Yet when Gov. Wilson declared the drought officially over, hopes rose in the industry. And indeed, a buying euphoria surfaced in March and April and many nurseries had record sales during those months.
But sales have since flattened--a reflection, Hutchings believes, of continuing concern over the economy, particularly in Southern California, which has been battered by aerospace industry layoffs.
At Chatsworth Garden Nursery, owner Randy Mineo said, "We're lucky we're alive today."
In business since 1979, Mineo said his sales have fallen 25% over the past three years. To survive, he has cut his payroll by about one-third and reduced prices to compete with the mass merchants. His sales have rebounded since the winter rains ended.
Many nursery owners such as Mineo say that plants and trees that require relatively little water--such as bougainvillea and citrus trees--are still big sellers. Ground cover plants are also popular as alternatives to lawns which require more water.
Still, Mineo worries that independent nurseries such as his are "a dying breed."
Other independent nursery owners share his concern. Gary Saito, owner of Valley Wholesale Nursery in Pacoima, said his sales have plunged 60% to 70% over the past few years. Saito has been in the nursery business for 30 years, and at the current site for 14 years. He once had seven employees; now he has just one full-time and a part-time worker.
"Nurseries got through the Depression. They got through the early '70s when there were massive aerospace layoffs in the Valley. But this was a double whammy, with the drought and the economy." Now, said Saito, "I'm just trying to keep my gates open."
Hugh Palmer, owner of Palmer's Nursery in North Hollywood, said his business has slowed along with the recent move by Lockheed Corp. out of Burbank and the closing of the General Motors plant in Van Nuys. His sales are now half of what they were four years ago, and he expects a further decline this year.
"I have quite a few people that have come in and they can't buy much because their unemployment check doesn't go that far," he said.
Palmer said he survives because he owns the property--it's been in his family since 1948--and his overhead is low. He keeps just one part-time worker and has only 180 rosebushes in stock, compared to 1,500 several years ago.