After shopping at Mordigan's Nursery for more than 20 years, Wilshire Park resident Mary Ann Austin fears she may soon have to find another place to buy her favorite potting soil or seek advice on tending her roses.
Mordigan's, a family-owned garden center that sits next to Los Angeles' landmark Farmers Market, is threatened with closure later this year as a developer moves forward with plans to build a high-end shopping center on the site.
"I don't think we need another shopping mall," Austin said. "We get personal attention here. It has Old World charm. I would be lost without it."
Austin may soon join the growing ranks of Southern California gardeners left to mourn the loss of their favorite independent neighborhood nursery, often the source of rare plants and horticultural know-how.
Once common roadside fixtures, independent nurseries have dwindled in number over the years as rising land values and chain store competition have led many to sell out and shut down. The pace of closures has recently accelerated as the regional real estate market has rebounded, permitting many elderly, cash-poor nursery owners to sell their property at top dollar.
As many as 80% of the area's independents have closed in the last 25 years, according to estimates by owners and vendors. Many of the remaining 125 nurseries in Los Angeles and Orange counties are no match for Home Depot, Target and other mass merchandisers, which often overwhelm their smaller rivals with cut-rate prices and fat advertising budgets.
"It's pretty much a national trend," said Bruce Butterfield, research director for the National Gardening Assn., headquartered in Burlington, Vt. Chain store garden centers "pretty much offer a full range of products at comparable quality for less money."
Ironically, the shrinking number of independents comes as gardening has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, with nesting baby boomers spending lavishly on everything from glossy garden magazines to English-made garden spades to $125 containers of exotic bamboo. Retail plant sales in California alone top $5.5 billion annually, according to industry statistics.
But few of the longtime "nurserymen"--many of them the sons and daughters of pioneering Asian immigrants--have figured out how to cater to the new generation of highly sophisticated and demanding gardeners.
"I'm sure there will just be a handful of independents in 10 years," said Michael D. Kunce, president of Armstrong Garden Centers, a regional chain of 35 stores that has grown primarily by buying family-run nurseries.
The old nurseries have met with a variety of fates: Armstrong purchased the Ten Ten Nursery in Laguna Beach, the now defunct Palos Verdes Begonia Farm in Torrance is destined to become a condominium project, and Kimura's Nursery in La Verne has been bulldozed to make way for a hardware store.
The list of extinct garden centers seems to grow by the month. At the end of February, for example, Southern California Garden Center in Culver City closed after about 50 years in business. In its place will rise a small retail center.
The alarming rate of closures has led Lili Singer, editor of Southern California Gardener, a popular newsletter, to start a regular feature showcasing independent nurseries. The big chain stores may beat the independents on price, she said, but they fall short on providing advice.
"Everybody likes to save money," said Singer, who used to manage a Santa Monica nursery that was bulldozed to make way for shops. "What you are missing is someone who knows how to grow those plants."
Many longtime owners have gotten huge sums of money for their properties, which are usually rare islands of open space in developed urban areas. One Los Angeles-area nursery owner who declined to be identified said he recently netted about $8 million from the sale of two properties.
"They are great sites," said land broker Craig Atkins. "They are flat. There are no endangered species. There are no environmental issues. They are perfect."
Independent nurseries thrived for decades in Southern California, where a mild climate permitted year-round gardening and a seemingly endless supply of new houses in need of landscaping.
The industry was home to many Japanese and other turn-of-the-century immigrant entrepreneurs. In the 1920s, Sawtelle, a West Los Angeles neighborhood, began to develop as a hub of Japanese immigrant-owned nurseries that numbered more than 50 during the postwar years. Today only a handful of Sawtelle nurseries remain.
The region's independents began to lose their grip on the market as chain competitors, urban development and old age caught up with many of the owners.
Along the Pomona Freeway in Hacienda Heights, the 90 flower-filled baskets that had spelled out "Treats Nursery" in 12-foot-high letters were replaced two years ago by a plain "For sale" sign after the landmark nursery closed.