Plant nerds and flower floozies

Meet some local nursery owners who know what grows in this area

Greenhouse filled with blooming hydrangeas.

Greenhouse filled with blooming hydrangeas.

Photo by Christine G.K. LaPado

Call Denise Kelly a “plant nerd” or a “flower floozie” and she won’t mind a bit. “Flower floozies and plant nerds—that’s what we call ourselves,” said Kelly, who owns local independent nursery The Plant Barn. Fellow nurserywomen Nancy Shanks and Rebecca Yarrow round out the trio of “flower floozies” who run things and offer their sage plant advice at the pretty Entler Avenue nursery partially housed in a rustic, old barn.

Kelly—a former landscape consultant and longtime local gardener—took over ownership of The Plant Barn 3½ years ago. Before that, she managed The Little Red Hen Garden Center.

The inviting, plant- and flower-filled grounds of The Plant Barn include Kelly’s quaint, on-site home and a row of Quonset-hut greenhouses where new plants are propagated by specialty-plant growing firm Chico Propagators (“We have a symbiotic relationship,” said Kelly with a smile). Metal signs with words such as “imagine,” “giggle” and “dance” are sprinkled throughout the nursery’s lush environment, as are metal sculptures of chickens, peacocks and goats.

Plant Barn customers can tour the greenhouses—filled with plants in various stages of maturity, from tiny seedlings to colorful, blooming tulips, hydrangeas and such—at will. Sometimes they might be followed by Rose, the nursery’s fat cat, who waits for kids to drop a piece of the free Creamsicles that The Plant Barn gives out in the summertime. It’s all part of the fun.

Also part of the fun is the nursery’s annual summer soiree. Held in July, the soiree is a day-long event offering customers a discount if they “floozify” their outfits.

“If you wear a tiara, a feather boa, or even a prom dress, you get a discount,” offered Kelly, a friendly, attractive woman in her mid-40s.

“People come in [to The Plant Barn] and they call it their ‘happy place,’” she said. “They say, ‘I go to The Plant Barn to feel better when I’m having a bad day.’ I love making a place where people feel good.”

Plant Barn owner Denise Kelly (left) helps a customer.

Photo by Christine G.K. LaPado

Besides cultivating good relationships with customers, Kelly and her fellow Flower Floozies (you can become one, too—The Plant Barn sells Flower Floozie T-shirts) also pride themselves on providing customers with unusual plants—such as dwarf, multi-budded “fruit-cocktail” trees, featuring three or four varieties of fruit on one tree, such as peach, nectarine, plum and apricot.

“They are great for home gardeners who want all of [those fruits] and have a small space,” said Kelly.

But Kelly insists that she never sells plants that do not thrive in our area.

“I don’t want to sell just plants,” said Kelly. “I want to sell success. Big-box stores will sell bougainvillea, for instance. They’re pretty, but not a perennial for our [gardening] zone.”

“We greet people by name; we remember what plants you bought,” said Kelly. “I’d rather go somewhere where people remember what I’m working on in my yard, who remember the shade area I’m working on. You don’t typically get that at a corporate-run store.”

Like Kelly, longtime nursery people Courtney Paulson and Chris Hunter, owners of independent nursery Magnolia Gift & Garden, also take pride in selling plants that thrive locally, unique plants and seeds, and providing personalized customer service.

“We try to carry unique products that the big-box stores don’t carry. Like you wouldn’t find the Seeds of Change there,” offered Paulson, motioning to a rack near the cash register loaded with packages of the well-known, organic vegetable, flower and herb seeds.

“We’ve noticed in the past year that a lot of people want to start growing their own food,” said Paulson. “We’ve never [before] seen such a push for edibles. It’s really become a big deal, and we’ve tried to cater to that.”

Courtney Paulson, co-owner of Magnolia Gift & Garden, tends the nursery’s “demonstration bed.”

Photo by Christine G.K. LaPado

One of the ways Paulson and Hunter do that is through the use of a “demonstration garden,” located in the center of the nursery’s grounds, in which they seasonally plant vegetables suitable for Chico’s climate.

Paulson, Hunter and their staff of two—landscaping and edibles expert Jim Belles, and Melynn Cliff (“our rose gal”)—are also more than happy to provide gardening advice to anyone wanting to plant a successful garden, be it vegetable or decorative.

“A lot of people will come in with just the measurements of an area,” said Paulson. “and we’ll suggest plants they can put into those spots.”

“Big-box stores are filled with plants that shouldn’t grow here,” added Hunter. “If it looks good they’ll sell it to you, but they keep it all under shade cloth or a retractable roof. Ninety percent of the plants we have here right now were out in the open when it was 18 degrees back in November.”

Perhaps no nursery epitomizes the “grow local” spirit more than Floral Native Nursery.

“We have only California native plants,” said owner Germain Boivin, seated in the nursery’s tiny office located between a demonstration garden and rows and rows of potted California natives such as ceanothus, Western redbud, ponderosa pine and California sage brush. “We collect the seed locally, we plant the seed locally, we sell the plant locally—how good is that?”

Boivin, a Canadian ex-pat with 20 years of nursery experience, started up the Floral Avenue nursery 13 years ago after running a nursery in Montreal.

Most of Floral Native Nursery’s business is “wholesale and contract restoration projects,” said Boivin. Plants grown at his 42-acre propagation nursery in Cohasset are scooped up en masse by such entities as “schools, government agencies, cities, state agencies” for use in native-plant restoration projects, such as those ongoing in Bidwell Park.

Floral Native Nursery owner Germain Boivin deals only in California native plants.

Photo by Christine G.K. LaPado

But Boivin also does a healthy retail business.

“Since two years, at least,” said Boivin in his charming French-Canadian accent, “the retail has been booming because people are getting more and more conscientious about water use—the main thing about native plants is that they use much less water because they are adapted [to the local environment]. … That’s why we promote them—because they can live six months without water [as they do in the wild during the non-rainy season].”

Boivin is also seeing an increasing number of customers who want to replace their lawn with native plants, or reseed it with native lawn seeds, which he carries, along with native wildflower seeds. One of Boivin’s popular sellers is a custom-mixed, erosion-control lawn seed mix containing bunch grass, wild rye, broom and fescue (“After the fire two years ago, I sold a lot of it,” he said).

“The new tendency is that customers want to get rid of at least a percentage of their lawn,” Boivin said. “Native [grass] seeds have deeper roots and require less water.

“We also encourage customers to plant deciduous trees on the front south side of the house,” Boivin added. “This gives shade in the summer, and when the leaves drop, the sun goes through the [bare] branches and heats the house. It’s a free air-conditioning system.”

Boivin is also seeing “more and more farmers and ranchers … buying native plants that will create a bee habitat [on the perimeter of their properties], rather than renting bee hives every time to pollinate their orchards. Farmers consult with me to create a year-round, blooming bee habitat. Coyote bush and manzanita are in bloom right now.”

Boivin noted that “more and more people are becoming educated about native plants—they are drought-tolerant, they are sustainable.

“Some people will go to a big-box store looking at price only,” he continued, “but we have to look at the future. … We need to landscape with more sustainable plants and lawns. Many people realize that water is the next battle in California. It’s the next one after oil.”

More nursery info:

Floral Native Nursery, 2511 Floral Ave., 892-2511,

Magnolia Gift & Garden, 1367 East Ave., 894-5410,

The Plant Barn, 406 Entler Ave., 345-3121, Call about The Plant Barn’s popular raised-bed gardening class on Feb. 28.