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Friday, Feb 3, 2023
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Native Plant Nursery Finds Its Day in the Sun

Classes are booked solid, California sagebrush and lupine are selling out, and a new educational facility is under construction at the Sun Valley headquarters of the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers and Native Plants. Credit goes, of course, to the drought and the state and local water restrictions it has spawned this year. Dire warnings about water shortages have thousands of Southern Californians tearing up lawns and water-intensive landscaping in favor of low-water native plants. “Some conventional nurseries will say there’s no demand for native plants – but there’s a big demand here. In fact, we’re having a hard time keeping them stocked,” said Kitty Connolly, executive director of the non-profit. “Our retail sales went up 50 percent between 2013 and last year and we’re on track to see the same increase this year. The numbers just keep going up.” The foundation has carried out the work of pioneering horticulturist Theodore Payne since 1960, selling hard-to-find natives and sponsoring garden tours and outreach education. Payne championed native California plants as hearty, drought-tolerant and beautiful, but they have always been a tough sell to transplanted Easterners and Midwesterners who preferred familiar species in their gardens – and had plenty of cheap water to grow them. But now, necessity is spreading the message the foundation has been hammering home for years: Our semi-arid climate cannot support vast acres of green lawns and exotic shrubs. That reality has brought a slew of new customers to the foundation’s rustic, hillside property. “We’re getting many, many people who aren’t even gardeners, but they’re taking out their lawns to save water because of rebates. A lot of them are coming with recommendations from their cities or water agencies, which is terrific,” Connolly said. The new classroom, paid for with a state grant, will triple the teaching space at the facility by this fall, just in time to accommodate the growing roster of native plant care and landscaping courses being offered. Along with classes that teach home gardeners how to plant, tend and water natives (yes, they do need water as they get established and during the hottest summer months) the foundation is adding professional development courses to meet demand from business owners and municipalities. “We had eight staff members here from a local parks department taking a horticulture class the other day,” she said. Single classes cost $45 to $55; professional design classes typically involve three sessions and are more expensive. Another growing customer base is millennials interested in the locavore movement, which emphasizes locally grown food. “It’s a logical extension to move from local food to local landscaping, so they can live mindfully in the place where they are,” Connolly said. – Karen E. Klein

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