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Nursery flourished by going native

Tree of Life partners Mike Evans and Jeff Bohn received encouragement and assistance from established growers and ranchers as they focused on cultivating wild plants.

May 27, 2012|By E. Scott Reckard, Los Angeles Times
  • Mike Evans, above, and partner Jeff Bohn operate Tree of Life Nursery, California’s largest nursery dedicated to native plants.
Mike Evans, above, and partner Jeff Bohn operate Tree of Life Nursery, California’s… (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)

The gig: Mike Evans is the founder of Tree of Life Nursery near San Juan Capistrano, California's largest seller of native plants. Over 30 years, he and business partner Jeff Bohn have become mainstays for natural restoration and landscaping projects. They welcome retail customers as well as a core clientele of commercial landscapers to the cluster of straw-bale offices and barns on historic Rancho Mission Viejo.

California native: Evans, 57, was born in Arcadia, raised in Newport Beach and has lived in San Juan Capistrano for 32 years. Married for 36 years, he has three children, including a daughter who works at the nursery, and two grandchildren.

Seeds of a career: After high school, surfing trips to Mexico became the priority. "Son, you're going to wind up being a bum," his father said. But the trips convinced him that he was destined for outdoor work, and when he landed a nursery job he soon was heading back to Mexico — to collect wild plants for cultivation. Before long, he started his own landscaping business and then, with Bohn, the nursery.

Enabling growth: Corporate executive Jerry Neely got the young partners started by providing funding and land on his ranch. Jean Lacouague, scion of a citrus-growing family, provided a bigger site — and $50,000 to relocate the nursery when he sold his ranch. Customer Donna O'Neill helped find a permanent site on land where her husband, Rancho Mission Viejo patriarch Richard J. O'Neill, had grown alfalfa for horses.

"You're talking about people who were much older and had seen some interesting successes in their lives. I think they invested in us not to get back money, but to satisfy some altruistic feeling," Evans said. "To let somebody else with a passion get started and do well."

Misunderstandings: "People think California natives are dry, scruffy, brown in the summer, unattractive plants. But most of the ones in cultivation do not go dormant in summer, and the ones that do look just fine with a little extra water." The intent, he said, is not just drought tolerance but to restore natural beauty to California open spaces. "We've always stayed on message — it's more than just saving water."

Prune carefully: As the recent recession gutted revenue, the nursery trimmed wages and put its 30 workers on a four-day week. Revenue fell 50% from about $3 million pre-recession to $1.5 million in 2010 and 2011. But it had no layoffs, maintained health benefits and a contributory 401(k) plan, and last month restored the 40-hour workweek. The employees hung in there. "Some of them have been here 20, 25, 30 years," Evans says. "They remembered the good years, and stuck with us."

Relaxation: Hiking in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, backpacking in Big Sur or just camping out in the grove of redwoods he planted at Tree of Life, with hammock, fire pit, picnic table and pond near at hand.

No swallows at the mission this spring? There are plenty at Tree of Life, and their nests dot the eaves of the buildings whose thick straw walls are plastered with adobe. "You should see this place as it starts to get dark," Evans says. "For about 20 minutes, there's a crazy overlap in the sky as the swallows get their last bites of the day and the bats start feeding. It's really something."

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