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Nursery stock cut by freeze

January 25, 2007|Jeff Spurrier | Special to The Times

THE last few days have been almost spring-like, but for growers and sellers of landscape plants throughout Southern California, that doesn't matter. The big freeze of 2007 has come and gone, leaving behind acres of blackened ficus, melted succulents and frozen ferns.

For consumers, the bottom line is simple: When spring planting season rolls around, certain types of trees, shrubs and flowers might be scarce -- or not available at all.

"Basically, anything tropical got toasted," said Tom Givven, owner of Marina del Rey Garden Center. "There's going to be a severe plant shortage: hibiscus, bougainvillea, bananas, gingers. It'll take the growers six months to restock." Givven said that his nursery lost almost all of its 1- and 5-gallon salvias. "We have a demonstration garden here that is totally gone, and we're afraid to replant until we see how the weather is going to be."

At Island View Nursery in Carpinteria, owner Win Overbach said strong winds blew the roof off an 8,000-square-foot greenhouse, leaving citrus trees and mature ficus vulnerable to the cold. Fruit and foliage damage was severe. "Then what have you got?" he asked. "You've got next year."

Bob Gaggero of Giovannis Nursery in Carpinteria said he has been in the business for 45 years and never has seen temperatures stay below freezing for so long. "Nobody was prepared for this much cold," he said.

Giovannis lost 30% of its philodendron, ferns and perennial favorites such as angel's trumpet. The bananas took a hit too. "The bananas may recover in a few months, but there won't be anything to sell until late summer," he said. "We lost all of our princess flowers."

Some businesses reported that avocado, jacaranda, king palm, foxtail palm, bougainvillea, orange trees, guava, begonia and bamboo also were damaged. La Crescenta Nursery in Glendale lost 15% of its tropicals. The Armstrong Garden Center in Pasadena lost 30% of its bedding plants. San Gabriel Nursery saw all its hibiscus and begonias turn to mush.

Most nursery owners said they don't plan to raise prices in the months to come. They just will have less inventory to sell -- especially of the ubiquitous hedge, ficus.

Moon Mountain Farms in Fillmore lost 200 acres of ficus, including mature trees that had been in the ground 10 years. The loss amounts to $50 million, according to owner Les Blake. "We had wind machines and fires going, but it went down to 18 [degrees]," Blake said. "We've never had it go below 25."

Valley Crest Tree Co. in Calabasas lost 5,000 15-gallon containers of the ficus cultivar 'Green Gem,' but maintenance manager David Teuschler said the firm considers itself lucky. Its standard Ficus nitidas survived. "Our specimen nursery is in the Tujunga Wash, and it has good movement of air," he said. "If you get air movement, then you're safe."

Clausen Nursery, a fruit tree grower in Vista, in north San Diego County, wasn't so fortunate. "We lost about 10,000 5-gallon grafted avocados -- totally fried," owner Gordon Clausen said. "We lost 70% to 80% of our guava, some of them mature trees, 10 to 15 feet high. It was such a dry cold. It looks like a blow torch was taken to them."

Clausen usually has 20 acres of nursery stock -- 30,000 plants, including 800 15-gallon citrus seedlings that were burnt. It may take two to three months before the nursery can tell whether the trees have any life in them.

For home gardeners, the advice is largely the same: Don't buy replacements yet. Some of your frosted plants may spring back to life, so don't prune. Don't fertilize. And remember: Two months of winter still lie ahead.

To read suggestions published last week on how to tend to frostbitten plants and how to protect against future cold snaps, go to www.latimes.com/gardenfreeze. To comment on this story, e-mail home@latimes.com.

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