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A season ripe with promise

When the Townsend's warblers make their appearance, David Fross knows autumn is here and it's time to get to work. His planting list is both playful and deeply informed by the possibilities at hand. Follow nature's cue, he says, and you give seeds and seedlings the best chance of establishing themselves in the year ahead.

October 05, 2006|Emily Green | Times Staff Writer

YOU know that you are a California gardener when the chief attraction of summer is that it is a prelude to autumn. Unlike the East, where leaf fall is followed by frost, here in the West, the third season of the year is a time to plant. It is the all-too-brief interval when the soil is still warm, the atmosphere is becoming moist, and the intense downpours of winter are still a month or two away. Autumn is the time to get many of our best seeds, seedlings, bulbs and saplings into the ground. It is the defining moment in their health and ultimate survival.

So it came as no surprise to learn that by the autumn equinox, the co-founder of Native Sons nursery in Arroyo Grande had already made a planting list, in perfect botanical Latin no less. What was surprising about the list that David Fross made was that it was so wistful, so curious, so frank, so alternately stubborn and accepting.

Here was one of the state's presiding experts on native gardening privately fooling around. What his list betrayed is that he has, or has had, all the same problems that we do -- encroaching shade, plants that should grow but croak, small plants that get too big. Such a moment demanded a trip to the open hills of Central California to drink up Fross' country wisdom.

One hundred and eighty-five miles later, it emerged that the man whose mind was swimming with possibilities of the season -- native ferns and Turkish forget-me-nots for a woodland garden, buckwheat and monkey flowers to partner with California lilac, Indian mallow and verbena for a gravel garden -- was, of all things, a born and bred Angeleno. Standing before a flatbed trailer of 1-gallon specimens ready to go in the ground was a city boy long rapt with the challenge of how to tame difficult, dry and wild plants for urban gardens.

Fross, now 60, grew up on Main Street, in downtown Los Angeles, where his father managed a roofing company. In 1970, after graduating with a degree in history and geography from Cal State Long Beach, he was drawn to the Bay Area and the surrounding countryside of the Dharma Bums.

While pursuing a graduate degree in horticulture at San Jose State, he was already picking apart the chaparral and experimenting with the gnarled grace of manzanita by growing it in containers on his apartment balcony. He funded the obsession by working at a UPS parcel-sorting station in Sunnyvale in the Santa Clara Valley.

Punching three-digit shipping codes into the sorting machine alongside him was friend Bob Keeffe. By 1976, Fross and Keeffe had a landscaping company, Native Sons, named after the hit song that was performed at a Kenny Loggins and Jim Messina concert that the two friends had attended.

"We thought, 'We're both natives,' " says Fross, "and we're going to focus on natives."

Fross' interest only intensified as he and his wife, Rainie, moved south so he could continue horticulture studies at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. When Keeffe heard that Fross had decided to turn from landscaping to running a nursery, he followed him to the coastal ranges of Central California. "His comment to me was, 'If you're going to try this, I'm coming down,' " Fross says.

In 1978, Fross and his wife chose 3 1/2 acres in Arroyo Grande in San Luis Obispo County. "We bought it on sight," says Fross. "We didn't even go in the house. The property was right."

Fross and Keeffe managed to raise enough money to build a greenhouse, while Rainie kept the creditors at bay working as a dental hygienist. At the time, the native-gardening movement could count its adherents with an abacus, and the new nursery lost money so fast that Fross and Keeffe almost immediately had to expand their stock to include plants from other parts of the world with the same climate, chiefly the Mediterranean basin, but also parts of Chile, South Africa and Australia.

Purists cried foul when they saw Native Sons plant tags on the likes of lavender and rosemary, both native to the Mediterranean. The majority of shoppers were merely confused. "I've had people come in the nursery and come up to me with rosemary and say, 'I didn't realize these were native,' " says Fross. "And I'd say, "Well, they're not.' "

Yet by sticking to plants that evolved either here, or in places with climates almost identical to here, Fross and Keeffe managed to make the Native Sons tag a kind of assurance that whatever plant came with it was right for California.

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