King of cactus
When it comes to cacti and succulents, French ex-pat Claude Geffray is the man
To say that Claude Geffray and his many plants are a familiar sight at the Saturday morning and Thursday night farmers’ markets is almost an understatement. If you don’t know of Geffray, chances are good that you’ve never been to either market, or else you are just not paying attention.
Geffray and his countless varieties of cacti and succulents—from spiny little barrel cacti, to prickly paddle-shaped cinnamon cacti, to the Pleiospilos nelii, a curious-looking succulent resembling a speckled rock with a split down the middle—have been a fixture at both markets for years. And if, for some reason, you can’t picture him, think this: irresistible French accent.
Oui—that’s Claude Geffray.
Geffray’s Gardens—as locals know the charming 61-year-old’s retail business—started up in 1987, two years after Geffray came to Chico from the San Francisco Bay Area, where he was a construction worker after leaving his home country of France.
Over the years, his plant nursery expanded from fairly tight quarters at a house on Normal Avenue to the spacious, 1-acre digs in north Chico it now occupies—a place he refers fondly to as “my little kingdom.” As many Chicoans know, Geffray hosts a popular, roughly once-a-month plant sale there, featuring 20 to 50 percent off of all plants, which number “around 20 to 25 thousand.”
Geffray also designs unique container gardens, and offers custom landscaping services for homes and businesses, under the name Creative Cacti and Succulents. Additionally, he sells wholesale to a number of Northern California nurseries—approximately 70 percent of his business.
“I bought my first cactus at a flea market in Sausalito,” said Geffray recently by phone from San Diego, where he was “running from nursery to nursery” purchasing new plants. “From then on, I kept buying and planting new ones. When I came to Chico, I brought a nice collection with me—a couple hundred or more.”
That’s when Geffray decided to go into the nursery business.
“I started with a few plants at the [Saturday] farmers’ market when it was at Gold Country Market,” he said, referring to the defunct grocery store that used to be on Orient Street. “And I’ve been at the DCBA’s Thursday Night Market from the beginning.”
Geffray has noticed a steady increase in sustainability-savvy customers purchasing his plants for their superior drought-resistant, water-saving qualities: “They are tired of throwing gallons of water on their lawns, and are replacing them with cacti. Some just put a little bit of cacti in the corner in the landscape, but it’s a start.”
Cacti and succulents are all plants that “are able to store water in their body, in their flesh, in their roots,” said Geffray. Hence they are perfect for low-water gardening.
The spiky-leaved agave plant is a perfect plant for such a garden, Geffray said. “Many of the agaves—it is a genus with many species—are hardy enough to tolerate the winter [in Chico]. Just make sure the soil drains pretty well.” An ideal situation for an agave is to plant it on a mound formed from soil that has been sufficiently aerated by adding gravel, sand or pumice to “let the water go through more easily.”
The genus of cacti called Echinopsis, too, is highly suitable. “They are all pretty hardy, and they get beautiful flowers,” said Geffray of the South American natives. “They are very showy, very pretty. Some grow high and some grow low on the ground. Each has a different function for a different place in the landscape.”
Geffray is also very fond of the Opuntia, or paddle cactus. Because of its shape—"fan shaped with big pads"—it is a good accent in the landscape, Geffray said, “especially in the background, because they tend to be big.”
The leafy succulent genus called sedum—"native from the Alps in Europe"—and another called sempervivum are also excellent choices for Chico’s climate. Some sempervivums are hardy “to minus-10 and minus-20 degrees Fahrenheit,” Geffray noted, and sedum “is great between stepping stones—they grow wherever there’s any soil.”
Ask Geffray—who has a bachelor’s degree in ceramics and sculpture—why he loves the cacti and succulents so much, and his speech becomes poetic. “Cacti are three-dimensional and they have sculptural patterns. They surprise you all the time,” he said. “I love the patterns and the textures and the shapes and, you know, the way the light of the sun plays on them at different times of the day. And then, all of a sudden, there’s a flower!
“There are so many facets of each plant, so many different ways the light and shadow can play—I like that. I was born in Normandy, in France, and there is no cactus [native to] there. To me, they are exotic plants and I love them.”